The United Nation's top human rights organization Monday adopted a resolution which would enhance its ability to stop torture. However, detractors of the Draft Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture say it might challenge state sovereignty.
The Optional Protocol to the Convention on Torture is designed to prevent acts of torture from taking place. It provides a system where international and national inspectors can visit places of detention, like prisons, police lock-ups and military installations to ensure that prisoners are not being tortured.
Rights groups say the protocol gives more teeth to the 1987 Convention Against Torture. Ian Seiderman of the International Commission of Jurists explains:
"One of the real uses this will have is in situations where there is a political will to address a torture problem, but there is sort of a culture of badly-run prisons or places of detention that has to be changed," he said. "And to have a team of international experts coming to look at the problem really strengthens the hand of officials in countries in addressing the situation themselves. We've been told that by various government officials."
The head of the Association for the Prevention of Torture, Mark Thomson, calls the new protocol "an historic breakthrough in the struggle against torture and one of the most positive outcomes of this year's U.N. Human Rights Commission."
Torture is a fairly widespread problem, but Melinda Ching of Amnesty International says it is extremely difficult to know exactly how many people around the world are subjected to torture.
"Unfortunately, we can't give a figure like that, but we can say that torture continues throughout 150 countries throughout the world, and it continues to be one of the most horrifying and widespread human rights violations." So far, 127 countries have ratified the Convention Against Torture. The rights groups, together with sponsors Costa Rica and Switzerland, will press for countries to ratify the new protocol aimed at strengthening the convention. They will present their case before the U.N. Economic and Social Committee in July and at the U.N. General Assembly in September.
But Swiss Ambassador Jean-Daniel Vigny does not think it will be easy to get 20 countries to ratify the new protocol given its potential ability to override or come into conflict with national laws.
"It will not be very easy to get those 20 because, let us be frank. This protocol has not been voted by consensus. Why?", he asked. "Because for many countries, you know, it is a breach of their national sovereignty. Even if they will never accept this system, the mere idea that you can accept visits in your police stations, in your psychiatric asylums, military installations, everywhere where people are detained is something rather unacceptable when you think of non-interference in your internal affairs."
Although the United States has ratified the Convention Against Torture, it opposed the adoption of the protocol. It argues the protocol violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution prohibiting "unreasonable searches and seizures." The United States joined China, Cuba, Sudan and Syria in voting against the resolution.