The importance of the OPCAT and the role of doctors and other health professionals in preventative visits

  • February 16, 2011
The Medical Action Group (MAG) is a health and human rights organizations which envisions a society where fundamental human rights are upheld at protected at all times in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). MAG is a member of the United Against Torture Coalition (UATC)-Philippines.

The right to reparation for victims of a wrongful act is a well-established principle of international law. This obligation also applies in respect to international human rights and humanitarian law. Rehabilitation is a very practical form of assistance for victims of torture. It is widely acknowledged, amongst those working in this field, within the human rights community, and amongst torture survivors themselves, that rehabilitation services are most effective when they combine a variety of multidisciplinary inputs: medical and psychological interventions, together with complementary psychosocial, legal and social services.

This understanding is also reflected in the Republic Act No. 9745 or the Anti-Torture Act of 2009.

The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (hereafter referred as OPCAT)
The innovative nature of the OPCAT which entered into force on 22 June 2006, established a system of regular visits to places where individuals are deprived of their liberty. Likewise, it is quite unique amongst human rights instruments, combining an international visiting mechanism with national mechanisms regularly examining conditions of people deprived of their liberty, and making recommendations for improvement and for the prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
It is widely recognized at both the international and regional level that regular and independent visits to places of detention have been proven to have a significant effect to prevent torture and ill-treatment.

Based on the data of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), sixty seven (67) States have signed the OPCAT and fifty-seven (57) parties have ratified, acceded and succeeded the instrument. It is very encouraging that the signatories include States from all geographic regions of the world. In Southeast Asia region, Cambodia has already signed the instrument in 2007.

The Role of Doctors and Other Relevant Health Professionals in Preventative Visits

Places of detention must become more transparent to monitor respect for the human rights of detainees and deter violations particularly torture and other forms of ill-treatment. Regular preventive visit to places of detention represents an effective way of preventing torture and ill-treatment, and contributes to the improvement of conditions of detention. The existence and/or creation of independent visiting mechanisms to places of detention at the national level are crucial for this transparency.
However, for such a visit­ing system to be fully effective it has to be carried out by a multi-discipli­nary body, which includes, amongst others, physicians and other health professionals. Preventive visits requires a comprehen­sive approach looking at all aspects of conditions of detention such as health care services, documenting cases of tor­ture, ethical standards, can only be adequately assessed by a physician or other health professional. Thus this must be reflected in the composition of the national mechanism as well as in the visiting teams themselves. In addition to the other relevant expertise, there should be a physician or other qualified health professional in each visiting team.

Looking at provisions in the OPCAT on the composition of the Sub-Committee and the national preventative mechanisms, one can see that the words ‘health professionals’ or similar do not appear in the text. As regards the Subcommittee, the formulation in article 5(2) is the catch all ‘various fields relevant to the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty’.


From our point of view, the clear advantage of the OPCAT will be the gathering of different forms of expertise in this field at the national level into one, independent institution. With the guidance and support of the Subcommittee, and with the potential for on-going dialogue and exchange with the Sub-committee, the State Party national NGOs, and also, conceivably, national preventative mechanisms in other States Parties to the OPCAT, the national preventative mechanisms will a significant new actor at the national level for torture prevention.

As we continue to seek to find ways to implement the prohibition of torture – which persists despite its legal status, it becomes increasingly clear that a sector-wide or even a whole society approach is required.

Working on legal or institutional reform, on preventative visits, on improving access to justice, on initiatives in support of victims of torture and members of their families, are all worthwhile, but real implementation will require the combined efforts of all actors in this field who should be included in torture prevention initiatives.
The structures to be created under the OPCAT will be a very useful new platform to pursue these more holistic approaches to torture prevention, and MAG looks forward to immediate Senate ratification of the OPCAT.

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