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Committee against Torture reviews the report of Norway

Committee against Torture

25 April 2018

The Committee against Torture this afternoon completed its consideration of the eighth periodic report of Norway on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Introducing the report, Thor Kleppen Sættem, State Secretary, Ministry of Justice and Public Security of Norway, noted with satisfaction that the national human rights institution, set up in 2015, had become an important actor in the public debate on human rights issues, while the national preventive mechanism was an active and positive tool for improving the conditions of persons deprived of their liberty.  Norway had made progress in reducing detention in police custody beyond the 48-hour limit; it had also adopted new procedures regarding children in police custody and reduced the number of children in prison, enhanced the focus on combatting gender-based violence, and strengthened patients’ right to self-determination in relation to mental health care which reduced instances of involuntary hospitalization.  Norway had taken measures to address disappearances of unaccompanied minors from reception centres, including by increasing the funding for staff in reception centres, adopting guidelines on how to deal with disappearances, and pursuing possible cases of human trafficking.

Committee Experts raised a number of questions on the deprivation of liberty, in particular the systematic use of isolation and solitary confinement in places of detention, including for prisoners with mental health disorders; the continued use of police cells beyond 48 hours; and the effective application of fundamental legal safeguards.  The Committee took particular interest in the system of preventive detention for minors, especially those aged 15 to 18, which was still allowed under certain extraordinary circumstances; and, in the context of the decentralized system in the country, the provision of health services in prison in line with the Mandela Rules.  Commending the efforts to prevent violence against women and children, Experts noted that those fell short for certain vulnerable groups, particularly children, Sami and the elderly.  Norway still maintained a distinction in the law between rape and non-consensual sexual acts, Experts noted and urged Norway to amend its Penal Code and incorporate the definition of rape in alignment with the Istanbul Convention.  Experts raised concern about the high number of disappearances of unaccompanied minors from institutions for asylum seekers: 150 in 2016 and 223 in the first 10 months of 2017.  The high number of deported persons - 7,825 persons in 2015 – raised concern about the application of the principle of non-refoulement.

In concluding remarks, Jens Modvig, Committee Chairperson and Country Co-Rapporteur for Norway, thanked the delegation for their answers and wished them a safe journey home.

The delegation of Norway consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, Ministry of Health and Care Services, the Norwegian Directorate of Health, and the Permanent Mission of Norway to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will issue the concluding observations on the report of Norway at the end of its sixty-third session on 18 May.  Those and other documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage.

The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings is available via the following link: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/.

The Committee will next reconvene in public at 3 p.m. on Thursday, 26 April to conclude its consideration of the fourth periodic report of Senegal (CAT/C/SEN/4).

Report

The Committee has before it the eighth periodic report of Norway (CAT/C/NOR/8).

Presentation of Report

THOR KLEPPEN SÆTTEM, State Secretary, Ministry of Justice and Public Security of Norway, presenting the report, reiterated the firm commitment of Norway to defend and protect the values and institutions on which its society was based such as the rule of law, privacy and freedom of speech.  The promotion and protection of human rights in the country was further strengthened by the work of the national human rights institution, which had already become an important actor in the public debate on human rights issues.  Norway was particularly pleased that the institution was in full compliance with the Paris Principles and had been granted A-status accreditation.  Following the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, the Parliamentary Ombudsman had rapidly established a national preventive mechanism, which was an active and positive tool for improving the conditions of persons deprived of their liberty.  Since the last review in 2012, Norway had made particular progress in reducing detention in police custody beyond the 48-hour limit, adopting new procedures regarding children in police custody and reducing the number of children in prison, enhancing focus on combatting gender-based violence, and strengthening patients’ right to self-determination in relation to mental health care and decreasing involuntary hospitalization, said Mr. Sættem.

There was an increased focus on young offenders and Norway had adopted new guidelines concerning them.  The key element was that police custody should only be used for children when no other means were available.  The number of children in police custody had been reduced from 632 in 2014 to 365 in 2017.  Two new non-custodial sanctions – the juvenile sentence and juvenile follow-up – had entered into force in July 2014.  In line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, prison was now only used as a last resort for children.  The use of imprisonment for young offenders had been significantly reduced, from 64 in 2010 to 25 in 2017.  Notable improvements had been made in post-sentence solitary confinement, including making statistics and data available, but challenges remained in this area, particularly regarding mentally ill prisoners.  The level of gender-based violence in Norway was an issue of concern, and in particular the low level of reporting of the cases.  Gender-based violence, sexual violence and sexual harassment were unacceptable and punishable, stressed Mr. Sættem, and informed the Committee that Norway had ratified in 2017 the Council of Europe instrument on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence, the Istanbul Convention.  It was now implementing its provisions, and was constantly seeking ways to improve police investigations of rape cases.

