Those in attendance included: members of civil society, academics, legal experts, human rights activists, and survivors of torture.
Below are the opening remarks from the Wits Justice Project co-ordinator, Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi, on the first day of the Symposium.
“Distinguished guests, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen:
It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to the Wits Justice Project symposium on torture prevention in South Africa.
Just over a year ago, on 30 July 2013, South Africa achieved a mile-stone in its human rights journey: the Prevention and Combating of Torture of Persons Bill – or Torture Bill for short – was signed into law by President. Torture was finally a criminal act.
It took a long time – 15 years – to pass this law, which is based on South Africa’s ratification of the United Nation’s Convention Against Torture in 1998. It is a landmark, and we should celebrate the fact that our protection of human rights, our Constitutionally-based rule of law has been strengthened even further. The campaign to domesticate the UNCAT involved many civil society organizations, NGOs, parliamentarians, and government officials: people who understood how vital the law is for the country.
And it is these same people that must now ensure that the provisions of the Torture Bill are implemented, that the training and dissemination needed is rolled out to our police stations, our courts and our correctional facilities.
And it is these people who must ensure that South Africa ratifies the Optional Protocol of the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT). This will be an important next step for the country, as it helps establish independent oversight bodies, especially through national preventative mechanisms.
Hopefully, at this symposium, we will have useful discussion on both these issues – rolling out the Torture Bill and ratifying the OPCAT – and come to a consensus on how best to prevent torture and abuse of force in South Africa. We’ve gathered a range of experts here, as well as eye-witnesses and survivors, to discuss our South African context.
We’ll look at our history and the status quo. We’ll discuss the global human rights frameworks and our responsibilities to them. And we’ll discuss issues around prosecuting torture and about reporting on it, and about whether prison rape should be considered torture. Most importantly, though, we want to leave here with a clearer direction on what our collective efforts must be focused on to help prevent torture in South Africa.
The Wits Justice Project got involved in the campaign for the Torture Bill in mid-2011. We had started to cover the story of the mass beatings of 231 inmates at St Alban’s prison in Port Elizabeth in 2005, and were asked to participate in different advocacy forums as a result. Of course, when we first heard the details of what happened – mass beatings of inmates and use of electro-shock – we couldn’t believe that this was still happening in the new South Africa.
The Wits Justice Project continues to be South Africa’s leading investigative journalism team when it comes to matters of torture and abuse of force. We have provided in-depth and long-term coverage of the 2005 St Alban’s case, including the 2014 court proceedings in Port Elizabeth.
We have uncovered abuse and beatings and the forced injections of inmates (with anti-psychotic drugs) in the privately-run G4S prison in Mangaung. And we continue to be approached by ordinary people who have been tortured by police looking for confessions to crimes. In each instance and with every allegation, we go through a rigorous and time-consuming process: fact-checking, corroborating, looking for documentary proof of what has been alleged. Only when we feel confident in our investigation (which most times takes months to conclude), do we go to print.
But we are not working in a newsroom, where work on an issue or story ends with publication. Our goal, as an independent non-partisan organization, operating in both the academic and civil society space, is to improve the criminal justice system in South Africa. We do so through a combination of journalism, law, education and advocacy. We use the results of our investigative journalism to inform and uplift our efforts in changing public discourse and the policy environment. We use our credibility and access to bring together relevant – but oftentimes disparate and disengaged – stakeholders to search for solutions to systemic breakdowns along the criminal justice continuum.
It is for this reason that the Wits Justice Project felt it necessary to host a symposium on torture prevention in South Africa; a way to have lasting impact for those whose stories of torture we have covered and for the countless others whose stories remain untold.
One such person to whom I would like pay tribute today is an Englishwomen, Helen Bamber, who died this week at the age of 89. When I read her obituary in the Guardian UK, it reminded me how universal is the fight to prevent torture, and how it takes a long-term and life-time commitment from all of us to do so.
In 1945, at the age of 20, Helen was a volunteer at concentration camps, helping holocaust survivors – providing what we call these days “psycho-social support”. Throughout her life she continued to work with people who had suffered torture, trafficking and slavery. She promised those she helped that she would tell their stories, that they would not be forgotten. She believed that through restoring dignity to those who have suffered atrocity, we find dignity and humanity in ourselves.“
Stay tuned for new blogs on the topics covered during the Symposium…