Updated ‘Istanbul Protocol: New Global Standards for the Investigation and Documentation of Torture

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR] recently published the 2022 edition of the Istanbul Protocol: Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment with contributions from more than 180 anti-torture experts from 51 countries. The new edition of the Istanbul Protocol is strengthened with lessons learned from 20 years of implementation experience, providing critical guidance to States to ensure they fulfil their treaty obligations to investigate, prosecute, and punish torture under the UN Convention against Torture [UNCAT] [link] and international law.

The Istanbul Protocol 2022 includes a foreword by Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who writes:  “The OHCHR remains committed to assist States to eradicate torture and ill-treatment, to implement international human rights standards effectively and to place redress for victims, including rehabilitation, at the centre of their efforts. I therefore encourage States and non-State actors, civil society, individual practitioners and everyone concerned in preventing and protecting against torture and ill-treatment to use the new edition of the Istanbul Protocol.”

Relevance to Zimbabwe

This revised Istanbul Protocol will be of interest to our judicial system, prosecutors, legal and medical practitioners and police and prison officers:

·      as the Zimbabwe Government has made commitments at Universal Period Review sessions of the OHCHR to accede to UNCAT. 

·      there are also provisions in our Constitution against torture:  The Declaration of Rights states in:

Section 53: “No person may be subjected to physical or psychological torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”;  and in

Section 86 (3) “No law may limit the following rights enshrined in this Chapter, and no person may violate them—

     .........            (c)  the right not to be tortured or subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

Parliamentarians may also note that there is a petition in Parliament being considered by the Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Portfolio Committee to ask Government to accede to UNCAT and its Optional Protocol and to consider a model Bill which will flesh out our constitutional provisions.

“The extent to which States implement Istanbul Protocol standards should be considered a measure of their commitment to ending torture and other ill-treatment,” said James Lin, Istanbul Protocol Editorial Committee Member, Istanbul Protocol Programme Co-ordinator at the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, and Adjunct Professor of Law at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University.

About the Istanbul Protocol

Since its official endorsement by OHCHR in 1999, the Istanbul Protocol’s standards [link] have been adopted by international, regional, and national human rights bodies and legal mechanisms and have served as the global standards for investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment.  The Istanbul Protocol has informed countless medico-legal investigations conducted by both State and non-State actors into torture worldwide.  It has served as a guide to clinicians in best practices for their conduct and documentation of medico-legal assessments of individuals alleging torture and/or ill treatment.  The Istanbul Protocol has shaped a broad range of anti-torture activities including advocacy, training and capacity building, policy reform, prevention, and treatment, and rehabilitation of torture survivors.

“The Istanbul Protocol has transformed how we understand, investigate, document, and work towards the eradication of torture around the world,” said Dr. Vincent Iacopino, Istanbul Protocol Editorial Committee Member, former Medical Director and current Advisory Council member at Physicians for Human Rights,  “Nearly 75 years after world governments agreed to prohibit torture, these heinous practices continue in more than half of the world’s countries, often with impunity.  We call on all States to fully implement these standards and meet treaty obligations to prevent torture and ill-treatment, hold perpetrators accountable, and afford victims the redress and rehabilitation they are entitled to under international law.”

The Revised 2022 Edition of the Protocol

The revised 2022 edition [link] strengthens the widely recognised and highly valued Istanbul Protocol on the effective investigation into and documentation of torture and ill-treatment.  It is the culmination of a six-year process, including regional co-ordination meetings in Bishkek, Mexico City and Copenhagen.  Relying on multi-sectoral engagement, specialised global expertise and practical experiences of law, health and human rights professionals in the field, including members of United Nations anti-torture mechanisms, the updated edition seeks to fortify the implementation of international norms and preventive tools to assist survivors of torture worldwide.  The Istanbul Protocol and the accompanying “Istanbul Principles” also serve as a global standard against which the delivery of expert legal and medical evidence can be benchmarked in the investigation and prevention of torture.  The Istanbul Protocol should appeal to a wide variety of stakeholders, including States, civil society, doctors, psychologists, social workers, lawyers, forensic specialists, asylum officers, human rights officers and many others.

In addition to updating the six original chapters of the Istanbul Protocol, the 2022 edition includes two new chapters which provide guidance on the role of health professionals in various contexts in which documentation may be necessary (chapter VII) and guidance on the necessary conditions for effective implementation of the Istanbul Protocol by States (chapter VIII).

Key updates and additional guidance in the Istanbul Protocol 2022

·      Clarifications on the definition and scope of torture and ill-treatment based on 20 years of practice and jurisprudence and updating relevant mechanisms for torture prevention, accountability, and redress. (Chapter I)

·      Updates on relevant ethical obligations for legal and health professionals, including guidance on addressing conflicting obligations. (Chapter II)

·      Best practices on legal investigations of torture and ill-treatment, including new guidance for judges, prosecutors and other actors. (Chapter III)

·      Updated practices on the clinical evaluations of physical and psychological evidence and applying new guidance on evaluations of children and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. (Chapters IV, V, VI)

·      Applying clear and consistent guidance on the interpretation of physical and psychological evidence of torture and ill-treatment, and the obligation to provide a conclusion on the possibility of torture. (Chapters IV, V, VI)

·      Recognising limitations of the Istanbul Protocol and preventing misuse, such as when States exonerate perpetrators due to an absence of physical or psychological findings of torture or when they arbitrarily disqualify independent, non-governmental clinical experts from testifying in judicial proceedings. (Chapter IV)

·      Applying additional guidance for clinicians on the documentation of torture and ill-treatment in non-legal contexts. (Chapter VII)

Requirements for States to undertake comprehensive and sustained action to implement the Istanbul Protocol and its Principles in collaboration with international actors and members of civil society. (Chapter VIII)



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