The UK’s failure to address torture and ill-treatment has been laid bare – it’s time for the Government to act

14 May 2019

The UK Government’s abdication of its international obligations and troubling regression on torture and ill-treatment have been laid bare in a joint civil society report presented to the UN in Geneva last week.

Liberty has been on the steering committee of a broad coalition of 80 civil society organisations and was a key contributor to the 102-page “alternative” report, led by Redress and supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and submitted to the UN Committee Against Torture’s (UNCAT) five-year review of the UK.

Most striking about this report is the sheer breadth of the issues covered in relation to the UNCAT, highlighting the variety of settings in which torture and other forms of ill-treatment arise.

The report contains alarming evidence and damning case studies, including developments over the past five years across several of Liberty’s key areas of work, including:

Immigration and Asylum

  • The UK remains the only country in Europe with no limit on how long it keeps people in immigration detention, despite substantial evidence of the damage this does to those people’s mental and physical health. The Government has ignored the UNCAT’s previous calls, echoed by Liberty and many others, to impose a 28-day limit.
  • Torture survivors and others who have suffered ill-treatment – including children – continue to be placed in immigration detention, even when they have been found to be “at risk” (i.e. particularly vulnerable to harm in detention).

 Accountability for past offences

  • In its last review, the UNCAT called for a judge-led inquiry into allegations of torture overseas. Since then, two damning reports by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee exposed shocking new details of UK complicity in torture and rendition abroad, with UK agencies far more deeply and systemically involved in the US torture and rendition programme than had previously been publicly known.
  • The government has failed to establish this inquiry and thousands of cases of alleged ill-treatment in Iraq have been closed without full investigation.

Use of force

  • The use of tasers by police rose 43 per cent between 2011 and 2016. They cause serious pain, long-term injury and death, and are three times more likely to be used against black people.
  • Police use of spit hoods has also sharply risen and been linked to deaths as well as degrading treatment, and discrimination.

Ill-treatment in public facilities

  • An increasing number of people are being detained under the Mental Health Act and the Mental Capacity Act. We have concerns over the high use of seclusion and restraint, including the use of prone, mechanical and chemical restraint and a recent survey of 92 care home units in England found significant evidence of abusive and neglectful behaviour.
  • England and Wales continue to have the highest level of child incarceration in Western Europe and far too many children continue to be detained inappropriately, with self-harm by children in detention rising by 40 per cent to nearly 1,800 incidents in the last year.

Victims of crime

  • People at risk of serious violent crime are being put at risk by police forces who share information on victims with immigration enforcement. Many victims, particularly people without secure immigration statuses, are discouraged from reporting crime and continue to suffer abuse and exploitation.
  • This focus on immigration enforcement means police are not fully informed of ongoing crime. This runs counter to the police’s overarching duty to investigate serious crime and uphold public safety.

The causes of these disturbing developments are varied. The Government’s hostile environment policy has contributed to an increase in ill-treatment of migrants both at the hands of the state and private actors. Conditions in prisons and mental health facilities have deteriorated due to added strain on resources and police use of dangerous tools such as tasers and spit hoods has risen dramatically. Meanwhile, the future of the Human Rights Act – the most effective means by which people can enforce the rights UNCAT monitors – remains uncertain.

The UK prides itself as a global leader in the fight against torture, but at home and abroad, it is failing to live up to the reputation it sets itself. Over the five-year reporting period, it is evident that not only is the UK failing to make meaningful progress but also is in a number of crucial respects taking backward steps, eroding its commitment to the prohibition of torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

The UK must engage with the UNCAT review in a meaningful, open and transparent manner. It must take seriously the concerns raised both by the Committee itself and by the broad civil society coalition and implement its recommendations.

The prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment is absolute in international law. The UK must offer nothing short of a complete commitment to its obligations to end such abuse.

Download the full Civil Society Alternative Report here.