The Health Care Act, amended in 2017, extended the patients’ right to make decisions concerning their own health.  Patients who had the capacity to consent could no longer be hospitalized or treated against their will, except when a serious threat of suicide or a serious danger to the life or health of others existed.  The disappearance of unaccompanied minors from care and asylum reception centres was another complex and challenging issue in Norway.  Underlining that the stay at a reception centre was voluntary also for minors, Mr. Sættem said that in many cases, minors who had disappeared had left on their own will.  Still, it was not possible to exclude that some had become victims of trafficking, or were recruited to criminal or extremist groups.  Norway had taken measures to address the situation, including by increasing the funding for staff in reception centres, adopting the guidelines on how to deal with disappearances, and pursuing possible cases of human trafficking.

Questions by Country Co-Rapporteurs

JENS MODVIG, Committee Chairperson and Country Co-Rapporteur for the report of Norway, commended Norway for the establishment of the two important institutions, and urged Norway to make further progress in providing statistical data, which would illustrate the implementation of laws and policies in the country.  Turning to the definition of torture in domestic legislation, the Chair noted that very few countries included the Convention’s definition, resulting in varying definitions of torture between countries.  This was a challenge for the international fight against torture, and the Committee recommended that Norway comply with the definition exactly as stated in the Convention.

Norway had included the criminalization of torture in the Penal Code, and had stated that there were currently no plans to incorporate the Convention as a whole into Norwegian law.  Could the delegation elaborate and explain whether incorporating the Convention into the Human Rights Act was an option, as it had been previously done with other human rights conventions?

The delegation was asked to provide statistical data demonstrating the degree to which fundamental legal safeguards applied in practice, including the access to a lawyer from the onset of the deprivation of liberty; access to legal aid; the right to inform relatives or a person of choice about the arrest; and the right to be examined by a doctor of their own choosing.

Mr. Modvig said the Committee took particular interest in the system of preventive detention for minors, in particular suspects aged 15 to 18, and asked Norway to explain under which “wholly extraordinary circumstances” the preventive detention of minors occurred.  The Chair asked about the impact of the juvenile sentence and follow-up, which were two important initiatives that Norway had taken to comply with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, or the Beijing Rules.

Mr. Modvig noted that a long-standing issue in Norway was the use of police cells beyond 48 hours - was it because of the lack of pre-trial detention slots in the prison system?  What measures would be taken to limit the stay in police cells?

Isolation was being used systematically because the custody facilities had been constructed in a way that did not facilitate interaction between detainees and thus isolation became a default solution.  The number of isolation cases in pre-trial detention amounted to between 4,000 and 5,000 per year, and it seemed that detainees with mental health problems were particularly targeted.  Another concern was that the criteria for the use of pre-trial isolation were rather loosely phrased in the legislation and gave room for discretionary assessments.

The use of isolation as an administrative disciplinary sanction towards prisoners remained a problem.  Recalling the Mandela Rules, the Chair stressed that the imposition of solitary confinement should be prohibited in the case of prisoners with mental or physical disabilities when their condition would be exacerbated by such measures.  The Committee took positive note of the March 2017 revised guidelines laying down detailed criteria for the use of solitary confinement, but noted that the impact of this legislative measure was still to materialize, as the figures for 2016 and 2017 showed a massive increase, and not a decrease, in the use of exclusions from company.  What active steps were being taken to implement those guidelines and to fully comply with the Mandela Rules?

In light of the decentralized system in Norway and the fact that municipalities provided prison services, including health services, could the delegation explain how prison health services were organized and what measures were in place to ensure that doctors providing health services were aware of the practices – and dilemmas – of health care provision in prison, and in fact abided by the Mandela Rules?  

The Chair commended the measures taken by Norway to prevent violence against women and children and asked about specific steps taken to address the situation of vulnerable groups, particularly children, Sami and the elderly.  As for the legal definition of rape, Norway still maintained a distinction between rape and non-consensual sexual acts, which were both criminalized but carried different sanctions.  What was being done to ensure that rape was consistently punished proportionately?  What was the status of the new action plan against rape and sexual violence?

