NGOs bring world experts to discuss torture prevention in Hungary

18 May 2012. On Monday and Tuesday this week the Mental Disability Advocacy Center and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee co-organised a conference in Budapest to strengthen efforts to prevent torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in places of deprivation of liberty in Hungary.

Hungarian detention settings include psychiatric and social care institutions, immigration detention centers, prisons and police custody. Human rights violations have been sporadically documented in these facilities. But victims often remain without effective remedies and there is no systematic public oversight. Hungary took an important step towards preventing forms of torture and ill-treatment in these settings by ratifying the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT) in January 2012. The OPCAT obliges the government to set up a nation-wide monitoring structure called the ‘National Preventive Mechanism’ (NPM). The conference aimed to assist the implementation of OPCAT in Hungary. The NPM must regularly visit all types of facility where people can be deprived of their liberty – including healthcare and social care facilities run by corporations, churches and nongovernmental organisations - not simply the obvious ones such as prisons and police cells.

Participants of the conference included key international experts, such as MDAC’s Honorary President Thomas Hammarberg, the former Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe. Professor Malcolm Evans, Chair of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT); Ivan Selih, Deputy Ombudsman of Slovenia; Rachel Murray, Director of the Human Rights Implementation Center at the University of Bristol; Matthew Pringle, Program Officer at the Association for the Prevention of Torture; and Professor Máté Szabó the Ombudsman of Hungary (whose office has been allocated as the NPM), as well as officials from various ministries and nongovernmental organisations.

During the conference, Oliver Lewis, Executive Director of MDAC, highlighted the need to monitor non-traditional places of detention, including psychiatric and social care institutions. Oliver stressed that when monitoring places where persons with disabilities are deprived of their liberty the NPM should use the standards of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which Hungary ratified in 2007. The CRPD lays down that the mere existence of large residential institutions is a human rights violation and it further states that persons with disabilities have the right to live independently in the community and have full legal capacity on an equal basis with others. Persons with disabilities also need to be involved in all matters affecting them, including the monitoring work.

András Kristóf Kádár, co-Chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee highlighted in his presentation that local NGOs welcome Hungary’s January 2012 ratification of the OPCAT and believe that the Ombudsman is a good choice for the NPM. He reiterated written comments of the Helsinki Committee sent before the new Ombudsman Law was adopted in October 2011 – that cooperation with NGOs is important not only because their participation can ease the financial burdens of the NPM, but also because NGOs have decades of relevant experience in monitoring closed institutions and could therefore greatly contribute to efforts to prevent torture and ill-treatment. The Helsinki Committee has initiated further discussions with the ministry responsible for amending the law and the Ombudsman’s Office.

Máté Szabó, the Ombudsman, elaborated on the experience of his Office in examining closed institutions, and stressed the lack of financial commitment by the government to fun the work appropriately. His office had recommended that 25 staff needed to be employed to fulfill the tasks of the NPM, but the government has allocated a budget which will fund only 11, and this only starting in 2015. The Ombudsman agreed that the role of NGOs is not clear in the law. He cited the Slovenian and Polish examples as good practice, where NGOs are part of the NPM.

Krisztián Gáva, Deputy State Secretary of the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice, stated the law could be amended and the role of NGOs in monitoring will be strengthened. The government is committed to ensure the monitoring mechanism works effectively, he said, adding the need to train staff of institutions to be visited by the NPM.

Mr Malcolm Evans, Chair of the SPT, welcomed that Hungary has not only ratified the OPCAT but that it is focussing so closely on establishing the National Preventive Mechanism, which is vital to the OPCAT system. Mr Evans also stated he is looking forward to learning more about this process and to support and encourage dialogue between the authorities and civil society, which is a key element for its successful establishment.

The event was funded by a grant to HHC by the Open Society Foundations and a grant to MDAC by Zennström Philanthropies. 

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