GENEVA (21 April 2016) - The Committee against Torture this afternoon concluded its consideration of the seventh periodic report of France on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Presenting the report, Elisabeth Laurin, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations Office at Geneva, underlined the importance of prevention mechanisms being allowed to visit detention facilities, and presented measures to strengthen the mandate of the Inspector General for places of deprivation of liberty and to better protect those filing complaints to it. Significant action had been taken to combat prison overcrowding, including an ambitious programme creating 6,500 additional places and a law aiming to standardize alternatives to detention. A law adopted in July 2015 aimed at strengthening the rights of asylum seekers and improving the efficiency of the asylum mechanism. It had standardized individual interviews by the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons and set up the possibility for asylum seekers to be assisted by a lawyer. A fast-track procedure for the process of asylum requests had been established with the same safeguards for asylum seekers, including the possibility to form suspensive appeals to the National Asylum Court.
During the dialogue, Experts welcomed the adoption by France of new legislation on asylum procedures, but raised questions with regards to the possibility of forming suspensive appeals to expulsion decisions and with regards to the definition of a “safe country”. Experts were concerned that France had not adopted a definition of torture identical to the one in the Convention, and regretted that torture was not considered an imprescriptible crime under French law. The Committee was also concerned about the fact that those accused of drug trafficking or terrorism-related offenses could be denied access to a lawyer during the first stages of their detention. Overcrowding in prisons, as well as abuses against detainees, including prolonged isolation and full-body searches, were matters of great concern as well. Committee Members asked additional questions regarding France’s response to cases of sexual abuse by French troops in the Central African Republic, and with regards to France’s counter-terrorism measures and the impact of the state of emergency on the protection of human rights.
The delegation of France included representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, and the Permanent Mission of France to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee will next meet in public on Thursday, 21 April at 3 p.m., to conclude its consideration of the third periodic report of Tunisia (CAT/C/TUN/3).
The seventh periodic report of France can be read here: CAT/C/FRA/7.
Presentation of the Report
ELISABETH LAURIN, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations Office at Geneva, presenting the report, said the French Government was committed to cooperating with the civil society sector and with the National Consultative Commission for Human Rights. France was committed to the absolute prohibition of torture, and had ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 30 years ago. On 11 November 2008, France had acceded to the Optional Protocol to the Convention. It actively promoted the ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. France had also ratified the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention). France was committed to fully cooperating with the Committee against Torture on these issues. Although the situation was not perfect, progress had been achieved since France’s last review.
Violations of international law, such as torture and inhumane treatment, were often hidden, hence the importance of prevention mechanisms being allowed to visit detention facilities. The mandate of the Inspector General for places of deprivation of liberty had been reinforced with the possibility for it to receive individual complaints, to seek information from all concerned actors, and to make observations to the relevant authorities. The law also offered greater protection to those seeking the Inspector’s assistance. Significant action had been taken to combat prison overcrowding, including an ambitious programme creating 6,500 additional places and closing 1,082 outdated ones. In 2014, a law had sought to standardize alternatives to detention, including open space probation sentences. The European Union Committee for the Prevention of Torture had noted in November 2015 that these reforms had not led to change yet, and that efforts needed to continue.
A law adopted in July 2015 aimed at reforming asylum procedures. It had been drafted on the basis of broad consultations, including with the United Nations Refugee Agency, non-governmental organizations and European Union directives on the matter. The law sought to strengthen the rights of asylum seekers and improve the efficiency of asylum mechanisms, and to offer a better and more equal welcome to asylum seekers, while focusing on the most vulnerable. Measures included a generalization of individual interviews by the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons, and the possibility for asylum seekers to be assisted by a lawyer, hence strengthening the transparency of the decision-making process. A fast-track procedure for the process of asylum requests had been established, ensuring that the asylum seeker had the same safeguards as when enrolled in a normal procedure. The only difference pertained to shorter examination delays. The Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons could decide to place an asylum seeker back under a normal procedure, in case this was necessary for conducting a thorough examination or in light of the vulnerability of the concerned person. Asylum seekers placed under this fast-track procedure had the possibility to form suspensive appeals to the National Asylum Court. Additionally, maintained detention of an asylum seeker was no longer automatic, and could only be decided if the asylum request sought to thwart an expulsion. This decision was subjected to suspensive appeal before administrative courts. A new law of March 2016 provided that a foreigner accompanied with children should be given priority for alternative measures to detention.
