Keynote in OMCT Global Action Week Against Torture

Across the continents, the people who face torture and ill-treatment, often are human rights defenders. Their cause and cases are championed by many civil society organisations, most notably the OMCT whose alerts are vital for us in the European Parliament so that we can identify them and take action quickly. Near and far, torture remains a key part of the oppressors’ range of tools to abuse and terrorise.

In December last year, the European Parliament awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to the pro-democracy activists in Belarus. According to human rights organisations in Belarus, almost 2,000 people have reported that they have been subjected to tortured by the police for participating in peaceful protests. While we celebrate the citizens’ courage, we try to find ways to help in the fight against impunity.

There are horrible crimes including torture used against the people of Myanmar. Yesterday an International Parliamentarians Alliance for Myanmar was established with the help of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. My message to you is that this old fight against torture and other severe human rights violations would benefit from new tools and new thinking.

We should no longer speak of fighting torture only in arenas reserved for discussion about torture. It is necessary to break away from silos. Evidently, it serves no purpose to discuss issues such as international trade, forced labour and torture separately from each other.

We celebrate the 10th anniversary of UN Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights in June this year. On 10 March, the European Parliament proposed a new, ground-breaking European Union law on mandatory human rights due diligence that would apply to all EU businesses and those who want to trade in here. The law is on its way. In particular, binding EU due diligence rules would oblige companies to address aspects of their value chain that infringe on human rights. Torture, naturally, ranks at the top of the human rights violations this law seeks to prevent and remedy. Importantly, under the new law, victims are entitled to a remedy. At the moment access to justice of victims of abuses by corporations is random and uncertain but this may be changing.

Secondly, due to the demands by the Parliament and the civil society, the EU adopted in December 2020 a new EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime. This regime will enable the EU to respond quickly and effectively to serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide. It will encompass a travel ban and asset freeze in the EU. The new tool can be used in individual cases of abuse.

On 22 March the EU used this tool to impose sanctions on a number of individuals and government bodies deemed responsible for using torture. A number of Chinese officials were sanctioned on grounds of serious human rights violations and degrading treatment of the Uyghur people. We have all seen reports of how rape is used as method of torture against female Uyghur detainees in internment camps in Xinjiang region. The women have testified of systematic sexual abuse, electric shocks, beatings and gang rapes. Many women disappeared after being taken into the “dark rooms”.

Setting individual sanctions in this case is utterly necessary. China immediately put a number of EU actors on their sanctions list, including the Human Rights Subcommittee of the European Parliament. All too often, in this increasingly interconnected world of ours, torture and ill-treatment are linked to forced labour and modern slavery.

In October 2020 European Parliament adopted a resolution on the situation of Ethiopian migrants kept in detention centres in Saudi Arabia. Most worryingly, those migrant workers who attempted to challenge their detention conditions were reportedly severely tortured by the Saudi security forces. The EU is examining how to put in place a legal instrument to prohibit imports of products produced with forced labour.

Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia and Uyghurs detained in labour camps are hopefully moving to the core of the EU trade relations and businesses. These new tools present us with new opportunities, adding to the old and good ways to fight against torture. The fight against torture and other ill-treatment is enshrined within the EU legal and political framework. EU will no doubt whatsoever continue to oppose any attempt to limit this absolute prohibition.