Article 3: No torture, inhuman or degrading treatment

Posted by Sabina Frediani on 16 September 2011

In this latest entry in our blog series explaining the small bundle of rights and freedoms contained in the Human Rights Act, and debunking the misunderstandings around it, we’re turning our attentions to Article 3: no torture, inhuman or degrading treatment.

No torture is one of the most important provisions in the Act. Unsurprisingly it’s also an absolute right – under no circumstances is it ever justifiable to torture someone.

“Torture” means cruel acts used to deliberately cause serious suffering. Treatment is considered “inhuman” when it causes severe physical or mental suffering. And “degrading treatment” means actions that humiliate a person beyond the norm expected from punishment.

The UK has several obligations under Article 3. Some are negative (stopping authorities from doing certain things) and some are positive (requiring the State to take certain action).

The most obvious obligation prevents State officials from torturing anyone. This applies anywhere under UK jurisdiction, which can include places outside this country. Article 3 also makes clear our courts must not admit evidence obtained through torture – even if it wasn’t actually committed by UK authorities. Another requirement means the Government cannot deport someone to another country where they face a real risk of torture. Article 3 also demands an official investigation if there are credible allegations of serious ill-treatment by public officials. Finally, authorities are required to take steps to prevent torture – including protecting vulnerable groups from it.

It’s not difficult to see why such a right exists and why it’s so important. Following the horrors of the Second World War with images of Holocaust survivors and Prisoners of War fresh in minds, the international community understandably made certain an absolute ban on torture was central to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But in the UK Article 3 has been used to protect the rights of many different groups of people, including prisoners in Northern Ireland subjected to degrading interrogation techniques such as stress positions, hooding and sleep and food deprivation. Children seriously neglected by their parents after social services refused to act have also been protected by Article 3, as have elderly residents kept in dirty, unsanitary conditions in nursing homes and disabled people treated inhumanely by their carers.

Recently Article 3 has again proved significant during the ill-judged and misnamed “War on Terror”. Under the Article, countries also must not condone or become complicit in torture. But our Government has repeatedly attempted to sidestep, ignore and undermine its obligations. We have seen evidence of UK involvement in the CIA’s post 9/11 programme of extraordinary rendition – the transfer of detainees to foreign countries for interrogation where they face a real risk of torture – and in 2009 the Government admitted to misleading Parliament over the practice.

All of which helped inspire Liberty’s No Torture No Compromise campaign, which continues to challenge the Government’s attempts to water down the vital protection that Article 3 provides.

WATCH OUR COMMON VALUES VIDEO: Janis Sharp talks about how Article 3 of the Human Rights Act helped prevent the extradition of her son Gary McKinnon

WATCH OUR COMMON VALUES VIDEO: Former British Army lieutenant colonel Nicholas Mercer talks about how the Human Rights Act has helped to protect prisoners of war

WATCH OUR COMMON VALUES VIDEO: Janet Alder, whose brother Christopher died in police custody, talks about the importance of the Human Rights Act in fighting injustice


  • For more information on the "right to life", visit our Article 3 page on the Liberty website;
  • For more information on Liberty's torture campaign visit the No Torture No Compromise homepage;
  • Respond here to the Government's Commission on whether we need a British Bill of Rights - and tell them that we've already got one called the Human Rights Act.