Gerald Staberock and the World Organization Against Torture

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In 1985 the World Organization against Torture (Organisation Mondiale Contre la Torture, or OMCT) has been created, a non-governmental organization based in Geneva which is currently in the forefront for the fight against torture, disappearances and forced executions worldwide, being able to rely on a network composed by more than 300 affiliated organizations, and thousands of correspondents.

(Italian version HERE)

The organization now enjoys consultative status in various institutions such as the ECOSOC, the International Labor Organization, the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the Council of Europe. The main task of the OMCT is to provide medical, legal and social assistance to victims of torture, through the development of specific programs, with which the organization is committed to providing support to the most vulnerable categories, such as women, children and human rights defenders.

In this regard, we have already dealt with the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (signed in 1998). To better understand the developments and, at the same time, to analyze the work of the OMCT in this field, we came into contact with the General Secretary of the organization, Gerald Staberock.

What have been the developments in this field since the 1998 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders?

The adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders twenty years ago has been fundamentally important, although you may say that its recognitions came with fifty years of delay from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: it recognizes that you cannot expect to really ensure rights if you do not recognize and protect human rights defenders. Take torture, for example: indeed, States have to prevent torture under international law, but it is local activists, lawyers, doctors, and NGOs that will assist victims – denouncing, reporting and litigating their cases – and will have the expertise to help States that wish to prevent torture.

The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders recognizes their role and asks States to do the evident: to enable their work and to protect them. Since 1988, we have seen on one side the establishment of special protection mechanisms and we have seen the growth of the human rights movement. We have never been this global. At the OMCT, we work now with more than 200 local groups that stand against torture, everywhere. This also shows that human rights are not only a Western issue, as we often hear. But there is also another very serious side of the coin: a sharp increase in the attacks on human rights defenders, partly as a response by those who fear change and the force of freedom. We have witnessed an increase in killings and persecutions and an increase in legislation that is hindering the ability to protect.

Which are today the countries where these rights are not respected or protected?

It is always difficult to give rankings. In fact, we see a dramatic deterioration of the space for defenders, to the detriment of victims across the world, in States in conflict or under an authoritarian rule, but also in those formally democratic – like Latin and Central America, with the highest killing rates of human rights defenders, often with business complicity. You have whole regions, like the former Soviet Union, in which the term “human rights defender” has become a dangerous label.
But we can find the same problems also in Europe, in countries like Hungary – where NGOs are threatened from closure. There are also populist movements all over Europe that seem to say that human rights are an issue from the past, but the opposite is true: social justice, human rights and accountability remain a better option than intolerance and arbitrariness!

What can be done to change the situation and to improve the Declaration?

The Declaration is fine. We do not need a new declaration, but rather action to protect it. We need States to stop seeing human rights defenders as a threat, but instead as a driving force of change. We need European countries to assume leadership – especially now that the US is losing its role – and to keep protecting defenders. Sadly, there is more and more talk in European capitals to lower the importance of human rights.

Regarding this matter, what has the OMCT done during these years?

Over the last twenty years, the OMCT has built up protection systems and pushed to make them play a more robust role. Every day each human rights defender threatened, detained or harassed needs protection. What matters the most to us is: how can we alert when a defender is threatened? It needs to happen often immediately,  because getting the news out can make the difference between life or death. Furthermore, States that think they can intimidate defenders have to know that it does not go unnoticed, but that there is a price to pay. This is why, in the last twenty years, the OMCT has developed a protection and SOS program called the ‘Observatory for the protection of human rights defenders’, thanks to which we know many of the women and men who work on sensitive torture cases that can come under threat in Chechnya, Burundi, Honduras and the Philippines.

Since 1985, the OMCT has fought against torture, summary executions, enforced disappearances and all other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatments. Which are now the countries where the Organization is actively working?

The OMCT works globally where torture and impunity rule. We are a rescue system wherever local action is under threat. We work in over 60 countries, protecting and assisting victims, supporting reforms to end torture, and building the capacity to protect. And obviously we help human rights defenders under threat because of what they do.

What are your goals for the next years? Which means do you think that have to be developed in order to achieve these goals? And is the international community giving you any support in these fights?

I think we have to invest and to double our efforts globally against the questioning of human rights. Human rights need enlightened governments but also, above all, local civil society to ensure that torture cannot be justified. Mobilizing as a network or a movement – this is our main task for the next years, as well as supporting partners, and driving back the discourse that torture can somehow be acceptable.

How is the situation in the European Union context and in EU countries?

On one side, the EU has made major inroads in establishing an EU human rights defenders protection mechanism, called, of which OMCT is a leading part. And defenders have a lot of hope in the solidarity of the EU with their cause. When we speak with our partners, we realize how much value and inspiration the EU creates. Sadly, the internal reality of the EU countries is often a depressing one: human rights have to be protected also at home. Also in Italy. It is up to us all!


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