Questions by the Experts
ALESSIO BRUNI, Committee Member and Country Co-Rapporteur for France, said that France believed that the inclusion of a definition of torture in line with the Convention into its domestic law was not necessary. He noted that France referred to jurisprudence on this issue, and asked for examples of cases in which torture was defined by courts. He was concerned that France refused to raise torture as an imprescriptible crime, and reiterated the Committee’s pressing recommendation in that regard. He noted that torture was only considered imprescriptible by France when constituting an element of a crime under the Rome Statute, committed against a large number of people, but expressed the view that the gravity of torture did not require that multiple persons had been subjected to it.
The Expert noted that France had been hit by terrorist attacks, but stressed the importance that it continued to respect the rights of detainees nonetheless. He echoed concerns already raised by the United Nations Human Rights Committee with regards to article 706-88 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which provided that access to a lawyer could be postponed to 72 hours for those accused of drug trafficking or terrorism. Furthermore, consultations with a lawyer in these cases were limited to 30 minutes. He called on France to allow direct access to a lawyer, in order to remove any doubt of secret detention and torture.
He welcomed the generalization of video recording for police interrogations, which had been recommended by the Committee during France’s previous review, but regretted that cameras had not been installed in corridors of police offices, where abuse could also take place.
When detainees filed complaints to the Inspector General about places of deprivation of liberty, how did the authorities ensure their protection against reprisals?
Despite measures taken by the Government, prison overcrowding continued in Marseille, Paris and Nimes, the Co-Rapporteur noted. The worst detention conditions were in French Polynesia and other overseas territories. He asked what reasons were behind this chronic overcrowding in overseas territories, and whether France had ever conducted studies on how to resolve it. What was being done to prevent delinquency? Was deprivation of liberty used more often in overseas territories than in France’s mainland territory?
Turning to the issue of suicide in prison, he noted that despite the adoption of a national action plan on this issue, the number of suicides in France remained one of the highest in Europe.
Those placed in disciplinary wings and isolation were increasingly at risk of committing suicide, he regretted, noting with concern that such placement could last up to 30 days, while United Nations standards prohibited such isolation for more than 15 days. Isolation was also applied in psychiatric hospitals, sometimes for more than 20 hours per day and for several months.
Mr. Bruni asked what was being done in cases where a detainee refused to undergo a full-body search. He referred to a recent condemnation of France by the European Court of Human Rights, after detainees were subjected to body searches by hooded security officers, and asked whether this practice continued.
On secure detention, the Co-Rapporteur referred to a report by a national commission, which concluded that such sentences should be repealed from the law, and asked whether the Government would follow-up on that.
With regards to asylum, he asked whether asylum seekers could file complaints for abuses against them, and whether investigations had been carried out. He referred specifically to allegations of violence by law enforcement personnel against migrants in Calais. He also asked for information on specific cases when appeals before the Asylum Court did not suspend expulsion decisions, and asked what were the parameters for defining a “safe country”.
JENS MODVIG, Chairperson of the Committee and Country Co-Rapporteur for France, asked for information on training provided to police officers on the provisions of the Convention. He asked whether this training had had a particular impact on reducing the number of cases of abuse by police officers. Private security guards had to hold a professional certification, and could only use violence in cases of self-defence, he noted, asking for information about reports, investigations and prosecutions in cases of violence by private security guards. He regretted the lack of information on the training of health professionals dealing with detainees on the detection of abuses under the Convention.
The Committee Chairperson applauded the adoption of a law to encourage alternatives to detention in order to reduce prison overcrowding. Mr. Modvig noted that the prison population had however increased. The situation in the Ducos prison in Martinique and in the Baumette prison in Marseille was of particular concern. He noted the decision by France to build new prisons, and asked whether France would adopt a complete shift of its imprisonment policy.
