Remembering human rights pioneer Nigel Rodley 1941 - 2017
Nigel Rodley’s outstanding achievement, earning him a place in history, was to be an architect of the process leading to the international treaty which establishes acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment as crimes under international law. He was also a kind and modest man who cared intensely about individuals’ human rights and whose commitment, humanity and sincerity inspired the deep respect and lasting affection of his colleagues.
In his position as Amnesty International’s legal adviser, Nigel developed the long-range plan for Amnesty’s continuing campaign against torture, beginning with its submission to a 1975 UN Congress in Geneva on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders, where representatives of more than a hundred states took part. That Congress formulated a Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1975.
That was followed, nine years later on Human Rights Day 1984, by the General Assembly’s adoption of the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which gave legal force to the Declaration. It entered into force in June 1987. Over 160 states have now signed up to that Convention.
It established the Committee against Torture, a body of independent experts who monitor states’ compliance with the Convention. The Committee also examines complaints from individuals who claim that their rights under the Convention have been violated.
Almost 20 years later, June 2006 saw the coming into force of the Optional Protocol to the Convention and its Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, mandated to visit places of detention.
While innumerable other human rights advocates have played their role in this ongoing campaign against torture and ill-treatment over the years, it was Nigel Rodley who conceived of what were then almost unimaginable possibilities, and who developed the strategic plan which led to this historic step forward for humanity.
His vision, commitment, and expertise was not limited to torture -- it extended to all the areas of work covered by Amnesty International as it grew in stature as a respected human rights organization in the 1970s and 80s. This included its pioneering and initially controversial work of total opposition to the death penalty, and treating it as a human rights issue.
After he left his position as head of Amnesty’s Legal Office, he served as an independent expert of the UN, from 1993 to 2001 as its second Special Rapporteur on torture, and from 2001 to 2016 as a member of the Human Rights Committee, which monitors states’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in 2013-14 as its Chair. In both these positions he continued his work to develop and use international law as a means of protecting people from human rights violations and of holding governments to account. He was also one of the founders of the University of Essex Human Rights Centre, where he taught and inspired students who became human rights defenders, including many who now work with Amnesty.
But he was not only an eminent and renowned expert in international law. The driving force behind his work was his humanity and concern for people as individuals and his commitment to taking action to prevent violations. Alongside his work in developing international standards at international forums, he seized the opportunity to investigate human rights situations on the ground.
In 1985 he took part in an Amnesty mission to Guatemala, then under a military government responsible for large scale disappearances and extrajudicial executions of suspected “subversives”, including killings of the entire populations of many Indigenous villages.
After years of refusing Amnesty entry to the country, the government unexpectedly facilitated a visit, offering the Amnesty delegates meetings with senior officials and even a military escort. One day the delegates stopped at a military base where they had received information about secret cells used to interrogate suspected “subversives”, and a secret cemetery to bury those who died under torture or who were summarily executed. Based on this information, Nigel eventually found a pit in the ground covered with a wooden trap door. It was no longer occupied, but the binding ropes and warm tortillas and rice left in the cell indicated that someone had been held there shortly before. Meanwhile, another of the delegates found the secret underground passageway leading out of the base to a field with mounds of freshly dug earth – the secret cemetery.
The Amnesty delegates also collected information from survivors in a village where mass killings had been reported, despite attempts by a local civil patrol wielding machetes to prevent their entry to the village. They also invited other survivors and witnesses to come to their hotel to tell their stories --- the first time, they were told, that Indigenous people had ever entered the hotel. One such interview is shown in the picture accompanying this article. Nigel’s concern, kindness, and compassion were obvious to the survivors and this greatly helped in establishing the rapport that enabled Amnesty to collect invaluable first-hand accounts of the violations they had suffered and witnessed. This information was used in Amnesty reports and other formats to generate international action to address the continuing human rights atrocities in Guatemala.
In 1994, in his capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, he visited Russia, when it had recently emerged from the Soviet period and was undergoing severe economic and social instability. His report to the UNdescribed overcrowded, ill-lit, and foetid remand centre cells which he described as disease incubators, where inmates, many with festering sores and skin diseases, perspired in heat and humidity where nothing would dry, where there was too little room for them to sit down and constant standing caused them to suffer from swollen feet and legs. Their diet consisted of fat-saturated soupy food which they ate and excreted in the same cell. “The Special Rapporteur would need the poetic skills of a Dante or the artistic skills of a Bosch adequately to describe the infernal conditions he found in these cells”, he wrote. “The senses of smell, touch, taste and sight are repulsively assailed. The conditions are cruel, inhuman and degrading; they are torturous.”
His report emphasized that under the 1975 Declaration against Torture, no exceptional circumstances can be invoked as a justification of torture or other ill-treatment. He noted that many officials wanted to improve the atrocious conditions and that staff were demoralized, but stressed that political will was needed to ensure that Russia complied with its international and national legal responsibilities to end these conditions.
He never lost his attachment to Amnesty, like others who have left us and dispersed to play a part in the wider human rights movement. A few of his former Amnesty colleagues still work for the organization, and many younger members and staff have studied at the Essex Human Rights Centre. To the world he was known as Professor Sir Nigel Rodley. To Amnesty he remained simply Nigel. Those of us who worked with and learned from him in any capacity remember him with respect, warmth, and affection and have a heartfelt sense of loss today. But we are inspired by his humanity, his wisdom, and commitment, and the edifice of human rights institutions and ideas that this visionary and humble man did so much to build.