Now we know that torture prevention works!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Over the past 30 years, a number of important steps have been taken to prevent torture and other ill-treatment around the world. There has been, however, very little research into the effectiveness of these efforts. In 2011, we therefore commissioned an in-depth research to address the big question: “Does Torture Prevention Work?”.

This study has now been published and provides us with a better understanding of which measures are the most effective in reducing the risks of torture.

Independent researchers Richard Carver and Lisa Handley took on their task with open minds and much determination as such research had not been done before. The study, involving a team of more than 20 researchers, covers a 30-year period (1985-2014) and includes 14 country studies: United Kingdom, Chile, Hungary, Israel, Indonesia, Peru, South Africa, Georgia, Tunisia, Turkey, Ethiopia, India, Kyrgyzstan and the Philippines.

As a result, we now have some solid evidence that we are on the right track. Yes, torture prevention does work: “Both the case studies and quantitative analysis tell us that the risk of torture fall substantially when preventive mechanisms are in place, especially when proper detention safeguards are practiced.”

The study illustrates that torture can occur in very diverse socio-political environments and circumstances and that prevention therefore is necessary everywhere and at all times. However, it is clearly the first hours and days of police custody that are the most critical, and where the risk of torture can be significantly reduced by safeguards that ensure that:

  • individuals are held only in lawful, documented places of detention;
  • their families and friends are notified of their arrest;
  • they have prompt access to a lawyer; and
  • they are examined by an independent doctor.

The findings also show that investigating and prosecuting torturers and having independent monitoring of detention centres and prisons make important contributions to preventing torture. Complaints mechanisms, however, had no measurable impact.

Overall, the researchers found a significant gap between law and practice. What matters in order to reduce the risk of torture is not laws on the statute book but practice in the police station. Their conclusion is that reforming law is only the first step and that changing detention practices should be the end objective of any anti-torture effort.

Direct and indirect effects of monitoring bodies

The study did not seek to evaluate the effectiveness of monitoring bodies under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT). Only two of the countries studied had an operational National Preventive Mechanism in place during part of the period covered by the research. The findings, however, demonstrate that monitoring bodies have a clear effect on reducing torture. Reversely, a lack of public oversight and absence of independent monitoring contributes to the prevalence of torture.

Carver and Handley also stress that many improvements in detention safeguards (which definitively reduces the risk of torture) originate in monitoring body reports. “Monitoring”, they write, “can also be effective by identifying systemic problems and promoting reforms of law and practice”.

A key factor in reducing torture is the reliance on confession evidence in criminal proceedings. When police investigators use alternative forms of evidence, the motive for, and risk of, torture declined.

So what are the implications of this? The researchers highlight the need of professional training: “The case studies revealed that it is very important to equip police, custodial and medical personnel with the professional skills they require to carry out their work effectively. Police who have poor investigation skills and rely on confessions to solve crimes will often resort to torture and ill-treatment to produce these confessions. Poorly trained lawyers with close ties to the police are more likely to turn a blind eye to torture and ill-treatment. Medical staff who lack the forensic skills to detect torture will often miss it.

In their concluding remarks, Carver and Handley have a simple recommendation to monitoring bodies: Spend more time visiting police stations and other detention centres where suspects are initially held in custody!

This research provides us with a wealth of important insights, which has already to a great extent informed the thinking behind APT’s new 4-year strategic plan. In a few weeks we will publish a short paper to further introduce the research and its implications for policies and actions on torture prevention. We hope that the research can now become a source of reference and information for debate and an inspiration for all actors contributing to a torture free world.

Photo copyright: ICRC