International Day in support of victims of torture

"The international human rights system is slowly eroding"

From Syrian war crimes to U.S. hypocrisy in the Julian Assange case, the global "erosion of human rights standards" is of critical concern, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer tells Matthias von Hein

Mr. Melzer, you have been the UN 's special rapporteur on torture for almost four years now. What would you say is the most urgent issue regarding torture at the moment? 

Nils Melzer: What worries me most right now is a general trend towards the erosion of the international human rights system. We can see that in China, Hong Kong, Russia, Brazil, the United States, Syria – it is impossible to name them all. In every country affected by the migration crisis, there are serious issues. What we are seeing is a strong erosion of human rights standards and of the readiness of states to be held to account for violations of human rights.

But then there are other developments. For instance, in Germany a trial is being held for the first time of two people accused of being members of the Syrian torture apparatus. What kind of signal is this trial sending and is the signal being heard?

Melzer: This is a very important trial. Germany has a strong history in conducting war crimes trials for its own soldiers, so the country has great credibility in this regard. It is very important that the Syrian regime's atrocious torture policy be exposed. This really is the primary value of this proceeding, irrespective of the personal culpability of the accused in this specific trial, which I don't want to express an opinion on, because that's up to the court to do.

But I can attest from personal experience, having worked in Syria myself, that this absolutely horrendous system of torture already existed 20 years ago. And it is about time that the world knows about this in all the details. Unfortunately, the international community has failed completely in stopping this shocking carnage, which is one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the UN Security Council.

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The U.S. is threatening sanctions against members of the International Criminal Court in The Hague if they dare to investigate possible war crimes by U.S. soldiers. That's something that U.S. President Donald Trump decreed two weeks ago. What kind of signal does that send?

Melzer: Well, I think the way the U.S. government is threatening the ICC is certainly bordering on the grotesque. I mean, it's absurd for a modern democracy to adopt this type of behaviour. Even putting aside Trump's personal character for now, the U.S. government has been extremely aggressive about preventing accountability for its own soldiers. So that really undermines the credibility of the United States, and its moral and legal standing in the world more broadly. You cannot, on the one hand, push for the development of the Nuremberg trials and the Tokyo trials and even push the development of the ICC statute – and the U.S. even signed it but then refuse to live up to the same standards.

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