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COVID-19 exacerbates the risk of ill-treatment and torture worldwide
by UN Committee against Torture, agencies
June 2020
On the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the UN Anti-Torture mechanisms unanimously warned that the COVID-19 pandemic is leading to an escalation of torture and ill-treatment worldwide, and torture survivors are especially in danger of getting infected by the lethal virus due to their vulnerable situation.
People deprived of liberty, already subject to the risk of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment behind bars and in other confined spaces, are now facing a new threat. As of mid-June 2020, more than 78,000 prisoners have contracted COVID-19 in 79 countries, and at least 1,100 have died of this new virus throughout prisons in 35 countries. Unfortunately, these numbers are not final.
In these critical circumstances, the UN anti-torture experts have highlighted the particularly vulnerable situation of people in detention or confined in closed spaces, where social distancing is practically impossible. They especially raised the alarm about the pre-existing unfavorable medical conditions of detainees, which have contributed to a rapid spread of COVID-19, with potentially deadly consequences.
“Governments have a greater duty than ever to guarantee the safety of all people deprived of their liberty. Inmates should enjoy the same standards of healthcare that are available in the community at large, including access to virus testing and medical treatment,” said Dr. Jens Modvig, Chair of the Committee against Torture.
“All persons deprived of their liberty should be privately examined by independent medical personnel at the time of admission to a place of detention or confinement, in order to be screened for contagious diseases and potential signs of ill-treatment”.
In many regions of the world, excessive force has reportedly been used to enforce curfews and social distancing rules. The experts warned that such action might well amount to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment.
The experts further stressed that independent documenting of the material and living conditions of persons deprived of their liberty, as well as the monitoring of the use of force by law enforcement officials are indispensable tools for the prevention of all forms of ill-treatment, and therefore, must always be part of the overall COVID-19 response.
“Monitoring places of deprivation of liberty by independent bodies such as National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) remains a fundamental safeguard against torture and ill-treatment.
Access to places of detention must be guaranteed by governments,” said Malcolm Evans, Chair of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.
“States should reduce prison populations by further resorting to alternatives to pre-trial detention and incarceration with the existing alternatives of non-custodial measures. They should also end the use of immigration detention and closed refugee camps,” he added.
The importance of vigilance was stressed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, “Governments must uphold the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment at all times, including during states of emergencies based on the COVID-19 pandemic. Protective measures, including lockdowns and curfews, cannot justify any excessive use of force and coercion, and all allegations of torture or ill-treatment must be thoroughly investigated.”
Underlining the importance of redress and rehabilitation, the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, Dr. Vivienne Nathanson, said that victims of torture are at increased risk of further traumatization from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Torture victims are burdened with physical, social, economic and mental health problems. They may also lack the living conditions that allow them to guard against the spread of the virus. We commend the outstanding efforts undertaken by civil society organizations to continue to provide essential services to torture survivors, including during states of emergency and curfews, even when they face acts of intimidation or obstruction by the authorities.”
The coronavirus crisis has highlighted institutional and procedural failures that have exacerbated the risk of torture and ill-treatment for countless children, women and men in all regions of the world, according to the experts. They warned that the COVID-19 pandemic must not be used to avoid complying with the universally recognized duty of governments to eradicate all forms of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

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Countries failing to prevent violence against children, agencies warn
by UNICEF, UNESCO, WHO, End Violence Partnership
June 2020
Half of the world’s children, or approximately 1 billion children each year are affected by physical, sexual or psychological violence, suffering injuries, disabilities and death, because countries have failed to follow established strategies to protect them.
This is according to a new report published today by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, UNESCO, the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Violence against Children and the End Violence Partnership.
“There is never any excuse for violence against children," said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “We have evidence-based tools to prevent it, which we urge all countries to implement. Protecting the health and well-being of children is central to protecting our collective health and well-being, now and for the future.”
The report – Global Status Report on Preventing Violence Against Children 2020 – is the first of its kind, charting progress in 155 countries against the “INSPIRE” framework, a set of seven strategies for preventing and responding to violence against children.
The report signals a clear need in all countries to scale up efforts to implement them. While nearly all countries (88%) have key laws in place to protect children against violence, less than half of countries (47%) said these were being strongly enforced.
The report includes the first ever global homicide estimates specifically for children under 18 years of age – previous estimates were based on data that included 18 to 19-year olds. It finds that, in 2017, around 40,000 children were victims of homicide.
“Violence against children has always been pervasive, and now things could be getting much worse,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “Lockdowns, school closures and movement restrictions have left far too many children stuck with their abusers, without the safe space that school would normally offer.
It is urgent to scale up efforts to protect children during these times and beyond, including by designating social service workers as essential and strengthening child helplines.”
Progress is generally uneven
Of the INSPIRE strategies, only access to schools through enrollment showed the most progress with 54% of countries reporting that a sufficient number of children in need were being reached in this way. Between 32% to 37% of countries considered that victims of violence could access support services, while 26% of countries provided programmes on parent and caregiver support; 21% of countries had programmes to change harmful norms; and 15% of countries had modifications to provide safe physical environments for children.
Although a majority of countries (83%) have national data on violence against children, only 21% used these to set baselines and national targets to prevent and respond to violence against children.
About 80% of countries have national plans of action and policies but only one-fifth have plans that are fully funded or have measurable targets. A lack of funding combined with inadequate professional capacity are likely contributing factors and a reason why implementation has been slow.
The COVID-19 response and its impact on children
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, and the related school closures, we have seen a rise in violence and hate online – and this includes bullying. Now, as schools begin to re-open, children are expressing their fears about going back to school,” said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General.
“It is our collective responsibility to ensure that schools are safe environments for all children. We need to think and act collectively to stop violence at school and in our societies at large.”
Stay-at-home measures including school closures have limited the usual sources of support for families and individuals such as friends, extended family or professionals. This further erodes victims’ ability to successfully cope with crises and the new routines of daily life. Spikes in calls to helplines for child abuse and intimate partner violence have been observed.
And while online communities have become central to maintain many children’s learning, support and play, an increase in harmful online behaviours including cyberbullying, risky online behavior and sexual exploitation have been identified.
“Whilst this report was being finalized, confinement measures and the disrupted provision of already limited child protection services exacerbated the vulnerability of children to various forms of violence,” said Najat Maalla M’jid, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Violence against Children.
“To respond to this crisis a unified, child rights and multisectoral framework for action for children is critical requiring a strong mobilization of governments, bilateral/multilateral donors, civil society, private sector and children, whose views must be heard and truly taken into account to ensure duly protection and the possibility for all to thrive and reach their full potential.”
Accelerating action to protect children
WHO and its partners will continue to work with countries to fully implement the INSPIRE strategies by enhancing coordination, developing and implementing national action plans, prioritizing data collection, and strengthening legislative frameworks.
Global action is needed to ensure that the necessary financial and technical support is available to all countries. Monitoring and evaluation are crucial to determine the extent to which these prevention efforts are effectively delivered to all who need them.
“Ending violence against children is the right thing to do, a smart investment to make, and it’s possible. It is time to fully fund comprehensive national action plans that will keep children safe at home, at school, online and in their communities,” said Dr Howard Taylor, End Violence Partnership.
“We can and must create a world where every child can thrive free from violence and become a new generation of adults to experience healthy and prosperous lives.”

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