Looking at torture closer to home: The Committee Against Torture’s review of the United Kingdom

What is torture?

When we talk about torture images spring to mind of people being mistreated in far-away places. But the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is not just about prisons, police custody and allegations of war crimes. The Convention is relevant to what happens in our care homes and hospitals and the way society’s most vulnerable groups – children, disabled people and asylum-seekers – are treated. It is also about human trafficking, violence against women and hate crimes.

The U.K. will be examined on its record

Next year the U.K. will undergo its 6th examination under the Convention. For two days during the 66th session (running from 22 April to 17 May 2019), representatives from the U.K. and devolved governments will be questioned on their human rights record in this area. The examination will cover a range of issues including the conditions in prisons, ill-treatment of patients receiving healthcare services and whether enough is being done to prevent hate crimes, tackle human trafficking and eliminate all forms of violence against women. At the end of the examination, the Committee against Torture will make recommendations to the U.K. and devolved governments setting out what they need to do to improve things.

Civil Society organisations need to get involved

For this process to be successful the committee needs to receive robust and up-to-date evidence on how the U.K. is failing to meet its obligations and on how things can be improved. And here lies the challenge… until now, the Convention has been used by a small number of organisations whose activities have focused on a relatively narrow set of issues: the treatment of prisoners overseas, allegations of human rights infringements by U.K. intelligence services, and the use of immigration detention and ill-treatment in detention. By raising the international community’s awareness of these issues, the evidence submitted by these organisations to the committee has played a crucial role in securing improvements in these areas.

More work to be done.

The U.K. Equality and Human Rights Commission of has recently organised a workshop on the Convention against Torture with over thirty civil society organisations attending. The full breadth of issues relevant to the Convention were discussed: migrants being deterred from using health services by the threat of deportation; disabled people being inappropriately placed in care homes, instead of receiving the support they need to live independently; disproportionate numbers of ethnic minority children subjected to Taser by the police; the rising number of Islamophobic, disability and transgender hate crimes in England and Wales; police failing to properly investigate allegations of violence against women, including rape, domestic violence, stalking and trafficking, and the harrowing conditions of thousands of domestic workers who are enslaved and exploited by their employers.

The U.K. Equality and Human Rights Commission is committed to supporting and building the capacity of civil society to provide the committee with the evidence it needs in advance of the U.K.’s examination. It has published a new Guide on the Convention against Torture, which provides practical information on how civil society organisations can contribute, will encourage organisations who might not have previously considered using the Convention to do so. Only this will ensure that the U.K. Government will be examined against the full list of issues that fall under the Convention. The efforts which civil society organisations make in the run-up to the examination will pay off. They will help to secure recommendations from the Committee against Torture that are targeted and evidence-based. Civil society organisations can then use these recommendations to advocate for particular changes in policy and legislation.

By Elena Jurado

Human rights and research, U.K. Equality and Human Rights Commission

For more information on the U.K. Equality and Human Rights Commission, please see here.

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