No torture

"No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Article 3 of the Human Rights Act

Torture and ill-treatment are forbidden by both international law and law here in the UK. There are no circumstances whatsoever in which torture and ill-treatment can be justified, including in conflict, for counter-terrorism purposes or other threats of crime, or other religious or traditional justification. 

  • Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

  • The UN Convention Against Torture requires countries to take active steps to prevent torture and says “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever … may be invoked as a justification of torture”. 

In the UK, the Human Rights Act means we can raise the European Convention on Human rights (ECHR) in our courts. Article 3 ECHR says no one should ever be tortured or treated in an inhuman or degrading way, no matter what the situation. Torture means any act by which severe pain and suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on someone for the purposes of obtaining information, for punishment or intimidation.

Inhuman or degrading treatment is also prohibited. Treatment is considered inhuman when it causes intense physical or mental suffering. Treatment or punishment is degrading if it humiliates and debases a person beyond accepted forms of punishment.

The UK's Obligations

Regardless of the circumstances – even war or other public emergency – the UK can never opt-out of its obligation not to subject someone to torture or other ill-treatment. It is also prohibited for the UK to be complicit in torture or ill-treatment carried out by others.

In practice, the UK’s obligations mean that:

  • UK courts and tribunals may not rely on evidence obtained through torture. This applies regardless of which State carried out the torture or where it took place.
  • The Government can’t deport, extradite or otherwise send a person to a country where they face a real risk of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment.
  • This also applies when there is a real risk of torture evidence being admitted in court proceedings against the person being threatened with deportation or extradition.
  • The Government is required to carry out official, effective investigations into credible allegations of ill-treatment or torture by public officials.
  • The authorities must take positive steps to prevent torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. Law must be put in place to protect people from torture or ill-treatment. It also means public officials must act to protect people from harm inflicted by others.

The UK prides itself as a leader in the global fight against torture and other ill-treatment – but there are stark examples of failing to comply with its fundamental obligations.

UN Committee Against Torture – UK torture review

In May 2019, the UN Committee against Torture (UNCAT) carried out its sixth periodic review of the UK.

Liberty was on the steering committee of a project coordinated by REDRESS to present an ‘alternative’ report to UNCAT.

The report revealed the UK is failing to make meaningful progress and is taking backward steps in a number of areas ranging from immigration detention to police use of force.

In its recommendations, UNCAT noted the UK’s failure to address a number of priority issues that were identified by the Committee five years ago during the last review of the UK. It also highlighted a number of new areas of concern.

UK involvement in torture and rendition overseas

Human rights law bans the use of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. This requires not only that countries do not engage in torture or subject people to ill-treatment, but that they do not condone or become complicit in torture or ill-treatment carried out by others.

Despite this, increasing evidence has come to light of UK knowledge of, and involvement in, the CIA’s post 9/11 programme of extraordinary rendition and torture, as well as attempts to use information obtained through torture as evidence in UK courts.

The prohibition of torture under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights requires UK authorities to carry out an ‘effective’ investigation into complaints of violations of the right – and Liberty has been calling for a full, independent, judge-led inquiry since 2003.

But the Government has so far failed to establish an independent judge-led inquiry into allegations of UK complicity in torture overseas, despite mounting evidence.

In June 2018, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) published a damning report on UK involvement in detainee mistreatment and rendition between 2001 and 2010.

The Government then promised to make a decision and tell Parliament whether it would establish an inquiry within 60 days. It then missed its own deadline without an explanation. We are still waiting.

Join our campaign for a full, independent, judge-led inquiry.

UK 'torture policy'

In 2010, the Government published the Consolidated Guidance, a policy that deals with the detention and interrogation of people overseas and the passing and receipt of intelligence relating to detainees.

The stated purpose of the policy is to ensure that UK personnel “do not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment for any purpose”.

At the same time as it published its report on detainee mistreatment and rendition from 2001-2010, the ISC published a second report looking at current issues, focusing on the Consolidated Guidance. The ISC found the policy, its implementation and standard of review to be rife with problems. The chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition, Ken Clarke, said the Consolidated Guidance is “not fit for purpose”.

In response to the ISC’s scathing report, Prime Minister Theresa May asked the Investigatory Powers Commissioner to review the policy. There was a public consultation in 2018. Liberty’s submission can be found here.

Before the Commissioner’s recommendations could be published, a secret Ministry of Defence torture policy was revealed by the Times in May 2019 after it was obtained through a freedom of information request by the Rendition Project.

Shockingly, this policy expressly says that UK ministers can share information obtained from third parties where there is a “serious risk” of torture “if ministers agree that the potential benefits justify accepting the risk and the legal consequences that may follow”.

In response to this revelation, Liberty wrote to the IPC Sir Adrian Fulford to demand accountability.