Civil society advocates for change through UN committees

How can various UN mechanisms be used as an instrument in the fight against torture? This is the overall topic at a training organized by DIGNITY for civil society organizations in Jordan. One of the participants is Fatimah Dabbas who for 35 years has worked for the protection of human rights.

By Maja Christine Wester

Autumn has arrived in Amman, Jordan. Golden leaves are falling from the trees and drift in the wind. Nevertheless, the sun stands high and the sky is blue. Fatimah Dabbas is sitting right in the sun. Shadow less. We have gone outside in the short break along with other members of the Jordanian Civil Alliance against Torture (JoCAT) participating in a training organized by DIGNITY. The training focuses on UN mechanisms relevant for civil society organizations as instruments to promote human rights and prevent torture.

Since 2014, Fatimah Dabbas has worked for the organization Jordanian Society for Human Rights (JSHR). However, she has worked in the human rights field for more than 35 years. What originally lead her into this field was personal experiences:

– In the community I grew up in, women could not do the same as men. For example, my brothers were supported to pursue higher education, while I could not study law, because I then had to travel outside Jordan, and that was socially and culturally not acceptable for a woman on her own.

Therefore, Fatimah Dabbas stated out studying social science. Later though, Fatimah Dabbas got the opportunity to study law. When Fatimah Dabbas started in her first job as a social worker at schools, she saw how other young women also suffered from discrimination.

Lawyers stand together in the Omar El-Nasser-case
Fatimah Dabbas continues with other examples of violations of human rights that she has experienced in her job:

– As a lawyer, I have met clients who obviously have been subjected to torture or ill-treatment, but they are afraid of talking about it.

The clients fear reprisals if they report it. The lawyers themselves may also be afraid of what will happen when they take on a case. In a newly submitted case of torture the lawyers stand together in representing the case and getting the perpetrators convicted which make them feel stronger. The case is about Omar El-Nasser. Fatimah Dabbas summarizes the case:

– He was not charged for doing anything criminal, but interrogated because he was at the location of a crime when it took place. He said that he did not have any relevant information. While he was in custody the family and his lawyer were not allowed to see him. He was tortured for four days. He died.

Fatimah Dabbas and JSHR has been part of JoCAT from the beginning. In JoCAT’s shadow report to the UN Committee against Torture in 2015, cases of torture and ill-treatment were reported. The report is called a shadow report, because it provides additional information to the report submitted by the government. Civil Society Organizations’ (CSOs’) input is essential for the committee’s work. Fatimah Dabbas explains why:

– Shadow reports from CSOs and our presence at review sessions with the UN Committee against Torture provide the committee with information needed to ask the government delegation questions.

In the concluding report on Jordan by the UN Committee against Torture, 2015, the Omar El-Naser case was one of the cases mentioned.

Follow up with the UN Committee against Torture

The training will soon continue, and we go in again. Participants’ handwritten notes are all over the long meeting table. The whiteboards are covered with important points in green and red written by Elna Sondergaard, legal consultant at DIGNITY. In the middle of the room is a black pillar decorated with signed statements in a diversity of colored chalk. They were there before the training started, but kind of fit into the ideas, comments and experiences being exchanged in English and Arabic through simultaneous translation: “Freedom“, one has written; “Activist,” another.

Based on Elna Sondergaard’s presentation, the participants start a discussion on the best way to strategically interact with the UN committees and special rapporteurs, because the alliance has limits to its resources: Which UN mechanisms do the alliance prioritize to interact with in the coming period? Which critical issues do they want to address and how?

The autumn leaves drift outside the windows. Winter is getting closer and so are important deadlines. The UN Committee against Torture has asked the Jordanian government and CSOs for submission of follow-up reports on the 2015-review on Jordan. The government’s deadline is the 9th of December 2016. CSOs have until early March 2017. The training today is a stepping stone for the coming work for JoCAT, concludes Fatima Dabbas:

– Before we wrote and submitted our report to the UN Committee against Torture in 2015, we also had a training by DIGNITY. The training today gives us even more specialized knowledge and skills to write a follow-up report.

DIGNITY’s programme in Jordan preventing torture is inspired by a co-responsibility approach where state institutions, CSOs and professional groups cooperate to achieve the common goal. The programme is called Karama and is funded by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the Danish-Arab Partnership Programme.