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History of the OPCAT

The history of the OPCAT goes back to the 1970’s, when a growing concern about the continued, widespread practice of torture had triggered the negotiations on a UN Convention against Torture.

Click on the image above to access a visual timeline of the history of the APT and the development of the OPCAT around the world.

 

At the same time, Jean-Jacques Gautier, the Swiss banker and philanthropist who founded the APT, started mobilising support for his idea of a system to prevent torture and other forms of ill-treatment before they happen. Inspired by the ICRC’s visits to prisoners of war and political prisoners he concluded that the most effective way to prevent abuses would be a system of regular, independent visits to all places of detention. He advocated for an international treaty creating such a system of visits.

 

Early negotiations

In the early 70s, Jean-Jacques Gautier’s idea was considered as “idealist and utopist”. With the proposal of the Secretary General of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) to transform the project into an Optional Protocol to the future Convention against torture (UNCAT), the idea became more realistic. The Swiss Committee against Torture (which later became the APT) and the ICJ also started to build alliances with a number of states, namely Costa Rica, Switzerland and Sweden.

In March 1980, Costa Rica formally submitted a draft Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture to the UN. However, the draft was presented with a proposal that its examination be postponed until after the adoption of the UNCAT, to avoid delaying the approval of the other treaty.

 

Developments in Europe and the Americas

While the idea of establishing an international visiting mechanism within the UN was postponed, the notion gathered momentum in Europe. In 1983, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly adopted a draft text, prepared by the Swiss Committee against Torture and the International Commission of Jurists, to create a visiting system within the framework of the Council of Europe. Following negotiations, the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (ECPT) was adopted by the Council of Europe on 26 June 1987. This Convention establishes the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), which is mandated to visit at any time any place of detention in any Council of Europe member states (47 today).

An attempt was made to establish a similar system within the Americas. However, whilst an Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture was adopted in 1985, a system for regular preventive visits was not included within the treaty.

 

Drafting process

In 1987, the Convention against Torture entered into force and the idea of establishing an international visiting mechanism within the UN was revived. In 1991, Costa Rica deposited a new project for an Optional Protocol. A drafing Working Group was established in 1992, open to all States as well as relevant NGOs and other experts.

As expected, negotiations within the Working Group were arduous. For eight years these negotiations focused on obtaining consensus on establishing an effective international visiting body, an idea that several States resisted.

In 2001, the Mexican delegation, with the backing of other Latin American States, submitted a draft that introduced an innovative element that reinvigorated the debate. It proposed to add an obligation for States to establish national visiting bodies. This proposal was met with a mixed response from participants of the Working Group. In an attempt to draw the drafting process to a close, in 2002 the Chair of the Working Group, Ms Elizabeth Odio Benito, presented a compromise text that combined the international and national elements of the original and Mexican drafts. After 10 years, she decided to put an end to negotiations by consensus and to go for a vote – quite uniquely in the history of United Nations human rights treaties.

 

Adoption and entry into force

In March 2002 the Chair’s text was presented to the UN Commission on Human Rights for adoption by vote. Following a round of strongly contested debates and votes within the UN Human Rights Commission and then the UN Economic and Social Council, the UN General Assembly adopted the OPCAT on 18 December 2002 with a majority vote.

On 22 June 2006, the OPCAT entered into force following the 20th ratification.

OPCAT time line

1976 The “Gautier proposal” is published in La Vie Protestante
1980 Costa Rica deposits a project for an Optional Protocol to the future UN Convention against Torture
1987  UN Convention against Torture enters into force
1992  Working Group to draft the OPCAT established
2002

Compromise text presented by the Chair of the Working Group to the UN Commission on Human Rights in March.

Adoption of the OPCAT by the UN General Assembly in December, with 127 States in favour, 4 against and 42 abstentions.

2006 The OPCAT obtains 20 ratifications and enters into force on 22 June
2016  81 States have ratified the OPCAT, another 17 are signatories and 64 NPMs have been designated.

 

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