He noted the particular vulnerability of prisoners in psychiatric institutions, as recently highlighted by Human Rights Watch. He asked how many persons in these institutions were kept in solitary confinement?
With regards to complaint mechanisms, the Expert was concerned about the lack of transparency on complaints concerning acts of torture by law enforcement officials and asked for detailed statistics in that regard, including on prosecutions, sentences and reprisals. The Expert noted that victims often did not report abuses against them, and asked what procedures were available to them.
Were there rehabilitation programmes for torture victims? What was being done to ensure that asylum seekers were provided with appropriate treatment for victims of torture? What was being done to prevent “refoulement” of asylum seekers?
Concerning allegations of sexual abuse against children by French soldiers in the Central African Republic, the Chairperson welcomed that investigations had been carried out. He asked for updated information on pending investigations, and whether additional investigations would be initiated. What reparation would be provided to the victims? Another member of the Committee echoed these concerns, including with regard to “food for sex” claims. She wanted to know more about what really happened, and why it took so long for cases to be lodged. Had anyone been held accountable? Was there any specific transfer of any member of the concerned force? Had there been any policy change with regards to the supervision of peacekeepers? If not, what would be done to prevent further crimes and to ensure greater accountability? It was of great concern that new allegations continued to appear.
The Chairperson, joined by other Experts, noted concerns with regard to violations of the rights of intersex children, including involuntary treatment.
Forced eviction of Roma people had affected many women and children, the Expert said, asking what measures had been taken to ensure the resettlement of concerned populations.
A Committee Member then raised the issue of violence against women. She noted new available information about the extent of trafficking in France and the sizable number of convictions for such cases. She noted that special measures had been taken for the protection of victims, and that France’s report showed that a high number of victims were Nigerians.
An Expert referred to the problem of radicalization of prisons, and noted that France had adopted a de-radicalization programme. She said that such programmes existed in many countries in the Middle East, and asked what were the results and objectives of this programme in France.
Hate crimes against migrants, Roma, Jews and Muslims were on the rise in France, an Expert noted, asking for information about investigations and prosecutions of the perpetrators of such violence. The Expert noted that France had taken measures to prevent such crimes and to protect vulnerable populations, but added that the absence of disaggregated data on the victims may prevent the adoption of effective measures.
On the issue of body searches, a Committee Member noted the risk of abuse and denial of a person’s physical integrity for security reasons.
An Expert welcomed the fact that law enforcement personnel were trained on the use of non-lethal firearms.
A Member of the Committee noted the importance of combatting terrorism, but echoed concerns raised by non-governmental organizations regarding measures taken in the framework of the state of emergency, including the forced eviction of persons, and insisted on the need for counterterrorism policies to be fully in line with human rights standards, including the right to privacy. Another Expert noted with concern that measures taken in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, including house arrests and searches, had seemed to target specifically the Muslim population.
An Expert asked what would be done to ensure that acts of torture were subjected to universal jurisdiction.
With regards to the migration crisis, an Expert required detailed information about the situation in Calais. It seemed that the authorities did not know what to do with these people. The Expert noted that the recent agreement between the European Union and Turkey had been criticized by United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations, and asked questions on the parameters for defining “safe country” and oversight mechanisms within the agreement.
Replies by the Delegation
In response to these questions and comments, the delegation said that France was facing an unprecedented context as a result of terrorist attacks perpetrated on its territory, and of the migration crisis. The Government was committed to uphold human rights in responding to these challenges, and welcomed the opportunity to discuss these issues openly with the Committee.
With regards to suicide in detention, a delegate said that a national action plan, launched on 15 June 2009, focused on strengthening training for prison staff in assessing potential suicides; applying specific protection measures for detainees at risk of suicide; developing a multidisciplinary approach as a tool for identifying potential suicides; combatting the sense of isolation in disciplinary blocks; and engaging the whole prisoner community. Support units had been set up in three prisons, and eight additional prisons were currently developing such units, with a view to provide assistance to detainees. Since 2009, persons placed in disciplinary cells were provided with a radio in order to limit their isolation from the outside world. More generally, there were discussions about providing disciplinary wings with monitoring mechanisms to develop increased quality assistance to those detained there. Protection measures had led to better detection and to a drop in the number of suicides in prisons, as well as in the number of suicide attempts since 2009. There had however been a rise in 2015.
