UN Human Rights Council

Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez (HRC 01-02-2013)

  1. The present report is submitted to the Human Rights Council in accordance with Council resolution 16/23.

C. Interpretative and guiding principles

3. Stigmatized identities

  1. In the context of prioritizing informed consent as a critical element of a voluntary counselling, testing and treatment continuum, the Special Rapporteur on the right to health has also observed that special attention should be paid to vulnerable groups. Principles 17 and 18 of the Yogyakarta Principles, for instance, highlight the importance of safeguarding informed consent of sexual minorities. Health-care providers must be cognizant of, and adapt to, the specific needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons (A/64/272, para. 46). The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has indicated that the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights proscribes any discrimination in access to health-care and the underlying determinants of health, as well as to means and entitlements for their procurement, on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.17

E. Marginalized groups

4. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons

  1. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has concluded that homophobic illtreatment on the part of health professionals is unacceptable and should be proscribed and denounced.103 There is an abundance of accounts and testimonies of persons being denied medical treatment, subjected to verbal abuse and public humiliation, psychiatric evaluation, a variety of forced procedures such as sterilization, State-sponsored forcible anal examinations for the prosecution of suspected homosexual activities, and invasive virginity examinations conducted by health-care providers,104 hormone therapy and genitalnormalizing surgeries under the guise of so called “reparative therapies”. 105 These procedures are rarely medically necessary,106 can cause scarring, loss of sexual sensation, pain, incontinence and lifelong depression and have also been criticized as being unscientific, potentially harmful and contributing to stigma (A/HRC/14/20, para. 23). The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women expressed concern about lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women as “victims of abuses and mistreatment by health service providers” (A/HRC/19/41, para. 56).
  2. Children who are born with atypical sex characteristics are often subject to irreversible sex assignment, involuntary sterilization, involuntary genital normalizing surgery, performed without their informed consent, or that of their parents, “in an attempt to fix their sex”, 107 leaving them with permanent, irreversible infertility and causing severe mental suffering.

V. Conclusions and recommendations

A. Significance of categorizing abuses in health-care settings as torture and ill-treatment

  1. The preceding examples of torture and ill-treatment in health-care settings likely represent a small fraction of this global problem. Such interventions always amount at least to inhuman and degrading treatment, often they arguably meet the criteria for torture, and they are always prohibited by international law.
  2. The prohibition of torture is one of the few absolute and non-derogable human rights,122 a matter of jus cogens, 123 a peremptory norm of customary international law. Examining abuses in health-care settings from a torture protection framework provides the opportunity to solidify an understanding of these violations and to highlight the positive obligations that States have to prevent, prosecute and redress such violations.
  3. The right to an adequate standard of health care (“right to health”) determines the States’ obligations towards persons suffering from illness. In turn, the absolute and non-derogable nature of the right to protection from torture and ill-treatment establishes objective restrictions on certain therapies. In the context of health-related abuses, the focus on the prohibition of torture strengthens the call for accountability and strikes a proper balance between individual freedom and dignity and public health concerns. In that fashion, attention to the torture framework ensures that system inadequacies, lack of resources or services will not justify ill-treatment. Although resource constraints may justify only partial fulfilment of some aspects of the right to health, a State cannot justify its non-compliance with core obligations, such as the absolute prohibition of torture, under any circumstances.124
  4. By reframing violence and abuses in health-care settings as prohibited illtreatment, victims and advocates are afforded stronger legal protection and redress for violations of human rights. In this respect, the recent general comment No. 3 (2012) of the Committee against Torture on the right to a remedy and reparation offers valuable guidance regarding proactive measures required to prevent forced interventions. Notably, the Committee considers that the duty to provide remedy and reparation extends to all acts of ill-treatment, 125 so that it is immaterial for this purpose whether abuses in health-care settings meet the criteria for torture per se. This framework opens new possibilities for holistic social processes that foster appreciation of the lived experiences of persons, including measures of satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition, and the repeal of inconsistent legal provisions.

B. Recommendations

  1. The Special Rapporteur calls upon all States to:
    1. Enforce the prohibition of torture in all health-care institutions, both public and private, by, inter alia, declaring that abuses committed in the context of health-care can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; regulating health-care practices with a view to preventing mistreatment under any pretext; and integrating the provisions of prevention of torture and illtreatment into health-care policies;
    2. Promote accountability for torture and ill-treatment in health-care settings by identifying laws, policies and practices that lead to abuse; and enable national preventive mechanisms to systematically monitor, receive complaints and initiate prosecutions;
    3. Conduct prompt, impartial and thorough investigations into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment in health-care settings; where the evidence warrants it, prosecute and take action against perpetrators; and provide victims with effective remedy and redress, including measures of reparation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition as well as restitution, compensation and rehabilitation;
    4. Provide appropriate human rights education and information to healthcare personnel on the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment and the existence, extent, severity and consequences of various situations amounting to torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and promote a culture of respect for human integrity and dignity, respect for diversity and the elimination of attitudes of pathologizaton and homophobia. Train doctors, judges, prosecutors and police on the standards regarding free and informed consent;
    5. Safeguard free and informed consent on an equal basis for all individuals without any exception, through legal framework and judicial and administrative mechanisms, including through policies and practices to protect against abuses. Any legal provisions to the contrary, such as provisions allowing confinement or compulsory treatment in mental health settings, including through guardianship and other substituted decision-making, must be revised. Adopt policies and protocols that uphold autonomy, self-determination and human dignity. Ensure that information on health is fully available, acceptable, accessible and of good quality; and that it is imparted and comprehended by means of supportive and protective measures such as a wide range of community-based services and supports (A/64/272, para. 93). Instances of treatment without informed consent should be investigated; redress to victims of such treatment should be provided;
    6. Ensure special protection of minority and marginalized groups and individuals as a critical component of the obligation to prevent torture and illtreatment126 by, inter alia, investing in and offering marginalized individuals a wide range of voluntary supports that enable them to exercise their legal capacity and that fully respect their individual autonomy, will and preferences.

3. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons

  1. The Special Rapporteur calls upon all States to repeal any law allowing intrusive and irreversible treatments, including forced genital-normalizing surgery, involuntary sterilization, unethical experimentation, medical display, “reparative therapies” or “conversion therapies”, when enforced or administered without the free and informed consent of the person concerned. He also calls upon them to outlaw forced or coerced sterilization in all circumstances and provide special protection to individuals belonging to marginalized groups.


17  General comment No. 14 (2000), para. 18
103 PAHO, “ „Cures‟ for an illness that does not exist” (2012), p. 3.
104 See HRW, In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct (2003).
105 PAHO/WHO, “ „Therapies‟ to change sexual orientation lack medical justification and threaten health”, news statement, 17 May 2012; and submission by Advocates for Informed Choice to the Special Rapporteur on the question of torture, 2012.
106 PAHO/WHO, “ „Therapies‟”.
107 A/HRC/19/41, para. 57.
122 Convention against Torture, art. 2, para. 2, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 7.
123 See International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Prosecutor v. Furundzija, case No. IT-95- 17/1-T, judgement (1998).
124 See Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, general comment No. 14.
125 General comment No. 3, para. 1.
126 See Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, general comment No. 14, para. 43 (a)-(f).

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