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The stuff of nightmares. Dungeons, shackles, terror and pain...

  • Date18 May 2017

Recently, the School of Law at Royal Holloway University of London and the University of Bristol Human Rights Implementation Centre hosted a seminar for leading members of the United Nations body tasked with preventing torture, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) and other international experts on torture prevention. Professor Nick Hardwick writes about the issues arising at this seminar, and the important questions to be answered now.


Torture is the stuff of nightmares.  Dungeons and shackles, terror and pain.  Something from long ago or far away?

In truth, it is all too real and current. Take recent revelations about the torture of gay men in Chechnya for instance. It is usually hidden but sometimes revealed by brave journalists, the testimony of survivors, NGOs like the Association for the Prevention of Torture or the work of the UN committees and other international bodies.

Sometimes, in a moment of candour, support for torture and its spurious justification is paraded without embarrassment.  As the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'adAl Hussein, put it in a recent speech in the USA:

"I have been amazed by the President's [Trump's] openly voiced personal support for torture. The prospect that torture, or some airbrushed version of it, could be revived in this country, potentially in response to some future terrorist outrage, is profoundly unsettling.

The UN Convention Against Torture defines torture as:

"Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions."       

[Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Article 1.1)

We don't torture people here in the UK do we? 

 The Convention goes on to state that other forms of ill-treatment are prohibited with the same force as the prohibitions on torture:

 "Each State Party shall undertake to prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture as defined in article I, when such acts are committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. [Ibid Article 16]

 In their most recent UK visit report, the Council of Europe's torture prevention body, European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), reported in shocked and undiplomatic language about the prolonged solitary confinement of children detained in Young Offender Institutions in the UK:

 "The regimes in all prisons visited were inadequate, with a considerable number of prisoners spending up to 22 hours per day locked up in their cells. The situation was particularly bleak for juveniles placed on ‘separation’ lists, who could spend up to 23.5 hours a day locked up alone in their cells. In the CPT’s view, holding juveniles in such conditions amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment. Findings and data show that juvenile offenders in YOIs have been held alone in conditions akin to solitary confinement for periods of 30 days, 60 days and even, occasionally, up to 80 days."  

 The SPT was established by the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). 

OPCAT is unusual amongst human rights instruments in that it seeks to prevent torture and ill-treatment through a system of regular, independent visits to all places of deprivation of liberty rather than investigate allegations of past abuses and hold those responsible accountable. 

OPCAT created a dual system of international and national preventive visits.  At an international level, these visits are carried out by the SPT which also oversees the system as a whole. At a national level, state parties are required to establish an independent National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) to carry out these visits.  There are currently 83 state parties, 65 of which have designated their NPM. 

2016 marked ten years since OPCAT came into force and 2017 marked the tenth anniversary of the SPT beginning work.  

During this period, the work of both the SPT and of the NPMs has developed greatly, as has the experience of all these bodies in working to prevent torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. The SPT has become recognised as one of the most effective UN bodies and its preventive approach is now being incorporated into mainstream UN thinking.

Yet many long-standing issues remained unresolved...

  • How can the different bodies involved work more effectively together?
  • What do consistent standards mean across many different parts of the world with different legal systems and systems of government?
  • What more can be done to ensure recommendations to prevent torture and ill-treatment are effectively implemented?
  • How to ensure those making allegations of torture and ill-treatment are protected from reprisals?  

Furthermore,  when the use and effectiveness of torture wasisbeing defended at the most senior levels, the legitimacy of many international bodies was being questioned and, even as the number of state parties (and so demands on the SPT) continued to increase, the resources available to the UN and its structures faced severe reduction.

The seminar discussions themselves are confidential at this stage but they were deep and far-ranging. 

It would be foolish to claim too much for one meeting but in a time when the challenges for torture prevention seem so great, we are pleased we have been able to play a small part in strengthening and encouraging the key individuals and organisations engaged in that work.

 Learn more about research in the School of Law, Criminology & Sociology.

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