With regard to access to healthcare in prisons, a delegate said that detainees had the same level of healthcare as any other person. There were healthcare centres for care longer than for a 24 hour period, psychiatric care centres and mobile care units available to detainees. Within prisons, healthcare units were open during weekdays upon appointment, and detainees could be given emergency treatment, as well as counselling.
On full-body searches, a delegate said that the problem of the introduction of illicit products in prisons had to be tackled. Prisons were equipped with metal detectors. There had been a fall in the number of full-body searches carried out, followed by an increase in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in France. Full-body searches were decided upon on a case-by-case basis, and the decisions to carry them out were recorded in the prison’s database. Prison personnel had increasingly been receiving training programmes on body searches.
Secure detention had been established by Act No. 2008-174 of 25 February 2008, and was only possible for those individuals accused of the most serious crimes, including acts of torture and barbarity. Although this practice was rarely used, a review study on this practice was currently being carried out. The issue of secure detention was being looked at with all other sentences across the French judicial system.
Turning to the issue of asylum, a delegate said that significant progress had been made. There had been measures to ensure the suspensive nature of an appeal to an asylum court. A new law had created a fast-track procedure for the process of asylum requests, with three sets of appeal made available. The only difference between fast-track and normal procedures was related to delays. The safeguards were the same. Only in exceptional instances specifically listed in the law could an application for asylum be considered under the priority procedure, in which case the appeal before the Court did not have suspensive effect. This was the case when the asylum seeker was from a country considered safe, when the presence of the asylum seeker constituted a threat to public safety, or when the application for asylum was fraudulent or had been submitted only to thwart an expulsion. France had strict criteria for defining a “safe country”.
Complaints regarding violence against detainees could be lodged in writing or by telephone to the Defender of Rights, with protection of the confidentiality of the victim. Once the prison administration had been alerted, an inquiry was conducted independently, and all necessary measures would be taken for the protection of the complainant. The Inspector General and the lawyer of the detainee played an oversight role. The Inspector-General for Detention Facilities had the mandate to visit detention facilities. Its recommendations were given high attention by the Government.
Prison overcrowding was an endemic problem in France, a delegate noted. This affected detainees’ access to healthcare and rehabilitation, as well as detention conditions. This also had an adverse effect for the quality of work of prison personnel. For these reasons, addressing overcrowding was a priority for the Ministry of Justice. The budget allocated to improving prison conditions had been strengthened, and measures were being taken to renovate facilities. There was a need to adopt criminal policies in line with that goal, and France had taken measures to strengthen the use of alternatives sentences. The problem was to create extra capacity while ensuring good living conditions and closing down obsolete facilities. The situation in overseas territories was more difficult as resources were insufficient and criminality rates were higher. There also were not so many associations there, and rehabilitation initiatives were lacking. In 2012, the Prisons Administration had called upon other Governmental agencies to undertake a study on security and renovation needs, which resulted in guidelines and recommendations implemented through the “Furnishings Programme” and aimed at achieving better living conditions for inmates.
Non-custodial sentences, as a mean to address overcrowding, had increased and were more and more pronounced by judges. Such sentences could either be alternatives to pre-trial detention or remission sentences. The Government had developed a range of measures to promote such sentences, in particular since 2012. France had a wide-range of non-custodial sentences, including community service and suspended sentence for a trial period. Since 2012, judges could hand down “criminal restriction”, which was a new non-custodial sentence in an open setting, for certain individuals in need of specific and personal attention. Probations or conditional releases, as well as electronic bracelets, were also used as alternatives to detention.
The Prisons Administration had collaborated with other agencies to implement projects for the de-radicalization of detainees. France was a secular country, and did not in any way try to convince detainees to change their religion. Rather, the goal was to convince them to practice the religion of their choice in a non-radical manner. These measures did not only target those imprisoned on terrorism charges.
