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June 30, 2016

ABA ROLI Combats Torture with One Simple Age-Old Trick: A Good Defense Lawyer

Director, ABA Rule of Law Initiative

June 26 marked annual International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. It seems incredible that there is such a day, that it’s necessary to remind us that one of the clearest rules in international law is so commonly disregarded. The day marks the date that the United Nation Convention against Torture entered into force, 29 years ago. Today, 159 countries have ratified the convention, and a coalition led by Chile, Denmark, Ghana, Indonesia and Morocco, has launched the Convention Against Torture Initiative to get to universal ratification by 2024. Nonetheless, the scourge of torture remains prevalent. The Center for Victims of Torture describes it as "widespread and systematic" in many countries and estimates that as many as 35% of refugees have been tortured. 

While the harm to victims is bad enough, torture also contributes to radicalization, political instability, violence, conflict and refugee flows. Tackling this problem--not just in law, but in practice--requires a complex set of initiatives, to build political will, to establish the prohibition clearly in law and policy, to give law enforcement alternative and better tools and to enforce the prohibition, including accountability for perpetrators. 

But one simple step--at the center of nearly all of ABA ROLI’s criminal law reform programs--is critical: ensure that every criminal defendant has a lawyer, and that that lawyer is equipped to provide a robust defense, to defend against torture and to insist on enforcement of the prohibition. The articles in this and recent Updates highlight several of these programs.

Recent achievements in our effort to build criminal defense capacity include:

  • In Ukraine, supporting the development of free legal aid institutions, training 1,700 to 2,100 public defenders annually. Public defenders have achieved unprecedented results since the start of this program three years ago. Just last year, ABA ROLI- trained public defenders secured 140 acquittals (of the total 320 for the entire country.  ABA ROLI-supported public defenders represent just 7% of all criminal defense attorneys in the country, and they have secured 44% of last year’s acquittals in the country.  Acquittals remain very rare in Ukraine, but the impact of ABA ROLI trainings in securing them is clear.
  • In China, informing the incorporation of an exclusionary rule into the Criminal Procedure Code, prohibiting the introduction of evidence obtained through torture in criminal proceedings and trainings for hundreds of criminal defense lawyers in advancing these rights.
  • In Russia, supporting the creation of seven Continuing Legal Education centers where defense attorneys go to learn more about international and domestic legal tools on protection against torture. Almost 15,000 defense attorneys have access to these training tools all over Russia.
  • In Peru, helping the Public Defender’s Office design a new national policy to support implementation of the new Criminal Procedure Code. With ABA ROLI’s Assistance, the Public Defender’s Office is re-designing services to their clients and developing new trainings for defense attorneys to promote understanding of the new accusatorial system.

Building the capacity of the defense bar is not a silver bullet to solve the problem of torture. But it is a critical element of what needs to be a multi-faceted strategy. By providing an effective check on official authority, defense counsel can limit the scope for such abuse, bring it to light, and ensure accountability. ABA ROLI is proud to do its part, standing with defense lawyers all over the world so that one day, perhaps, we won’t need to mark June 26 this way anymore.

Director, ABA Rule of Law Initiative