Torture is the western world's dirty little secret. In a new report, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) identified torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment as one of the OSCE region's most wide-spread problems. [For background see www.ihf-hr.org/reports.] Regardless of ranking, a country's record on the single issue of torture is usually a fair indicator of its overall human rights practices, and, therefore, demands priority scrutiny.
The occasion of Georgia's presidential elections on April 9 [See Eurasia Insight], as well as the first anniversary of its accession to the Council of Europe on April 27, provides an opportunity to evaluate the country's compliance with its obligations. It also offers the international community a chance to measure Georgia's commitments to the eradication of torture, and to consider possible responses.
International and domestic human-rights groups concur that torture and other forms of ill-treatment have persisted even after Georgia's accession to the Council of Europe [see, for example, www.amnesty.org/ailib/aipub/2000/EUR/45600100.htm].
The IHF asserts, for example, that "forms of torture included hanging detainees upside down, scalding with hot water, and systematic beating resulting in fractured bones and broken teeth. There were also reports of electroshock treatments. Threats that torture or murder would be used against family members are also used against detainees."
Torture occurs principally in places of short-term and pre-trial detention, where police officers and investigators elicit evidence through coercion that they are perhaps unwilling or unable to elicit through legal means. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of detainees jumping to their deaths during police interrogations, presumably unable to withstand the physical and psychological torment (see, for example, www.hrw.org/hrw/worldreport99/europe/georgia.html).
The Council of Europe was aware of torture practices in Georgia when it welcomed the nation into its ranks last April. It admitted Georgia on condition of compliance with several safeguards to "ensure strict observance of the human rights of detainees, and continue to improve conditions of detention in prisons and pre-trial detention centers." The failure of these measures to have an adequate short-term impact on the problem reflects both the complex nature of torture and the Council's over-reliance on political goodwill to combat atrocities.
The Council's first safeguard was legal. It demanded that Georgia become state party to the European Convention on Human Rights, which makes possible judicial remedies for individual complaints of torture. (It is not clear whether any claims have yet been filed with the European Court since ratification in May 1999.) Meanwhile, the Georgian legislature has three more weeks to ratify the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and its two Protocols, if Tbilisi is to fulfill its accession commitments. (Georgia signed the convention and protocols on February 16, 2000). Ratification makes it possible for Georgia's places of detention to fall under the scrutiny of the treaty-based Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which conducts periodic inspections and issues confidential findings to the government. Until it ratifies the Convention, Georgia will be able to elude the Committee's scrutiny.
The second safeguard was penal reform. In January 2000, Georgia, missing its deadline by four months, enacted legislation recommended by the Council of Europe to transfer responsibility for prisons from the notoriously corrupt and brutal Ministry of Internal Affairs to the slightly more independent Ministry of Justice. However, the change has so far been disappointing. The majority of Georgia's prison staff some of whom have tortured or been complicit in torture remain in positions of authority, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs retains the right to gather evidence inside Georgian prisons.
A third safeguard insuring twice-annual, public reporting by the human rights "ombudsman" has been thwarted. The post remains unfilled and the office does not function.
Torture holds a special place in international human rights law as one of only a handful of non-derrogable rights rights that a state must protect without exception. The establishment of mechanisms to provide adequate remedies and compensation for victims should be a non-negotiable precondition for accession.
In the absence of such mechanisms, long-standing Council members like Turkey, which practice widespread torture with impunity, set a precedent for all subsequent signatories. The Council of Europe must send an unambiguous message this week, as the Parliamentary Assembly considers its invitations for Armenia and Azerbaijan -- two other governments known to practice and condone torture to join. As a minimum step, Georgia should ratify the European Torture Convention and its Protocols by April 27, the anniversary of its induction. Otherwise, by letting its own requirements slip, the Council of Europe will signal that in some cases torture is acceptable. It isn't.
Erika Dailey is an editorial consultant to the Central Eurasia Project, covering human rights-related issues in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Between 1992 and 1998, Ms. Dailey worked as a researcher and human rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, based in New York and Moscow, covering principally the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation. Since 1998, Dailey has worked as a human rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, the International League for Human Rights, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. She has a BA in Slavic Studies from Princeton (1986) and an MA in Central Asian Studies from Columbia (1991). She has lived in and traveled to the Caucasus and Central Asia regularly since 1987.