Full-body searches could only be carried out by specifically-trained personnel or medical staff. Refusal to undergo such a procedure could in certain cases, where there was a security threat, lead to disciplinary measures, including solitary confinement.
Disciplinary measures could always be challenged before the administrative judge, the delegation said.
With regards to access to healthcare in places of detention, a delegate said that psychiatrists were available in all prisons during opening hours. The budget for the recruitment of psychiatrists in prisons had been constantly increased. The period of waiting depended on the gravity of the situation and the type and size of the establishment.
Turning to the issue of migration, a delegate said that the current situation had led to migrants seeking to reach England being blocked in Calais, where they lived in indignity, under difficult conditions, and where smugglers could carry out their activities. France had taken measures to combat smuggling workers. In addition, France had adopted measures to strengthen border control and to ensure that no one would pass through Calais. The response, however, could not be on security grounds only. New shelters had been opened, and efforts had been made to persuade migrants of credible alternatives to smuggling, through advisory measures provided to them. Steps had been taken to ensure that those who had links in the United Kingdom could go to that country.
The March 2016 agreement between the European Union and Turkey sought to put an end to irregular arrivals, and to offer regular means for migrants to reach Europe. No individual entitled to protection could be subjected to refoulement from Turkey. France attached great importance to opening legal means for migrants to join the European Union. France had committed to hosting 6,000 refugees from Syria before 2017.
On training, a delegate said that medical officers received human rights education, and were trained on the needs of vulnerable groups. France ensured that training provided to medical staff in detention facilities did not impede on their independence.
Cases of police brutality could lead to disciplinary measures and to criminal prosecution. There was a public platform on which individuals could form complaints. The Office of the Inspector General of the National Police carried out investigations and gathered data on the use of force by police forces. A project was currently being developed to have an overview of daily practice by police agents. Statistics on police activities were shared publicly. Less lethal weapons were used on the ground of self-defence and legitimacy. Firearms were being used less and less, a delegate said.
With regards to sexual abuse in the Central African Republic, a delegate said that the prosecutor had opened an investigation immediately after the allegations were made. These concerned cases of statutory rape by a person exercising authority. Simultaneously, the army had also launched an internal inquiry. If the allegations were confirmed, there would be disciplinary measures on top of the legal competences. Victims had received immediate protection from the United Nations Children’s Fund, and the military perpetrators were no longer on the territory of the Central African Republic. A new inquiry was launched on 1 April 2016, following new allegations being made. Preventing further offenses was absolutely important, and French soldiers all received specific training on respect for human rights, integrity, responsibility and on zero-tolerance towards sexual violence or abuse.
Moving on to the situation in psychiatric institutions, a delegate stated that all restraints and isolation measures had to be made in accordance with medical authorities. Inspections were carried out by health authorities.
With regards to intersex children, a delegate said that therapy was made on a case by case basis, with the best interest of the child taken into consideration and given due consideration and information to permanent consequences of such operations.
With regards to the state of emergency, a delegate said that this was a temporary measure to respond to an extraordinary situation. Measures taken in this context were in full compliance with France’s international human rights obligations, which foresaw derogations in exceptional circumstances. It was impossible to derogate from certain intangible rights, such as the ban on torture. Derogation to other rights were subjected to judicial and parliamentarian oversight. The adoption of the state of emergency aimed at providing the authorities with the necessary tools to prevent further attacks. Measures taken were preventive in nature, and served for gathering information on potential threats. Measures such as administrative searches had targeted persons with suspicious behaviour, most of them already under close monitoring by the authorities, and had not targeted any specific group in particular.
Questions by the Experts
ALESSIO BRUNI, Committee Member and Country Co-Rapporteur for France, thanked the delegation for its thorough replies. He noted that further clarifications were still needed regarding the statute of limitation. Another unaddressed issue related to access to a lawyer by those arrested under terrorism or drug-related offenses. The need to strengthen video-surveillance of police facilities had also not been referred to by the delegation. The Co-Rapporteur also reiterated questions on non-refoulement and on the efficiency of measures to reduce the suicide rate. He regretted that France would not change its legislation with regards to the duration of solitary confinement.