The data in the possession of the Committee showed a high number of disappearances of unaccompanied minors from institutions for asylum seekers: 150 had disappeared in 2016, and 223 had disappeared in the first 10 months of 2017.  What was known about those children, were they indeed trafficked, abused, or involved in drugs and crime?

A grave issue of concern was the treatment of mentally ill detainees and prisoners, which seemed to fulfil the criteria of ill-treatment.  Norway should address this issue with urgency and take persons with severe mental disorders out of isolation and provide them with necessary treatment without delay.

With regard to the principle of non-refoulement, Mr. Modvig noted that Norway had deported 7,825 persons in 2015 which was a rather high number.  The delegation was asked to list the countries that those persons were deported to, whether they had been deported in spite of a danger of being subjected to torture, and explain the procedure used to assess that risk.  What was the situation concerning legal aid for asylum seekers and foreign nationals facing expulsion or revocation of permit?  As for the detention of asylum seekers, the Chair asked about the criteria used for detention, the number of asylum seekers currently in detention, and safeguards extended to asylum seekers deprived of liberty.

ABDELWAHAB HANI, Committee Expert and Country Co-Rapporteur for the report of Norway, expressed satisfaction at having received independent reports on the situation in Norway, including from the national preventive mechanism, the national human rights institution, and the vibrant and well-organized civil society.

Mr. Hani also commended the efforts to train the police in new arrest methods and in inherent risks in the old ones, and noting that there were still several cases of excessive use of force by the police, urged Norway to ensure that it developed a methodology to assess the impact of training programmes.  How many officials had been trained in the provisions of the Istanbul Protocol, particularly health care professionals, who were crucial in identifying and documenting torture and ill-treatment?

Stressing the importance of independent and autonomous institutions, the Committee congratulated Norway for the establishment of the national preventive mechanism and asked how the State authorities implemented the recommendations issued by this body and by the national human rights institution.

What was being done to ensure that recourse to the use of force was a measure of last resort and was proportional?

Mr. Hani took note of the reports of humiliating and degrading treatment of asylum seekers in detention and stressed the right of migrants and asylum seekers to be treated humanely, and to see a medical examiner from the early hours of their detention.

The General Prosecutor, backed by academic research, had stated that 93 per cent of cases lacked appropriate grounds for isolation; following this statement, had the systematic use of pre-trial detention and isolation changed?

Which measures would be taken to ensure that persons with mental health issues and disorders were not kept in isolation, and in fact, were not kept in prisons at all, but in appropriate institutions?  What percentage of detainees had mental health issues, or had developed psychosocial disorders that would prevent their rehabilitation and integration into the society?

The Co-Rapporteur asked about the results of administrative inquiries into the cases of deaths in custody, and the investigations into the complaints against the police officers, and in particular to explain the fact that 40 per cent of the 1,200 complaints had been rejected and criminal sanctions had been issued in only 20 cases.  How effective was the complaint system and was there any data showing its impact?  Was there a system in place to protect individuals who showed signs of alleged torture, and to provide them with compensation?

There was no information about ethnic discrimination in the penitentiary system, noted Mr. Hani, asking whether the disaggregated statistics would be forthcoming to enable the assessment of any ethnic-based discrimination.

Finally, Mr. Hani commended the establishment of the national human rights institute in 2015 and encouraged the Government to give further support to this important institution, and to ensure that the national preventive mechanism had sufficient resources to enable it to discharge its mandate throughout the territory.  On the international level, Norway was an important contributor to the Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, said Mr. Hani and asked whether the contribution would be increased.  He also asked for additional information on the important international initiative that Norway was involved in concerning the techniques and measures for non-coercive investigation.

Questions by Experts

Concerning minors deprived of liberty, Committee Experts asked the delegation to explain the revision of the sentencing guidelines for juveniles and what it meant in practice and to inform of measures taken to address disappearances of unaccompanied minors from reception centres.  

With regard to the allegations of human rights violations committed by international forces in Afghanistan, of which Norway was a part, the delegation was asked whether any allegations of torture and ill-treatment concerned Norwegian troops, and if so, the steps taken to address those allegations.  Experts asked about the three-year agreement with a Dutch prison under which Norwegian prisoners served sentence there, and the ability of Norway to ensure compliance with its international human rights obligations in this regard.

