On December 12, 1997, the UN General Assembly proclaimed June 26 the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. The day was intended to ensure the total eradication of torture and the effective functioning of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The UN-led international commemoration of the day is an opportunity to call on all stakeholders, including the UN Member States, civil society, and individuals everywhere, to unite to support the hundreds of thousands of people worldwide who have been victims of torture and are still tortured today.
Despite benefiting from an absolute prohibition, the crime of torture is far from being effectively eradicated. The states’ involvement and complicity in hell is not just a characteristic of dictatorships or the usual suspects of human rights violations. The issue also continues to be challenging in countries with a decent human rights record.
In June 2018, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) of Parliament in the U.K., chaired by Dominic Grieve QC MP, published a report concluding that the U.K. may have been complicit in cases of torture and ill-treatment. The inquiry had not found any evidence to support a finding of direct involvement in the physical mistreatment of detainees. However, it did find “evidence of U.K. officers making verbal threats in nine cases”, “evidence of two cases in which U.K. personnel were directly involved in detainee mistreatment administered by others”, “13 incidents recorded where it appears that U.K. personnel witnessed at first hand a detainee being mistreated by others – such that it must have caused alarm and should have led to action”, “25 incidents recorded where detainees told U.K. personnel that others had mistreated them”, “128 incidents recorded where Agency officers were told by foreign liaison services (whether formally or informally) about instances of what appears to be detainee mistreatment” and “198 cases recorded where U.K. personnel received intelligence from liaison services obtained from detainees whom they knew had been mistreated or with no indication as to how the detainee had been treated but where, in our view, they should have suspected mistreatment.” The inquiry was concluded prematurely because of the lack of access to further information that would allow them to progress with their investigations.
In May 2019, the U.K. Government faced fresh criticism after it was accused of secretly developing a policy on torture (allegedly) contrary to the international legal standards. It was reported that, under a Ministry of Defense policy document dated November 2018, ministers could “approve passing information to allies even if there is a risk of torture if they judge that the potential benefits justify it.”
The allegations follow the sixth periodic review by the UN Committee Against Torture, which identified several concerns about the U.K.’s involvement or complicity in torture. The study highlighted “allegations of torture overseas, the transfer of detainees to Afghanistan, deportations to Sri Lanka, the prompt release and return to the United Kingdom of Shaker Aamer and transitional justice in Northern Ireland.”
The UN Committee Against Torture raised concerns that “while the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) received around 3,400 allegations of unlawful killings, torture, and ill-treatment, committed by the U.K. Armed Forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, no prosecutions for war crimes or torture resulted from its investigations.” The UN Committee urged the U.K. to “take all necessary measures to establish responsibility and ensure accountability for any torture and ill-treatment committed by U.K. personnel in Iraq from 2003 to 2009, specifically by establishing a single, independent, public inquiry to investigate allegations of such conduct.” The UN Committee further identified the U.K.’s failure to “establish an independent judge-led inquiry into allegations of torture overseas, including using complicity, as a result of the State party’s military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite previous assurances to this Committee.”
The international law standards on the prohibition of torture continue to be ignored even by those states that have voluntarily agreed to adhere to such provisions. This shows that soft measures currently in place to prohibit torture may not be sufficient to make a difference. And a difference is needed if we care about human rights and dignity.