He noted the delegation’s response with regard to the fast and the regular procedure for processing asylum requests, but was concerned that shorter delays would negatively affect asylum seekers not speaking the language. He was concerned about migrants trapped in Calais, and asked what would happen to them, and when.
The Expert raised a number of concerns with regard to judicial cooperation agreements between France and Morocco, which could lead to violations of the confidentiality of legal proceedings and to reprisals.
JENS MODVIG, Chairperson of the Committee and Country Co-Rapporteur for France, asked whether the impact of training of police officers was satisfactory, and whether it had led to improvements. He also asked whether training provided to medical staff in psychiatric institutions focused specifically on the prohibition and prevention of torture. He reiterated questions relating to support and rehabilitation of torture victims. With regard to overcrowding, he asked whether France had a target year for complying with international standards. Referring to the situation of intersex persons, he asked whether those doing the treatment were those doing the counselling. On body searches, he asked what was the motive for putting those refusing to undergo such a procedure in solitary confinement.
Another Committee Member, referring to searches conducted in the context of the current state of emergency, underlined the importance of respecting the presumption of innocence of those targeted by such measures. People, after being searched, often faced stigmatization by their relatives or their neighbours. Some had lost their jobs. Concerns were also raised with regards to violations of the “right to image” under the state of emergency, as suspected individuals had their portrait broadcast on the news. How many times and for how long could the state of emergency be renewed?
An Expert reiterated her question about racial profiling and data collection.
The delegation was asked for clarification regarding the timeline for the completion of investigations on sexual violence by French soldiers in the Central African Republic. Had the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights or UNICEF delayed the investigation? Had any disciplinary measures been taken already? Was there any policy change since these events?
An Expert asked whether the European Union/Turkey agreement included a monitoring mechanism and an ending date.
Experts reiterated questions regarding forced eviction of Roma camps.
Replies by the Delegation
The extension of the non-applicability of the statute of limitation for crimes of torture only concerned crimes against humanity. There were special arrangements for defining the start of the offense when such acts were perpetrated against minors.
The principle was that access to a lawyer was possible as soon as the detention started, even in cases of terrorist acts. It was true however that such access could be postponed in exceptional cases, for the most serious crimes and with strict judicial oversight.
France abided strictly to the principle of non-refoulement, even for foreigners involved in terrorist activities.
With regards to the situation in Calais, a delegate said that people were trapped there because of smugglers’ activities. The French authorities had been trying to convince migrants there for years to submit their asylum requests on the French territory. Structures had been put in place there to provide humanitarian solutions, and reception centres had been established, offering people accommodation, shelter and alternative solutions.
The agreement between the European Union and Turkey contained a follow-up provision, and mechanisms would be reviewed and reconsidered regularly. The French and the European authorities were very vigilant to human rights violations in the framework of this agreement.
Regarding the prevention of suicide among detainees, a delegate said that rates had declined since the implementation of projects on that issue. Efforts for suicide prevention were cross-cutting and involved a wide-range of stakeholders and governmental agencies. When the possibility of a suicide risk was detected, health specialists within the Prison Administration would get involved to ascertain the state of mind of the concerned person, and, if needed, the person would be removed from the disciplinary wing or solitary confinement.
On hate crimes, France did not indeed disaggregate statistics by religion or ethnicity. The Government had, however, a number of tools in order to ascertain this.
The dismantling of unlawful camps was a necessity to address the precarious living conditions there and to protect the rights of owners whose territory was being illegally occupied. Alternative accommodation was made available on the short or the long term, particularly for the most vulnerable.
The extension of the state of emergency was limited to three months by Parliament.
Judicial cooperation between France and Morocco was very effective, a delegate said.
After the information was brought up to French authorities, investigations had been immediately initiated on allegations of sexual offenses in the Central African Republic. Increased awareness-raising had been conducted since this happened.
ELISABETH LAURIN, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations Office at Geneva, welcomed the fruitful dialogue held with the Committee. There had been progress since France’s last hearing. The Government was nonetheless aware that efforts had to continue.
For use of the information media; not an official record