Global Governance Institute


The Prohibition of Torture: Still a Valid Concern for UK Policy and Practice?

5 December 2017

Charlotte Bell (MSc Global Governance and Ethics) on a GGI panel discussion with Malcolm Evans, Carla Ferstman and John Wadham.

Torture Prohibition Panel

Although the absolute prohibition of torture is one of the strongest norms in international human rights law, it is currently facing major threats globally. Whilst in the US, President Trump attempts to legitimise torture, claiming that it "absolutely works", there also still exist daunting challenges within our own borders. The prohibition of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, therefore, remains an important concern for UK policy and practice: at home and abroad, there is a need to reinforce international law on torture and focus on state responsibility and the absolute character of prohibition. 

At a recent panel discussion, hosted by the Global Governance Institute in collaboration with the UCL Institute of the Americas, UCL Laws and the SOAS Centre for Human Rights Law, three eminent practitioners within the field provided their insights: Sir Malcolm Evans, Chair of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture; Carla Ferstman, Director of REDRESS - a human rights organisation obtaining justice and reparation for torture survivors; and John Wadham, Chair of the UK National Preventative Mechanism. 

Malcolm Evans: Confronting the Reality of Torture

Evans provided an illuminating discussion, as he encouraged policy-makers and practitioners to take a step back and consider the more general aspects of the problems that exist in the field. His core argument was this: we must confront the reality of torture in order to achieve effective prevention. Running through contemporary torture prevention practice is a tendency to fixate on technical, compliance-related aspects of the problem. However, this can blind us from the reality of what torture is today. As Evans argued, in many countries, torture is "just routine" and not as exceptional as it is often made out to be. 

In areas across the torture prevention field, we are prone to projecting onto the world our assumptions about what situations should be, rather than accepting what situations really are. Though it is important to have standards, we must ensure that such standards can be met in the circumstances we are addressing. We may have a clear idea of how policing, prisons, medical practitioners, lawyers and judicial authorities should function; but the reality for many countries, whereby corruption and ineffectiveness seep into all of these spheres, means that they do not function as they should. When this is the case, standard approaches are not going to allow for effective torture prevention. Rather than projecting idealised solutions onto idealised systems which do not exist, Evans stressed that the challenge of effective torture prevention is owning up to its difficulties and confronting the realities of the variated circumstances that we are addressing.

Carla Ferstman: The Experience of Torture and Examining Policy Detail

Ferstman's contribution shifted our focus to the experience of torture victims themselves. Torture fundamentally is about the abuse of power - the implications of this run deep. Having violence imposed upon you by someone meant to protect you is disorienting: it has long-term, mental consequences. Crucially, the experience of torture transforms the victim's relationship with the state. This insight is invaluable; an understanding of torture from the perspective of the victim should be vital to any effective policy on torture.

Ferstman highlighted the British government's repeated use of the phrase: "We abhor torture". Rhetorically, their stance is clear. However, we must examine the policy and practice underpinning such a stance; in doing so, detail is crucial.

To consider such detail, Ferstman posed a series of questions. To what extent is the government standing up to its principled position with respect to 'friendly' governments abroad that perpetrate torture? Is the government doing enough to ensure that UK territory is not a safe haven for foreign torturers? And finally, to what extent has there been an independent and effective investigation of allegations of use of torture within the military and within immigration detention centres? These are only some of the questions that should be asked to identify key challenges for future policy and to ensure that our government complies with every aspect of its rhetorical stance in practice.

John Wadham: Inspecting the Problems Within Our System

Wadham chairs the UK National Preventative Mechanism (NPM), designed to prevent torture and inhumane or degrading treatment through the inspection and monitoring of every place of detention within the UK. Britain has a historical tradition of people going to prisons to inspect conditions; with the arrival of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), this practice is now subject to higher level requirements from the United Nations. 

Wadham provided an insightful overview of the NPM's findings, conveying how rife ill-treatment really is in this country. Levels of violence continue to rise in UK prisons and bad conditions, such as overcrowding, threaten the health of detainees. Confinement for excessive periods of time, sometimes in conditions akin to solitary confinement, is common in prisons, as well as in juvenile detention centres and psychiatric hospitals. People within immigration detention centres, who have not committed any offence, have been subject to assault and abuse. Women are often not provided with adequate or any sanitary protection. Detainees, including women and children, are often not protected from self-harm or suicide. 

So Wadham asked, given the preventive work that the NPM is tasked with, why are such issues still prevalent? Acknowledging that they must continue to raise the bar on their work, he also pointed to two wider problems which limit his organisation's work. Firstly, it must be assigned more resources by the government. Secondly, its mandate needs to be set out in legislation, as it currently has no clear legislative grounding. Unless these shortcomings are remedied, these daunting instances of ill-treatment around the UK cannot be overcome. 

Three Avenues for Analysing Torture Prohibition: The Technical, the General and the Victim's Experience

Bringing each perspective together, it seems that there are three avenues through which we should consider the policy and practice of torture prohibition today.

The first avenue concerns the technical aspects of complying with international obligations on torture prohibition. From abuse within immigration detention centres, to providing safe havens for foreign torturers, there is much that needs to be remedied in the UK. 

But we should not let the technical issues blind us from more general, pressing challenges. As Evans urged, we must confront the reality of torture. What ought to be done needs to be connected to what can be done; we therefore cannot have a debate about effective torture prohibition based on idealised models of reality.

Finally, whether looking at general or more specific aspects of torture prohibition, we must retain an understanding of the victim's experience throughout. Victims of torture and ill-treatment have experienced an affront to human dignity and often can no longer feel confidence in their state. To tackle torture prohibition effectively, policy-makers and practitioners must keep this at the forefront of their concerns.

The video of the panel discussion is available at: VIMEO: The Prohibition of Torture: Still a Valid Concern for UK Policy and Practice?

For interviews with panel members and other experts on torture prohibition and prevention, please refer to the GGI Interviews section.

For an overview of the core international treaties, institutions and mechanisms associated with the prohibition and prevention of torture, please refer to: GGI Explainer: Torture Prohibition and Prevention [PDF]