With regard to gender-based violence and investigations of cases of rape, Experts asked how Norway implemented the 2012 concluding observations which asked for steps to raise public awareness on the issue, particularly among officials.  Was education on sexual violence and rape in the curriculum of the police academy, and what were the findings of the inquiries into the shortcomings of police investigations of rape?

The delegation was asked to comment on allegations of forced abortions and sterilization of women with disabilities and provide any statistics if available; and also to comment on material conditions of detention, especially in the Bergen prison, where solitary confinement seemed to be a common practice.

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation, in response to questions raised by the Committee Experts, said that Norway was satisfied that progress was being made on many fronts and recognized that challenges remained in a number of areas, particularly in the domain of psychiatry.  Norway was in particular eager to do even more in addressing gender-based violence, particularly in favour of certain groups.  The police training involved three years of academic education which covered many important fields and Norway was proud of the culture prevailing in the police force.

With regard to the questions raised on the legal framework, a delegate said that Norway did not plan to expand the list of international human rights conventions incorporated in the domestic law through the Human Rights Act.  However, Norway applied the principle of respecting its international obligations and, in fact, the Constitution established a duty for the State to respect the rights of individuals, including those defined by international treaties.  In accordance with the legality principle, in its definition of torture, Norway preferred to list all possible discrimination rather than replicate the exact wording of the Convention.  In Government’s view, the Norwegian definition of torture was fully compliant with the Convention.

Presently, there was no specific legislation on the use of the electro-convulsive therapy, which, without an explicit consent from the patient, could only be used in emergencies.  The national guidelines on its use, issued in 1999 and recently revised, considered the electro-convulsive therapy as a life-saving technique and continued to allow its use in emergency situations even without the patient’s consent.  The Guidelines provided a detailed description of what was considered an “emergency situation”.  An external body independent of the hospitals considered the legality of the measures, and the statistics on the use of the therapy without consent would be collected as of May 2018.

Replies by the Delegation

With regard to questions raised on the participation of Norwegian armed forces in Afghanistan, the delegation said that the Government had not received any allegations of torture or ill treatment by its troops.

There had been positive developments concerning the situation of persons deprived of their liberty in Norway, with the regulations stating that everyone held in police custody cells must be transferred to a detention centre within 24 hours.  The increase in prison capacity achieved over the past several years had contributed to a greater implementation of the regulations: only 639 breaches had been registered in 2017; of those, 625 were only one day over the limit and 14 two days over the limit.

New regulations on isolation were being developed and they would place an obligation on police officers to constantly monitor the detainee, assess the impact of the measure, and also assess whether the person was in need of social interaction.  A new manual for the use of police cells had been prepared and would soon be put in effect.  The aim was to ensure that prisoners were treated with full consideration for their health and human rights, and in an equal way throughout the territory and in all institutions regardless of their type.

On juvenile detention, Norway was of the opinion that minors should not be put in detention, while recognizing that preventive detention of minors was an option only under a very limited number of extraordinary circumstances.  The Supreme Court had issued only one preventive detention for a minor, a 15-years old girl who had committed a premeditated murder.  The 2012 reform of the juvenile justice system had seen the introduction of noncustodial sanctions for juveniles in conflict with the law.

The delegation explained that in Norwegian law, there was a difference between the meaning of “isolation” and “solitary confinement” as defined by international law, and the “full exclusion from company of other prisoners” did not necessarily constitute isolation as the prisoner could still have meaningful contact with others, work, and spend time outside of the cells.  The exclusion was mostly used to prevent unwanted behaviour and not as an administrative sanction or punishment – only about 25 per cent of the cases were a disciplinary sanction.

Excluded prisoners were frequently checked on by the custody officers (several times per day), and some of the measures in place to prevent harm from exclusion included contacts with other prisoners, leaving the cell, etc.  There were no statistics in which the deterioration of health had been registered by the medical personnel as a result of exclusion.  The newly revised guidelines on exclusion had entered into force in March 2017.  They contained a detailed interpretation of the legislation and provided instruction on how to ensure implementation in practice.

Prisoners had the right to file a complaint against the exclusion decision, according to the process defined by administrative rules and regulations.  In 2017 there had been 50 complaints concerning exclusion, and three decisions had been overturned.  There had been only one case which had been filed with the court; as in any civil case, complainants carried a risk of having to pay for the procedure.  Legal aid was available.

