This week, the UK is facing UN scrutiny for its record on torture and ill-treatment at home and abroad. The UN Committee against Torture, the expert body that monitors implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment, will meet in Geneva to examine the UK’s record.
This review could not be more timely. This will be the first such UN review since the Intelligence and Security Committee’s reports exposed shocking new details of UK complicity in torture and rendition abroad, with UK agencies more deeply and systematically involved in the US “extraordinary rendition” programme than had previously been publicly known. It will also be the first review since the introduction of the “hostile environment” policy, whose cruel effects on the most vulnerable members of our society were laid bare during the Windrush scandal last year.
The UN review only takes place every four years, and is an unusual opportunity to hold the UK government to account for its record across the whole of government.
REDRESS, along with Liberty, Freedom from Torture, Children’s Rights Alliance for England (Just for Kids Law), Children in Wales and Disability Rights UK, have sent the Committee Against Torture a report they have compiled with evidence from around 80 civil society groups and experts on the steps taken by the UK to prevent torture and ill-treatment in England and Wales.
The report makes for sobering reading. Across the UK and in many different areas of governance, incidents of ill-treatment have got worse, not better, since the last review by the Torture Committee in 2013. The government abandoned its anti-torture strategy in 2015, and that decision has had an impact.
The number of violent incidents in prisons in England and Wales is at the highest rate in 10 years, self-harm incidents are up 20% on previous years, and half of prisoners report mental health problems, all of which are exacerbated by overcrowding, which has been an issue for 15 years.
When police numbers are cut, Chief Constables feel pressured to resort to technical responses to ensure the safety of officers. Tasers involve the infliction of severe pain in order to force a citizen to comply. While they should only be used in exceptional circumstances, their use has increased by 43% over five years and they are three times more likely to be used against black men and women. As their use becomes widespread, the risk further increases that they will be used inappropriately, against ethnic minorities, or with fatal results.
The report evidences shocking violations of children’s rights including the increasing use of restraint and isolation on disabled children and children in prison, the growing use of force on children by the police, and the criminalisation of child trafficking victims. Levels of child incarceration remain the highest in Western Europe.
Detentions under the Mental Health Act have increased by a staggering 36% since 2010, with evidence of rights violations in some cases.
The report also shows how the number of recorded hate crimes has more than doubled in the past five years, in part due to the terrorist attacks in 2017, and through instances of xenophobic, divisive and anti-immigrant rhetoric that have happened since the EU referendum in 2016.
The hostile treatment of torture survivors seeking asylum continues. Many arrive in the UK to get protection, only to find that their horrifying accounts are not believed by Home Office assessors, despite medical evidence supporting their claim. Around 40% of decisions refusing to recognise refugee status are then overturned on appeal. The UK also remains the only country in Europe where there is no time limit on immigration detention, and many torture survivors and vulnerable groups continue to be held in poor conditions despite having been found to be “at risk” of harm in detention by the Home Office.
Government figures suggest that there are up to 1,000 people present in the UK who may have been involved with war crimes or some other human rights violation. Yet in 10 years there have been only two prosecutions.
Overseas, the Intelligence and Security Committee report in June 2018 reviewing UK involvement in detainee mistreatment and rendition makes for shocking reading, with allegations that UK personnel committed acts of torture, stood by while others did so, or provided intelligence to foreign countries when they knew or suspected that detainees were being mistreated. Despite the Prime Minister’s promise to do so, there is still no proper judge-led inquiry into what went wrong. The “Consolidated Guidance” that governs interactions with foreign security services is currently being re-written.
In Northern Ireland, recently declassified official documents provide allegations that the authorities used waterboarding during interrogations in the 1970s, many years before this particular method of torture was commonly known. Other statements alleged electrocutions, rape, and burial alive. An investigation by Irish broadcaster RTÉ uncovered evidence that the use of the infamous “five techniques” of interrogation, condemned by the European Court of Human Rights in 1978, was authorised at the highest level, and that the authorities knew that the methods would cause lasting damage.
Efforts to investigate killings that took place during the Troubles have stalled. The 2014 Stormont House Agreement that created a framework for historical investigations into such deaths has yet to be put into law. But even if new laws are introduced, the investigations will not include those who were subjected to torture or ill-treatment, and who still live with the long-term physical and mental consequences, despite recommendations by a variety of UN experts for the scope of the historical investigations to be broadened.
At the same time, reports suggest that the government is intending to introduce a statute of limitations that will prevent many human rights violations being prosecuted once they are 10 years old. Giving immunity to one side fuels division and undermines peace. Torture is an international crime that doesn’t permit blanket amnesties, as courts around the world have repeatedly found.
The techniques developed in Northern Ireland were later deployed by the armed forces in Iraq in an apparently systematic way, with multiple cases of hooding and other forms of ill-treatment. While there have been some investigations, none of them have been able to find out who gave the order to deploy interrogation methods that were banned 40 years ago.
The civil society report shows how austerity and the deliberate creation of a hostile environment have contributed to an increase in ill-treatment of migrants and other vulnerable groups, including survivors of torture. Austerity is no excuse for torture and ill-treatment. Governments around the world are required to put in place policies and procedures that reduce the likelihood of such behaviour, and provide a budget for them. The UK insists as much when engaging with countries in the developing world to promote the “rule of law”.
This is a cultural problem. There is a culture of hostility, that dehumanises the individual; a culture of disbelief, which means torture survivors are not recognised as refugees; and a culture of denial, whereby serious allegations of torture overseas have not been properly addressed.
The UK has a long history of championing human rights and has long prided itself as a global leader in the fight against torture. For that to be credible, the UK must have a record that is unimpeachable. The government should revisit its 2015 decision to abandon a cross-governmental anti-torture policy, re-establish a comprehensive approach at the highest level, and introduce real reforms that can establish a culture of respect for human dignity.