Speech

Speech to mark the 10th Anniversary of OPCAT

UK determined to strengthen its voice in the international system on the important human rights priority of torture prevention.

Thank you, Malcolm, for that introduction.

Today is the tenth anniversary of the entry into force of the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture, or OPCAT as it is commonly known.

First, I would like to assure you that our multilateral work - particularly through the UN - is more important than ever for the future of the UK in the world. Following the EU Referendum vote last week, we remain absolutely determined to strengthen the UK’s voice in the international system, including on the important human rights priority of torture prevention.

As I travel in regions of the world where human rights are under very much threat, I often hear from leaders grappling with a problem of widespread torture within their security services, prisons and detention facilities. I hear a range of explanations and possible approaches to the problem:

“There is no torture here – we’ve made it illegal”

“If there is any torture, we’ll catch those responsible”

“We are facing terrible threats – terrorism, child abduction”

Whilst I sympathise with all those views, it is clear that whatever we are doing together to end torture is not yet working well enough. For 30 years now, the UN Convention against Torture has outlawed any use or tolerance of that practice, without exception, without possibility of derogation. Almost all countries in the world would say that they comply with this ban. So how is it that Amnesty International last year received reports of torture from 141 countries – three quarters of the United Nations’ membership? If we are all so clear that torture is abhorrent - a denial of the humanity of all involved – how does it come to take place almost everywhere?

The answer to this conundrum can be found, I believe, in the words of Lord Acton, a reforming 19th Century member of the House of the Lords, who famously said that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is sadly the case that whenever one man – and it invariably is a man – has power over another: the power of arbitrary detention, the power of enforced helplessness, the power to act with impunity – there will always be a tendency, a base temptation to exploit that power.

Torture thrives on secrecy and deniability; on lack of oversight. It thrives when prisoners are held alone, incommunicado, denied visits or representation. It thrives when convictions can be based on a forced confession alone, without investigation of the injuries the accused has acquired in custody.

This is where the OPCAT comes in. It is a truly modern, 21st century instrument, which goes beyond a simple declaration that torture is wrong. The OPCAT recognises that all detention systems can become places where torture happens: either by means of the festering development of a policy of abuse; or because individuals exploit their unchecked power of control over a helpless inmate. To eliminate that tendency requires oversight, vigilance and monitoring. A prison officer will not torture an inmate who is about to meet a prison visitor. An interrogator will not give way to excess if his actions are being monitored and overseen. A legal system where due process is respected will not tolerate duress.

The OPCAT’s focus on prevention is, of course, what potential future victims of torture worldwide would wish for. For Leopoldo Garcia, a victim of torture in Chile in the 1970s, there can never be complete remedy, as his suffering will never end. Mr Garcia recently told the organisation Redress – which I’m glad to say is represented here today – that:

“I’m alive, but it feels like a living death. Every time I comb my hair or shave, I see my scar and the fact that I have no teeth, and I think of Pinochet. My head hurts. I need a hearing aid to hear properly. I have trouble walking because they almost fractured my spine.”

We should work to prevent torture to ensure the next generation does not suffer what Mr Garcia has been through.

I am looking forward to hearing later from John Wadham on how the UK is working to implement the OPCAT in this country. I would like to make an open offer to friends here from the diplomatic corps. If you are interested by what you hear about the UK’s National Preventative Mechanism and would see value in a visit to your country or any type of information exchange, my officials in the Human Rights and Democracy Department, who are well represented in this room, would be very happy to set that up.

I am also keen to hear from Suzanne Jabour about her work promoting implementation and ratification of the OPCAT. On the basis of the UK’s positive experience of OPCAT, I call on all states that have not yet ratified or established a National Preventative Mechanism to do so.

To stimulate that process I have just approved a number of torture prevention projects to be funded by the Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy. That fund is spending around one and a half million pounds this year on initiatives to improve human rights within criminal justice systems globally. As part of that effort, an ambitious set of projects, which will be delivered in more than 20 countries, will work specifically to prevent torture and to promote the OPCAT. I am pleased that implementers of these projects are here today and that the total value of torture prevention work will be £725,000 this year, with more to follow next year. This is part of our commitment to the global rules based system, within which torture is neither tacitly condoned nor ignored, but is identified, rooted out and prevented.

Thank you all for coming to the Foreign and Commonwealth office today for this very important event. I look forward to hearing from John and Suzanne, and then to answering your questions. I can reassure you today of the UK’s commitment to being a strong voice in the UN, and to promoting ratification of OPCAT around the world.