Prevention of torture

The prohibition of torture is one of the most compelling principles of international law and preventing torture and other ill-treatment is the focus of two major international treaties.

Hence there are many prescriptions for the action that states should take to protect people from torture: making torture a crime, excluding evidence gathered through torture, refusing to return people to situations where they are at risk of torture, reviewing rules and procedures for custody and interrogation, and establishing a mechanism for regular visits to places of detention. But which of these measures actually work to prevent torture? Are particular combinations of measures effective, and does this vary in different situations? Are there other political or social preconditions to preventing torture?

The Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT) commissioned Dr Richard Carver, Senior Lecturer in Human Rights and Governance, and Dr Lisa Handley, Visiting Research Academic at CENDEP, to lead a four-year multi-country study to determine whether torture prevention works and what are the factors that reduce the risk of torture. APT is a Geneva-based NGO that has had a major influence on the development of the international treaties against torture, as well as the development of national-level implementation of the treaty requirements. Management of the research process and publication of its findings we are completely independent of the APT.

Using tools and methodologies from several fields, including human rights law and the social sciences, Richard and Lisa designed and carried out a study to determine the effectiveness of torture measures. They looked at 16 countries over a 30-year period (1985-2014) and, using a combination of qualitative and quantitative techniques, examined the impact of four sets of preventive mechanisms on the incidence of torture: detention safeguards, investigation and prosecution of torturers, monitoring mechanisms, and complaints procedures.

The key finding of the study is the crucial importance of detention safeguards. All the analyses they conducted indicate that this has by far the strongest impact on the incidence of torture. The most important preventive mechanisms are those that ensure that individuals are held only in lawful, documented places of detention; that their families or friends are promptly notified of their arrest; that they have prompt access to a lawyer, as well as to a medical examination by an independent doctor; and that they are brought promptly before a judge. The risk of torture also declines when there is reduced reliance on confession evidence in criminal proceedings.

Investigation and prosecution of torturers (essentially the norms in the UN Convention Against Torture) and monitoring mechanisms (as set out in the Optional Protocol to the Convention) are also important. Complaints procedures, on the other hand, have no detectable impact on the incidence of torture.

This study, based on fieldwork in all 16 countries, underlines the importance of preventive mechanisms, particularly those that many human rights advocates have long believed are the most effective: safeguards in the first hours and days after arrest. The findings also underline that actual practice in police stations and detention centres is what matters – not treaties ratified or laws on the statute book.

Does Torture Prevention Work?, a book presenting the detailed findings of the research, is published by Liverpool University Press. In this video, Richard and Lisa give a short explanation of the methodology and findings of the study. This conference paper also provides a short summary of findings.

Please note that while this research is being carried out by a member of staff, it is not an official Oxford Brookes University project.

NB: in the “see also” box top right, please add the following links (below the first one, Association for the Prevention of Torture).