The digital "Atlas of Torture" draws attention to the grim situation of torture as practised all over the world. The website engages in preventive action through information, exchanges and expertise. © Asael Peña/Unsplash

Clicking on the map of projects on the Atlas of Torture website will produce a list of 11 results for Austria, and these lead to the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Fundamental and Human Rights in Vienna, the publisher of the “Atlas of Torture”. It may be a little unexpected, but here, too, the corona pandemic is an issue that keeps the experts busy. As the list of results shows, the Institute collaborates with partners in Austria, Italy and Germany on a survey of the impact of Covid-19 measures on people deprived of liberty with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities. The heart of the online platform, however, which has been developed over the past three years with funding from the Austrian Science Fund FWF, is the extensive and freely accessible document archive. The database currently contains almost 2,000 documents dating back as far as 1986. One finds relevant publications by human rights organisations, everything related to international law and the United Nations Convention against Torture, protocols of investigative procedures and commentaries, as well as documents on thematic issues such as deprivation of liberty and gender-specific violence.

Bundled expertise freely accessible

The world's largest database for the prevention of torture and ill-treatment is based on the long-standing expertise of the Institute and its co-founder Manfred Nowak. Together with Moritz Birk and Giuliana Monina, Nowak is, inter alia, the editor of the Commentary on the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. With support from the FWF, the second revised edition was published by Oxford University Press in 2019. Coordinated by Giuliana Monina, a team of experts has made this wealth of specialist knowledge available to a broad public in the shape of the “Atlas of Torture”. The aim is to improve networking between groups of experts and practitioners, to promote the exchange of specialist knowledge and to give the issue more visibility. Political decision makers will also find the digital atlas to be a sound basis. “We have repeatedly seen that, despite the many organisations in the field and the wealth of material, there is insufficient access to relevant information,” says Giuliana Monina.

Torture still widespread despite the ban

Despite the fact that torture is prohibited under international law and that 166 states have now ratified the UN Convention against Torture, people in almost all countries of the world still suffer physical and psychological abuse. The most serious human rights violations occur in the context of armed conflicts, such as those currently taking place in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or the Congo. In addition, torture and abuse are a day-to-day reality in dictatorships such as North Korea, Iran or Saudi Arabia. “In Latin America, Venezuela is currently an example of serious human rights violations. But the situation in the USA is not exactly great either, when you consider the lack of social human rights, police violence, discrimination against minorities and the appalling conditions in prisons,” notes Manfred Nowak. When he was UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nowak visited numerous detention centres around the world and conducted thousands of interviews with detainees. After all, penal institutions are the places where torture is most common.

Anniversary and commemoration day

UN Human Rights Campaign 2020

70 years ago, on 4 November 1950, the European Convention on Human Rights was signed in Rome. The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms contains a catalogue of fundamental rights and human rights and has been signed by all member states of the Council of Europe. Its implementation is monitored by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Worldwide the Human Rights Day is celebrated on 10 December. It recalls the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948.

Democracies are no exceptions

Even in democratic Europe, fundamental and human rights are constantly being violated, as currently experienced by the people of Belarus, who take to the streets despite massive police violence to demonstrate against the head of state Lukashenko and his dictatorial leadership of the country after a highly contentious election result. In the European Union, on the other hand, Hungary and Poland are increasingly whittling away human rights and democracy. Research can expose and document such abuses, develop recommendations for action and, as in the digital torture atlas project, make them visible to everyone. But what else is needed in the fight against the infringement of fundamental and human rights and breaches of conventions and legal norms? “In the context of detention and imprisonment, effective measures are providing access to legal counsel and doctors and ensuring the right to notify third parties,” says Monina and notes that investigative interview methods have also proved to be effective. In the same vein, evidence procured by torture should also be excluded from court proceedings.

Independent authorities against police violence

Several examples of human rights violations have also been found in Austria. Manfred Nowak provides a list: “Police assaults which are still not submitted to any independent investigative body and will therefore lead to criminal prosecution only in very rare cases; poor detention conditions in overcrowded prisons with insufficient staff numbers; the restrictive asylum and migration policy or the undermining of social rights, as exemplified by the guaranteed minimum income.” Nowak explains that all of these violations are facilitated by the lack of economic, social and cultural rights in the Austrian Federal Constitution. Experts like him have for years been calling for the establishment of an independent authority to investigate allegations of torture and physical abuse by the police – so far to no avail.

Seven million children locked up

Most recently, Manfred Nowak has intensively researched another central human rights issue the public is hardly becoming aware of. On a commission from the United Nations, he presented a study of children deprived of liberty in 2019. According to his findings, more than seven million children are held in prisons, in police and migration detention centres, as well as in homes and orphanages every year. “I am currently trying to disseminate this study as widely as possible and convince states to draw up national action plans to implement the UN study, in order to keep the number of children who are locked up to a minimum,” says Nowak and adds that “the Corona pandemic would be a valid reason for releasing children from prisons.” A research team of the Boltzmann Institute led by the children’s rights expert Helmut Sax also recognised the need for effective implementation of the recommendations of the UN study at national level. Under Sax’s leadership, a national follow-up project on the deprivation of liberty of children in Austria is ongoing with the aim of strengthening the implementation of alternatives to deprivation of liberty.

Personal details Manfred Nowak was United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture between 2004 and 2010. Nowak is a legal expert and a co-founder of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Fundamental and Human Rights in Vienna, which opened in 1992. In addition to numerous functions as an advisor and investigator, this internationally renowned expert is Secretary-General of the Global Campus of Human Rights based in Venice. He is the author of more than 600 publications. Giuliana Monina is head of the “Human Dignity and Public Security” Programme Line at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Fundamental and Human Rights and coordinator of the website “Atlas of Torture”, which was completed in 2020. Monina is a consultant and researcher in the field of human rights, particularly on torture and procedural law.

Website: Publication: Nowak, Manfred; Birk, Moritz; Monina, Giuliana (eds.): The United Nations Convention Against Torture and its Optional Protocol: A Commentary, Oxford University Press 2019