Strengthening human rights protection in the first hours of police custody: the potential of the Méndez Principles

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Six months after their launch, the Méndez Principles are increasingly recognised as a primary source of guidance to afford greater respect for human rights during investigations, particularly in the first hours of police custody. As we celebrate Human Rights Day, our hope is for the Principles to be progressively enshrined in law and practice, and that they will serve as a compass to guide countries’ respect for their human rights and torture prevention obligations.  

The Méndez Principles were officially launched on 9 June 2021. Half a year later, a growing number of international, regional and national actors have welcomed the Principles as a key instrument to shift away from confession-driven interrogation techniques to non-coercive interviewing methodologies, in full respect of human rights. Today, we take a moment to reflect, looking back and looking forward.

 

Take away 1 - A human rights based approach to interviewing

While not a training manual, the Méndez Principles provide concrete guidance for policy- and decision-makers on how to strengthen human rights protection in the administration of justice and, at the same time, obtain accurate and reliable information during investigations.

The Principles are founded on the recognition that “the most frequent settings where torture and coercion takes place is in the course of interrogation of suspects and for the purpose of obtaining confessions”. They offer a human rights-based approach to interviewing that ensures interviews are carried out with the highest levels of professionalism, careful planning and rigorous evaluation. Notably, the Principles are grounded on the premise that key detention safeguards – such as the right to access to a lawyer, the right to medical examination and the right to promptly notify a family member or a third party – are respected in practice. This will not only improve the outcome of investigations but will further assist States comply with international human rights obligations on torture prevention, as well as strengthen legal and procedural safeguards that should be implemented at all stages of the investigatory process, particularly during the first hours of custody.

 

Take away 2 - Emerging practice supporting the Principles

Significantly, the launch of the Méndez Principles promptly generated a growing practice by international and regional actors to promote their use as a practical guide on the effective conduct of interviews, while respecting human rights and related safeguards.   

On the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the EU High Representative / Vice-President Josep Borrell welcomed the Principles and highlighted their role in ensuring “respect of human rights and dignity of all, including through the implementation of legal and procedural safeguards in the first hours of police custody." The European Committee on the Prevention of Torture (CPT) also played a pivotal role, being the first regional human rights body to publicly endorse the Méndez Principles and call for their promotion across all 47 Council of Europe member States in July.

Of particular significance is the emerging practice of UN treaty bodies to refer to the Méndez Principles in their work. In its Concluding Observations on Belgium in August, the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) called on the State party to be guided by the Principles to comply with its international obligations under article 10 of the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) on education and training of all law enforcement personnel. Further, in December, in its Concluding Observations on Sweden, the CAT commended the State party’s initiatives to integrate the Méndez Principles in order to amend its policies and procedures in compliance with the UNCAT. Equally important, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) recently made a statement welcoming the Principles and underlined their relevance for police and others on how to obtain, accurate and reliable information, while respecting human rights and legal and procedural safeguards.

In parallel with these developments at the international and regional levels, the Principles have received support at the national level. Importantly, several oversight bodies have expressed strong interest in using the Méndez Principles in their monitoring and preventive work and some initiatives to integrate the Principles in local policies and procedures were announced to be launched over the last months.

Last but not least, a wide range of UN experts, institutions and organisations have expressed their support for the Méndez Principles as a vital instrument that will prevent torture and ill-treatment during interviews, including during the first hours of police custody. These include regional actors, such as the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), as well as NGOs, academia and other national institutions.

 

Take away 3 - The way forward

It is clear that there is growing momentum to make the shift from ineffective interrogation practices to interviews that enable better human rights protection and adhere to procedural safeguards.

It is our hope that this emerging practice will contribute to global endorsement of the Méndez Principles and that consistent reference to the Principles will assist with their implementation in law and practice at the national level.

To achieve this, a consistent and committed effort is required by all relevant stakeholders: chiefly, international and regional organisations, UN and regional human rights bodies, oversight institutions, national authorities – in particular, criminal justice actors – and others in charge of designing, reviewing and overseeing interviewing policies and practices, in line with international human rights obligations.

Over the next year, the APT will work closely with these actors and its partners to help build understanding, support and implementation of the Méndez Principles.

On this Human Rights Day, we invite you to join this global movement and support the progressive integration of the Méndez Principles into law and practice. Together, we can prevent torture.

 

 

This article is the first of a series of APT articles that explore the Méndez Principles from different angles and their contribution to torture prevention and implementation of legal and procedural safeguards, particularly in the first hours of police custody.

The Méndez Principles are currently available in multiple languages – including Arabic, English, Filipino, French, Malay, Spanish, and Portuguese – with more to be added.

Further resources on the Principles are available online, including information on how to support the Principles, as well as a video series featuring insights from police and international human rights experts.

Staff members