Philippine Senate consummates Philippine adhesion to novel treaty for torture prevention; the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT)
Had this good instrument been put in place earlier, many torture and ill-treatment incidents in places of detention may have been prevented including the Tondo Asuncion Community precinct torture allegedly committed principally by Senior Inspector Joselito Binayug., the July 26, 2011 torture of the Basilan baker while in the custody of the Special Operations Task Force-Basilan, and the August 3, 2010 police torture of Lenin Salas and four others in Pampanga province.
Persons deprived of their liberty and custodial and correctional authorities in the Philippines have long been contending with dehumanizing conditions in places of deprivation of liberty where over-congestion, ill-treatment and the inconsistency between the underhanded jail sub-culture and official custodial policies are commonplace.
Since places of detention are closed to the outside world, persons deprived of their liberty are vulnerable to and at risk of torture, other forms of ill-treatment, and other human rights violations. Respect for detainees’ rights as well as the satisfaction of their most basic needs solely depends upon custodial authorities. Abuses can arise from a variety of reasons such as negligence, lack of resources, poor or inappropriate staff training, and inadequate systems of oversight. Without independent external monitoring, these abuses can occur unchallenged. The OPCAT will ensure that these otherwise obscure places will now be more open so that less and less abuse will take place.
The OPCAT establishes two preventive mechanisms, one visiting body at the international level called the Sub-committee on prevention of Torture (SPT) and another at the national level called the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM). These two bodies will be composed of independent experts in fields relevant to the treatment of individuals deprived of their liberty and will undertake regular unannounced visits to places of deprivation of liberty such as but not limited to
police stations, barangay holding centers, city, municipal and provincial jails, national penitentiaries, immigration centers, military detention facilities, juvenile homes, psychiatric institutions and drug rehabilitation centers. Through this system of visits, these international and local experts shall make recommendations to relevant authorities on improving domestic prevention measures for their subsequent implementation.
Hence, as a state party to the OPCAT, the Philippine government will have two main obligations. The first is to establish the National Preventive Mechanism, the local visiting expert body, within a year from now as per part IV article 17 of the protocol. The second is to recognize the authority of the Sub-committee on Prevention of Torture
to conduct in-country visits to places of deprivation of liberty.
The Philippine Government has chosen to invoke its right under the OPCAT part V article 24 to make a declaration to opt out of this second obligation for the next three years. This only means that it has postponed the possibility of in-country visits by the SPT until March 2015.
What sets the OPCAT apart from other treaties is that it emphasizes cooperation, not condemnation. Unlike other treaties, it is an operational instrument rather than a standard-setting one. Rather than reacting once violations have occurred, the OPCAT sets up a proactive system of visits to prevent violations from happening in the first
place. Furthermore, the treaty unites international and local prevention efforts by prescribing a complementary relationship between the NPM and SPT. Both expert bodies are expected to:
1. Conduct regular visits to places of detention in order to improve the treatment and conditions of persons deprived of their liberty and the administration of places of detention in order to prevent torture and ill-treatment,
2. Propose recommendations to adopt preventive measures and to improve the system of deprivation of liberty, and
3. Work constructively with States Parties in relation to implementing these recommendations.
The OPCAT will thus establish a triangular relationship between the Philippine Government, the NPM and the SPT. Aside from the collaborative efforts of the three, regular unannounced visits to places of detention, which is the most effective way in preventing torture as proven by practices elsewhere in the world, will effectively and consistently protect the rights of persons deprived of their liberty.
The Philippines has now completed its adhesion to the compendium of international instruments against torture, particularly the UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), the OPCAT’s mother treaty, and has a domestic law banning its use. Perseverance of government institutions and other stakeholders is important to ensure the effective implementation of this freedom from torture regimen.
Although persons deprived of their liberty and OPCAT advocates see this recent breakthrough as another milestone in torture prevention work, we remain far-off from making preventive visits work in the Philippines. Executive and Legislative political will and determination is necessary to operationalize the OPCAT. In order to do so, NPM enabling bills must be filed in both the Philippine Senate and the House of Representatives and vigorously pursued to ensure their enactment into law. Only then can this new institution be founded.
The Commission on Human Rights Philippines and the member organizations of the United Against Torture Coalition (UATC), through the stewardship of its steering committee member, BALAY Rehabilitation Center, Inc., are collectively inalizing an NPM enabling proposal. So far, the Office of Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago and the Office of Senator Loren Legarda, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Chairperson who sponsored the OPCAT’s passage, have signified their
interest to champion the NPM bill.
The Commission and the United Against Torture Coalition have for several years been working hand in hand with torture survivors, persons deprived of their liberty, and the diplomatic community in the Philippines to secure a Philippine OPCAT ratification as well as sustain discourse and drafting of the NPM enabling draft bill with the guidance and support of the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT) and the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT), both international organizations promoting the right not to be tortured.
Certain information lifted from resource publications of the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT)