Experts of the Committee against Torture Welcome Lithuania’s Holistic Approach on Promoting Human Rights and Fighting Torture, and Ask about the State of Emergency on the Border with Belarus
The Committee against Torture this afternoon concluded its consideration of the fourth periodic report of Lithuania on its efforts to implement the provisions of the Convention against Torture, with Committee Experts welcoming Lithuania’s holistic approach on promoting human rights and fighting torture, and asking about the state of emergency on the border with Belarus and the challenges related to the situation of migrants therein.
Committee Experts said that a holistic approach had been taken for the promotion of human rights and the fight against torture in Lithuania. There was high political will for the respect and promotion of human rights, including the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment. With regard to the state of emergency, how was the State party complying with its international obligations under international law?
The Committee needed to be informed of the measures taken by the State party to meet the challenges faced currently, especially for the prevention and prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment of asylum seekers and irregular migrants. A further issue of concern was whether they were de facto detained in locked institutions, as in this case they were deprived of their right to freedom of movement. More information was requested as to what measures the State party had adopted to improve reception conditions, taking into account the basic needs of asylum-seekers with specific needs.
Elanas Jablonskas, Deputy Minister of Justice of Lithuania and head of delegation, said human rights and dignity were at the heart of the constitutional order of Lithuania, which condemned torture and cruel and degrading treatment and punishment, and had built a solid institutional and national regulatory framework to prevent all forms of inhumane treatment. As the international community was aware, Lithuania had been facing a large-scale hybrid attack organised by the Belarussian regime. A number of amendments to the law on the status of aliens had been adopted concerning the restriction of movement for asylum seekers, while preserving fundamental human rights. Lithuania was facing serious unprecedented challenges due to unacceptable behaviour by the neighbouring regime, which had reached a critical point in respect of the country’s security. A temporary state of emergency had been introduced in the border zone in November and human rights restrictions had been imposed only where necessary. Humanitarian aid was provided to migrants.
The delegation of Lithuania consisted of members of the Ministries of Justice, the Interior, Social Security and Labour, Health, and Foreign Affairs, as well as of the Prosecutor General’s Office, the State Border Guard Service, and of the Permanent Mission of Lithuania to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The webcast of the Committee against Torture meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Committee against Torture’s seventy-second session can be found here.
The Committee will next meet in public at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 23 November, to start its consideration of the periodic report of Serbia.
The Committee has before it the fourth periodic report of Lithuania (CAT/C/LTU/4).
Presentation of Report
ELANAS JABLONSKAS, Deputy Minister of Justice of Lithuania and head of delegation, said human rights and dignity were at the heart of the constitutional order of Lithuania, which condemned torture and cruel and degrading treatment and punishment. Lithuania had built a solid institutional and national regulatory framework to prevent all forms of inhumane treatment. The criminal act of torture was punishable by up to five years imprisonment.
As the international community was aware, Lithuania had been facing a large-scale hybrid attack organised by the Belarussian regime in retaliation for Lithuania’s strong support to the Belarussian people fighting for freedom and in response to the European Union sanctions imposed for the harsh violations of human rights in Belarus. In response, a State-wide extreme situation and the Union Civil Protection Mechanism had been activated in July. A number of amendments to the law on the status of aliens had been adopted concerning the restriction of movement for asylum seekers, while preserving fundamental human rights. Lithuania was facing serious unprecedented challenges due to unacceptable behaviour by the neighbouring regime, which had reached a critical point in respect of the country’s security. A temporary state of emergency had been introduced in the border zone in November and human rights restrictions had been imposed only where necessary. Humanitarian aid was provided to migrants.
Lithuania had made considerable progress in improving material conditions in police detention centres. Detention centres were newly built and in good condition. Inmates and detainees had been integrated into the national health insurance system. As a result of various measures, the total number of inmates in prison centres had decreased by 70 per cent. A modernisation process of the prison system was underway. Further efforts to improve prison security and prevent ill-treatment included the development of a dynamic security model, among others. A modern training centre had been established for prison staff to increase their professional standards and to change attitudes of both staff and inmates, thus contributing to the prevention of ill-treatment and torture.
Legislative reform had been implemented in the field of metal health care, aimed, first, and above all, at the protection of the rights of involuntarily hospitalised patients. With regard to human trafficking, Lithuania continued its efforts to combat this, in particular by increasing the competences and abilities of staff from relevant institutions to identify potential victims of trafficking, and by implementing awareness-raising campaigns towards zero tolerance for human trafficking and slavery. The protection of children’s rights was a priority issue in Lithuania, which had introduced a complete prohibition of corporal punishment of children, including within the family. Several national initiatives had been implemented aimed at promoting the non-violent upbringing of children.
Despite a comprehensive legal framework, the problem of domestic violence remained present in Lithuania. During the pandemic, the number of cases of domestic violence had increased by about 20 per cent. Preventive work against domestic violence was enhanced through the National Programme for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Provision of Assistance to Victims, including information campaigns. Non-governmental organizations were actively involved in providing assistance to the victims of violence. A new law on Assistance to Victims of Criminal Offences established a system of assistance to victims of any crime. Lithuania recognised that the State needed competent and well-trained officials to ensure proper respect for human rights. Many law-enforcement officials and judicial officials had attended training sessions in this regard.
Lithuania’s way forward was a human-centred and community-based approach to the prevention of ill-treatment. Lithuania was strongly determined to continue its efforts to promote and further improve measures for combatting torture and all forms of ill-treatment and would do its utmost to address all concerns raised by the Committee.
Questions from Committee Experts
HUAWEN LIU, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Lithuania’s review, noted that a holistic approach had been taken for the promotion of human rights and the fight against torture in Lithuania. There was high political will for the respect and promotion of human rights, including the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment, there was legislative progress, and there were policy tools including many action plans, work plans and guidelines. The general framework was there, and there had been many good practices and progress made. It was worth noting that the new technologies were utilised for supervision, transparency, efficiency, awareness and capacity building.
Noting that upon the recommendation of the Committee’s previous concluding observations, the Ministry of Justice of Lithuania was preparing a draft to amend and supplement the Criminal Code, to incorporate the elements of torture required by the Convention, to impose sanctions on the crime of torture, and to guarantee that the statute of limitations did not apply, the Expert requested details of the draft law, including whether the definition of torture in article 1 of the Convention was included in the draft, the responsibilities and punishment provisions for torture, whether it ensured that torture had no statute of limitations, and other information.
The Expert also requested information concerning the current conditions of detention and measures taken to ensure their compliance with international standards, as well as measures to address inter-prison violence, the spread of HIV infection and hepatitis C, and measures to address the issue of access to illegal drugs in prisons. The concern with regard to domestic violence was whether it was possible to set domestic violence as a separate crime in the criminal law. What other efforts were being taken for strengthening the legal system against domestic violence?
The Co-Rapporteur observed that high accommodation density, lack of competent on-site management, and insufficient services, in combination with a detention-like environment, raised serious concerns about potential risks of asylum-seekers being subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment, such as gender-based violence, greater exposure to COVID-19 transmission, and deteriorating mental health issues. The detention of children was particularly problematic. Moreover, the lack of a proper mechanism for identifying vulnerable individuals, including victims of torture and other serious physical, sexual or psychological violence, may prevent their referral to accommodation arrangements, support and services tailored to their specific situation
More information was requested as to what measures the State party had adopted to improve reception conditions, taking into account the basic needs of asylum-seekers with specific needs, with a view to ensuring a dignified standard of living and respect for human dignity, in order to better fulfil its obligations. With regard to the state of emergency, how did the State party comply with its international obligations under international law?
The Committee needed to be informed of the measures taken by the State party to meet the challenges faced currently, especially for the prevention and prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment of asylum seekers and irregular migrants. Also, the Expert inquired whether it was guaranteed that trafficking crimes were punished as serious crimes. What measures had the State party taken to punish trafficking crimes seriously?
ERDOGAN ISCAN, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Lithuania’s review, said with regard to conditions in police detention facilities, the Committee would appreciate receiving detailed information on the implementation of the fundamental legal safeguards from the outset of deprivation of liberty. Disaggregated statistical data would be appreciated in order to be able to assess the situation clearly. The Committee would also like to have updated statistical data, disaggregated by age, sex and ethnicity or nationality of the persons who had been subjects of punishments alternative to imprisonment, as well as the current statistical data on complaints, investigations, prosecutions, convictions and punishment of torture and ill-treatment, including excessive use of force, as well as measures to ensure prompt, impartial and effective investigations.
The Committee noted the information on the draft law on Mental Health Care as well as the amendments to legislation; nevertheless, bearing in mind that the report dated back to 2017, further information was required on these topics, which had gained importance with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. Iscan said the Committee invited Lithuania to take into account all four pillars of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, including the human rights pillar of the fight against terrorism, in planning and organising training programmes. The security forces that were involved in the fight against terrorism must be monitored in terms of ensuring respect for human rights and the rule of law, and additional information on this subject was requested.
Surveys about changes in emotional and mental health indicated that a large percentage of populations felt increasingly more depressed and pessimistic owing to the unforeseen and unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the national level, governments needed to implement a human rights-based approach, re-arranging the priorities and allocating adequate funds aimed at enhancing the quality of resilience. The Committee had included the topic in its agenda, inviting States parties to provide information on the steps taken in this regard during the pandemic. Given that the prohibition of torture was absolute and could not be derogated from, the Committee would like to know what steps had been taken by Lithuania during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that its policies and actions complied with its obligations under the Convention. In particular, in relation to persons deprived of their liberty and in other situations of confinement such as homes for the elderly, hospitals or institutions for persons with mental and psychosocial disabilities, the Committee would like to know whether detained persons had been offered access to a COVID-19 vaccine.
Other Committee Members asked questions on, among other topics, the treatment of asylum-seekers and migrants that had entered Lithuanian territory and whether they were de facto detained in locked institutions, as in this case they were deprived of their right to freedom of movement and had the right to regular court review of the detention. With regard to excessive use of force by penitentiary forces, an Expert asked whether there had been investigations of these allegations and whether there had been access by prison staff to extremely dangerous and potentially lethal weapons, which should not be used. The numbers of custodial staff in prisons were also an issue of concern.
Replies from the Delegation
Responding to these questions and others, the delegation said that with regard to criminal law, the offense of torture had been included therein, and there was criminal liability for anyone who exercised or incited or approved of the deed of torture, and it was punishable by up to five years detention. Lithuania had fully implemented all recommendations made by the Committee previously in this context. On asylum seekers and illegal immigration, the situation had severely deteriorated in 2021, and this was a staged situation. Facing the situation, Lithuania was also concerned about the issue of human rights. Dedicated teams had been set up, including psychiatrists and psychologists to ensure the health and well-being of migrants. Complicated surgical procedures and long-term nursing services were being provided to migrants. In providing health-care services, Lithuania was cooperating with non-governmental organizations and believed it was achieving good standards in this area.
On the emergency situation in Lithuania, the introduction of this did not give the grounds to ask for asylum. Lithuania continued to provide all basic services to asylum-seekers and migrants, ensuring that non-governmental organizations had access to them. The humanitarian situation was dire at the Polish border as well as at the Lithuanian border, and humanitarian packages were being provided and reached the people who needed them the most. There were currently 161 vulnerable individuals, all of whom were assessed on entry to Lithuania. There were regular meetings with representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with an exchange of views, and all comments and recommendations were taken on board. There were no restrictions on the rights of migrants regarding asylum applications, and they had the right to appeal. All limitations and restrictions to the right to movement in place were only to the extent necessary to carry out asylum-processing procedures.
Regarding protection against domestic violence, the delegation said that in Lithuania, since the introduction of the specialised law on the prevention of domestic violence, this area had been in the constant focus of legislators and various organizations, therefore this legislation was constantly being updated and amended. Non-governmental organizations were also active in this area. The legislative processes were rather intensive and had led to many results. The law contained provisions stating that domestic violence was a crime with public consequences: the victim was not required to report the crime, and police officers who were at the location would commence pre-trial investigations, and they were obligated to do so, as well as to collect statistics on the issue. There was a special article providing for criminal liability for stalking in the Criminal Code. Although there was not one specifically for domestic violence, every incident of domestic violence was subject to the universal norms of the Criminal Code, and thus this lack was not an obstacle to prosecution. In 2020 there had been 58,000 reports of incidents of domestic violence, and in about 20 per cent of the cases there had been prosecutions. Various campaigns were being mounted to ensure that public officials, including in education, could recognise and report violence and victims of violence, showing the greater public awareness of the issue.
Legislative reform had been implemented in the field of mental health care, including and in particular on involuntary hospitalisation for persons with mental health issues. The only condition that could trigger involuntary hospitalisation was that the patient’s behaviour showed evidence of the potential for substantial harm to them or to another person or property. Extension to the hospitalisation had to be agreed upon before a court. The law gave additional safeguards to persons, including the principle of minimal intervention, with a priority for non-medical treatment and urgent treatment.
Patients with developmental and behavioural disorders should be able to live with their families. Patients had the right to an independent mental health evaluation by three independent and external experts. The newly adopted law had issues in implementation, as it had only been adopted recently, and its implementation was still in practice, and required improvement. Involuntary hospitalisations were less than 6 per cent. The freedom of persons with behavioural and developmental problems and their restriction was determined by law, aiming to protect the patient and their health and life, as well as for the health and life of institution staff and other patients. Before applying physical restraints, other measures including oral and de-escalation techniques must be applied.
With regard to the prohibition of corporal punishment against children, amendments to the law on the fundamental protection of the rights of the child were adopted in 2017, prohibiting this in all settings, including within the family, as well as the education and penal systems. However, there was a need to change behavioural patterns, and this was done through education and awareness-raising. There was now a centralised, unified system for the evaluation of the rights of the child which could react rapidly to reports of possible violations. State funding had increased significantly since 2013, and money had been added in order to deal with the COVID crisis. Money was provided to non-governmental organizations to support positive parenting from parents and caregivers. An increasing number of counselling services was provided, showing there was a true need for parents to consult and improve their skills. Successful social media campaigns had been held, with information provided in multiple languages, including migrant languages. The protection of children’s rights was becoming part of the new culture of Lithuania.
Lithuania now had individual complaints mechanisms under four different Conventions and was coming to recognise that it could not deal with everything under national law, the delegation said. Lithuania was considering acceding to other individual complaint procedures, including that under the Convention against Torture.
Lithuania, as many other countries, had been caught unprepared by the COVID virus, and was struggling to respond to the mental and emotional needs of its inhabitants. Nevertheless, within three months, it had developed a plan on the long-term reduction of threats to society’s mental health due to the pandemic, designed for all groups of the population. Lithuania was one of a few European countries that had adopted a specific cross-sectoral plan on mental health in this context. The total new investment for the plan amounted to 4.5 million euros, and six months after the beginning of the pandemic, new psychological services had been rolled out across the country in order to limit its effect, including emotional support health call-lines for different groups of the population.
Children were recognised as being at a greater risk of violence and exploitation, and efforts were being made to provide them with means to contact the authorities to report these violations. Efforts were also made to provide mental health self-help tools, including a self-diagnosis website. As it was recognised that the situation was ongoing, resources had been made available, including to those suffering from long COVID and those suffering from sexual and intimate partner violence. Summer camps had been established for children who had suffered due to long-distance learning. The pandemic had been a huge shock for the health system and society as a whole, but at the same time it was an opportunity for mental health service reforms and reforms of the health system as a whole.
Lithuania was one of five European Union Member States that had not ratified the Istanbul Convention, but it had been returned to the political agenda. While acknowledging the potential, it had been agreed that Lithuania would make every effort to ensure that measures would be taken to ensure that Parliament could take up the issue. The document had received much public attention and debate. Lithuanian as a language was very old and thus very conservative; therefore, society needed time to understand what the Convention meant with regard to gender-neutral language. Lithuania continued to debate the issue and was taking and would continue to take necessary steps to discourage domestic violence and protect women therefrom, aiming for zero tolerance of domestic violence. From 2019, the provision of specialised and comprehensive assistance was organised by the Lithuanian Women’s Rights Association. Lithuania really cared about the issue, and this was a hot topic which was high on the political agenda.
The basic provisions for health services in prisons were regulated by the internal rules of detention centres, as approved by the Ministry of the Interior, and included a separate medical examinations office, and a separate healthcare office. Laws also provided for custodial staff giving the first medical aid in situations of emergency response. Police must ensure the proper security of the person without interfering with medical services. There were no restrictions on the provision of healthcare within prisons. Primary-level health services were provided in prisons, and specialised services were provided either by the prison itself or by external healthcare institutions.
Provision was made for continuous monitoring of inmates, and profiling them when determining their accommodation. In future, it would be ensured that no more than four inmates were housed per cell. Inmates who refused to comply or demonstrated criminal behaviour could be moved to another cell, unit, or institution. Active criminal intelligence activities were ongoing in order to identify criminal and violent behaviours. Dynamic supervision was ongoing to limit incidents of violence in prisons, as well as of drug-trafficking in prisons. Hepatitis C treatment was available to all prisoners. Detoxification programmes were also available, as was methadone therapy. The application of probation had been extended. The law provided that all law-enforcement institutions had to have immunity units, with the main task of preventing corruption and other illegal activities. The prison department also had an immunity unit. The shortage of staff in the prison system was partially compensated by the decrease in the number of imprisoned inmates.
Lithuanian authorities had cooperated with the European Court of Human Rights in cases of alleged terrorism and was fully engaged with the European Union Council of Ministers in specific cases. On migration and asylum issues, the current irregular migrant crisis was not a regular process, but was instead instrumentalised, and the Lithuanian system should not be judged by it, as it artificially overloaded capacities and decreased the ability to respond to migrant pressure. Lithuania had nevertheless set the protection of human rights as its primary policy. Responding had been a challenge, but the current situation had improved compared to the situation in July, and this over the whole spectrum, including accommodation and the provision of health systems.
Currently there were more than 3,000 applications for asylum status, and each of these would be considered individually. Before the artificial increase of the applications, there had only been eight staff, but this had now been tripled. There were a significant number of economic migrants who had applied for asylum, and these applications had been rejected; they could be appealed. There was no basis to say that the Lithuanian system did not follow international law. The restriction of the right to movement of migrants was an exceptional circumstance and was not applied in normal circumstances. There was a right to appeal these restrictions.
As of 10 November, a state of emergency had been declared by Parliament, as the situation had caused a serious impact on security and peace. This had been declared only at border regions and migrant accommodation centres and did not repeal international law. This provided for restricting the rights of certain individuals, but not automatically. This was declared for the sole purpose of curtailing and managing the migrant situation. Currently irregular migrants were housed in five facilities, which were fully appropriate to climate conditions. Families were housed in separate accommodation, and persons belonging to vulnerable groups, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, were also housed separately. Migrants had access to legal aid, facilitated by non-governmental organizations, which had access to migrants. Education was provided to minors.
Migrants had the right to appeal accommodation conditions, and some had done so. All the relevant data on migrants was being collected by the relevant authorities, including border guards, allowing to provide individualised and targeted aid for their needs.
Lithuania had a sustainable funding mechanism for non-governmental organizations, and the latter had a very wide scope, including migrants, children, and food banks. For women’s rights, since 2019, there was a very comprehensive network, with sixteen centres in the country exclusively for women who had suffered violence. On human trafficking, non-governmental organizations played a special role, and support for their situation was increasing.
Over the last year, structural reforms had been implemented in the police forces, which ensured that investigations of all acts committed by police officers were centralised, and reported to the highest level of the police, in order to ensure objectivity and full investigation. It was Lithuania’s duty to ensure that all investigations were carried out in an objective and transparent manner. If an individual believed that they had suffered due to the acts of the police, they could bring the matter before a court. The control of pre-trial investigations by the military police was carried out by the Prosecutor’s Office in order to ensure impartiality. The Criminal Code said that trafficking in human beings was a grievous crime, which could carry a punishment of 6 to 10 years imprisonment, and especially grievous crimes, such as against a child, could be punished up to 15 years.
HUAWEN LIU, Committee Co-Rapporteur for the report of Lithuania, said that when any country faced a crisis, human rights were an important issue, and Lithuania’s response to the COVID crisis was appreciated, in particular the focus on vulnerable groups and the care for mental health issues. For the border crisis, the sudden increase in the number of irregular migrants was a big burden for the authorities and society to manage. Always the values of the rule of law, democracy and human rights were cherished, guiding the response to the challenges. There were some key points which required clarity, including what was the applicable law regarding migrants who had entered over the past month, and in the border area. It was impressive that civil society in Lithuania was very active.
ERDOGAN ISKAN, Committee Co-Rapporteur for the report of Lithuania, said most of the questions had been answered in a comprehensive manner. The Government coalition should address the issues with regard to the Istanbul Convention. This should allow for further progress. Efforts to accept the competence of the Committee on articles 21 and 22 of the Convention were noted. With regard to complaints procedure, investigation and punishment of complaints of torture, cruel and inhuman punishment and excessive use of force, the information received had been noted, and it was important here to have an independent mechanism for effective and prompt investigation, with a view to eliminating impunity, which was important in order to comply fully with the obligations under the Convention.
Committee Experts then raised other issues, including the restriction of movement of migrants and whether this meant they were detained or were allowed to leave the housing facilities, and if they were detained was this decision based on an individual assessment of the likelihood of absconding, or whether this was a global restriction. Which restrictions would remain once the emergency situation had ended?
Response by the Delegation
Responding, the delegation said that Lithuania applied international law on migrants, and other countries should do so too. There were no zones in Lithuania where international law was not applied, including in the area where the state of emergency applied. The law was being changed to ensure that migrants had better conditions. Lithuania was trying to individualise the process as much as possible, but was finding it very difficult, as it was overwhelmed. Many of the migrants did not have identification documents. If they were in need of services, they could leave the facilities, and were escorted by officers. The current provisions applied only to the emergency situation and did not apply in the slightest to the normal situation.
CLAUDE HELLER, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the constructive dialogue, saying that he was not being merely diplomatic, but that they had fully engaged in the dialogue.
ELANAS JABLONSKAS, Deputy Minister of Justice of Lithuania and head of delegation, in concluding remarks, said Lithuania was grateful for the opportunity to take part in a constructive dialogue in Geneva, and appreciated the relentless efforts of the members of the Committee. This was an opportunity for Lithuania to learn, and continued engagement with the Committee was important in this regard. Lithuania’s strong commitment remained, and good notice would be taken of the comments and suggestions made by the Committee, and they would be of great value for the work ahead to ensure full compliance with Lithuania’s continuing efforts.
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