UN Committee Against Torture review: NGOs’ influential role

May 2, 2016

On May 2, Israel is to be reviewed by the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) as part of its periodic review of country compliance with the International Convention Against Torture.  On the surface, this event appears to be impartial; Israel is subject to review like every other signatory to the Convention.

However, as with almost every UN activity related to Israel, disproportionate focus, double standards, and exploitation infect the process, further destroying the UN’s credibility and irreparably damaging international human rights norms.  Politicized non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive millions of taxpayer funding from European governments play a large role in this phenomenon.

NGOs command significant power at CAT.  In advance of a country review, NGOs provide lists of “issues” for the Committee to raise and submissions regarding state compliance with the treaty.  In addition, the day before the meeting, accredited NGOs are eligible for one-hour private briefings with CAT members, and these groups are able to attend the session as observers.   Following the review session, CAT compiles its findings and recommendations to the state party.  NGOs can then submit additional materials regarding follow-up of committee recommendations.

In turn, the official UN webpage for CAT features links to the sites of several powerful NGOs, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and FIDH (France), giving these groups free advertising and credibility not offered to others.

Along with Israel, France, Turkey, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines are up for review.  Yet, with the exception of France (17 NGO submissions according to the CAT webpage), Israel was the country most discussed by NGOs. In all, 14 NGOs provided submissions for Israel (NGO Monitor was one, authored to highlight the abuse of the CAT process and to offer recommendations to improve it). In contrast, only 6 NGOs submitted for Turkey, and 8 each for Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines, despite their far worse human rights records and their systematic practice of torture.

The disproportionate NGO focus on Israel is testament to Israel’s democracy, where so many NGOs flourish and are able to freely report. At the same time, it is also indicative of the massive NGO industry targeting the Arab-Israeli conflict and the practices of Western countries confronting asymmetrical warfare, whereby dozens of groups get millions of euros, pounds, kroner, dollars, and francs to carry out campaigns in international frameworks such as CAT.

For example, for 2013-2016, three political advocacy NGOs – Adalah, Physicians for Human Rights Israel, and Al Mezan – received a grant for €717,994 from the European Union to “combat and prevent torture and ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in Israeli prisons and detention centers and Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” These NGOs provided a joint submission to the current CAT review of Israel.

Another submitter, HaMoked, in 2015, received grants from the EU (NIS 426,245), Norway (NIS 687,128), the Netherlands (NIS 140,975), and the UN (NIS 70,151), among several others.

Palestinian NGOs Addameer, Al Haq, Al Mezan, Badil, and Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center, prepared their own joint submission. These organizations received funding from 2014-2016 ranging from at least $260,000 to $710,000 (full amounts unknown due to lack of transparency) from the governments of Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland via the Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Secretariat. Most of these NGOs are prominent in anti-Israel BDS campaigns.

The NGO submissions relating to Israel generally erase the context of Palestinian terrorism, minimize Palestinian violence, and characterize individuals responsible for murder and other serious crimes as “political prisoners”.  They also seek to expand the definition of torture to include any form of discomfort inflicted on the prisoner, including swearing at them and restrictions on family visits.

The most glaring abuse of the CAT process by NGOs appears in their attempts to severely distort the meaning of Article 16 of the Convention that governs “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” (CIDT).  According to Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on the Question of Torture and CIDT, Article 16 is meant to cover acts that fall short of the Article 1 definition of torture, namely the “disproportionate exercise of police powers” towards detainees.  NGOs, though, seek to define as CIDT acts that in no way fall under this definition, including “access to health care in Gaza,” restrictions on Israeli residency permits, settlement building, and the “disjoining” of Gaza and the West Bank.

Amnesty International’s submission defined “house demolitions” as a violation of Article 16. Notably, its submissions for the Philippines and Tunisia did not include such off-topic discussions (there are no Amnesty submissions about Saudi Arabia or Turkey on the CAT website). It appears that the inclusion of issues completely unrelated to the concept of torture is simply aimed at manufacturing additional “violations” of the treaty by Israel.

Due to these distortions, and as with most frameworks where political advocacy NGOs play an outsized role, independent verification and analysis of NGO claims to the CAT is essential. The members of the Committee cannot afford to take shortcuts in this regard.

Likewise, the media, government officials, and policy makers would be well-advised to conduct their own due diligence at how NGOs influence the process – before they uncritically cite and rely on the CAT’s resulting report.

Anne Herzberg is the Legal Advisor of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research organization.

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