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Torture during Interrogations - Illegal, Immoral, and Ineffective

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein

22 September 2017

Excellencies,
Colleagues, Friends,

The torture and ill-treatment of persons suspected of crimes is not only deeply wrong, but from an interrogator's perspective, it is also counterproductive. Abundant scientific and historical evidence demonstrates that the information yielded by people who are being subjected to violence is unreliable. The torture of detainees, who are captive and cannot defend themselves, also creates enormous rage among their larger communities. By feeding the desire for vengeance, torture produces more hatred and more violence.

Still, there are many countries in which if you are arrested, you are extremely likely to be hit, abused or tortured. And this is far from limited to people suspected of involvement in terrorism. People who are in police custody for a very broad range of reasons are frequently subjected to torture or other forms of ill-treatment. This is particularly true in the first hours and days after their arrest, when – although they should benefit from the presumption of innocence – suspects may have no access to legal assistance or independent medical examination, and have not been brought before a judge.

Alarmingly, in the past, some States have resorted to using psychologists to design brutal interrogation methods such as waterboarding, forcing detainees into small containers, forcing them to hold painful positions for hours or slamming them into flexible walls.

Furthermore, conditions for detainees are often so squalid and inadequate that they may amount to torture or other forms of ill-treatment under the terms of the Convention against Torture. This is true even in numerous developed countries. To take just one example, I recently reviewed an allegation that a pre-trial detainee in one of the richest countries in the world had died after prison guards cut off his water supply for seven days, to punish him for a violent outburst – leading to his death from dehydration.

These abuses should matter, very deeply, to every member of the community. Not only do they violate the rights of the individuals concerned, they also corrode what should be the protective and principled function of every police force.

Officials required to enforce the law should not undermine the rule of law. If police break the law in pursuit of law enforcement, the message is one of capricious and abusive power. The institution which should protect the people becomes unmoored from principle; unresponsive to the law, it is a loose cannon. This destruction of public trust is profoundly damaging. When added to the perception that police abuses and humiliation of specific communities is tolerated – based on economic, geographic, ethnic, religious or other distinctions – it will certainly exacerbate tensions and may lead to serious violence.

It is essential that we narrow the gap between legal principle and practical implementation. I am particularly keen to learn about steps being taken in your countries to address this. What practical solutions have you found to ensure that methods of interrogation do not deploy violence? Are there guidelines to address the widespread over-reliance on confessions? How can the role of various legal and medical professionals be strengthened to prevent torture? Has there been successful training of law enforcement officials, and can we hope to see these methods reproduced in other countries?

My Office is already planning to co-create a Manual on Investigative Interviewing, with the Department of Peacekeeping Operation’s Police Division, for use by UN police officers. The Convention against Torture Initiative and the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights are also preparing guidance on investigative interviewing that does not rely on threats and brutality.

The former Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, has also called for development of a universal set of standards for non-coercive interviewing and procedural safeguards. I am strongly supportive of this initiative, and I look forward to your thoughts on how we can best approach this.

I am also keen to hear from you about effective measures to address conditions of detention so brutal they amount to torture.

Thank you