Correctional services were in the process of implementing some of the measures to improve the situation of mental health in prisons, including prevention of suicides, prevention of isolation and passivity of vulnerable groups, prevention of overdose deaths, and others.  In 2014, the so-called resource team had been established to work with prisoners in long-term exclusion; the upcoming evaluation would inform whether the programme should be continued and scaled up.  Prisoners with mental health issues and disorder had the right to be treated with dignity and access the required health care.  In 13 prisons, substance abuse treatment units were available.

In 2015, in an effort to address the number of people on a waiting list to serve their sentences, Norway had rented 220 prison places in the Norgenhaver prison in the Netherlands, for a period of three years.  Given that the prison capacity in country had since been increased, and another one was scheduled to open in 2021, the agreement would not be extended.  The protection of Norwegian prisoners in the Dutch prison from torture and ill-treatment had been regulated by the agreement between the Netherlands and Norway.

According to the new legal provision introduced in 2016, individuals with mental health disorders who committed crimes were institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital rather than in a prison, including those who committed the gravest of crimes.

Turning to the situation concerning gender-based violence, a delegate said that research had been conducted in 2017 on violence against the elderly in order to create a baseline for the monitoring of the phenomenon.  Sami women suffered greater levels of violence than women in the general population; the fact that more cases were being reported was a positive sign that measures taken – including those to increase reporting rates - were showing results.

The number of rape cases was completely unknown, and efforts were being intensified to encourage victims to come forward and report the crime.  Investigations and prosecution of cases of rape were notoriously difficult, for a whole host of reasons, and the fact was that no one could say with certainty that the low prosecution rate was due to weaknesses in the police handling of the cases, including investigations.  Important improvements were being made in victim interviewing.  Following the abolition of the jury system, Norway was set to carefully monitor the impact of the new system on rape conviction rates.

Turning to the questions raised on the use of coercion in psychiatric institutions, the delegation said that over the last 20 years, Norway had invested considerable attention and resources in reorganizing its mental health care, which had seen a switch from clinic-based treatment to ambulant outreach, and had reduced the number of involuntary admissions to psychiatric hospitals.  Another measure was the introduction of the medication-free treatment programme, including for psychotic disorders; the impact of the initiative was being carefully monitored.  The criteria currently used to determine the need for involuntary hospitalization and the “lack of capacity to consent” would be assessed later this year.

Forced abortion and sterilization of women unable to give their consent was permitted under the law within very few and strictly defined conditions.  A legal guardian had to participate in the decision, which had to fulfil the criteria of the best interest of the woman.  Only one application for forced sterilization had been granted in 2017.

Victims of crimes had the right to participate in all phases of the criminal procedure, and had the right to legal representation.  The 2008 law had significantly strengthened the rights of victims, including victims of torture.

In response to a number of questions raised on the situation of asylum seekers, the delegation said that in principle, asylum seekers were not detained but were hosted in reception centres.  The main purpose of detention of children in the context of migration was for purposes of forced return.  Most children and their families were detained for a very short period of time, ranging from less than one to several days.

Cases of torture were often identified during the first asylum-requesting interview, and medical health personnel were available for further examinations.  A proper medical examination in compliance with the Istanbul Protocol happened when a person moved to the long-term reception centre.

As for the fundamental safeguards of detained adult asylum seekers, the delegation explained that detention was only carried out if it was necessary and proportionate, and it usually applied to asylum seekers whose application had been rejected.  A court regularly checked that the conditions for detention were met.

Questions by Committee Experts

JENS MODVIG, Committee Chairperson and Country Co-Rapporteur for Norway, in his follow-up questions, asked for additional explanations concerning the definition of torture and the incorporation of the Convention into domestic law; the definition of rape, which was not in line with the Istanbul Convention; and the disappearance of unaccompanied minors from reception centres.  What was Norway’s position concerning the application of the Mandela Rules, particularly in relation to detainees with mental health issues who were a particularly vulnerable group in prisons?  Medical doctors working in an institution where people were deprived of liberty, and where force was being used, posed ethical dilemmas – what system was in place to ensure that health professionals were adequately prepared to work in such conditions?

ABDELWAHAB HANI, Committee Expert and Country Co-Rapporteur for Norway, asked for an explanation concerning a discrepancy in statistics concerning the length of stay in Trandum detention centre.  The Government claimed that most asylum seekers stayed for a day, while the national preventive mechanism, which had visited the facility following the riots in 2015, claimed that 61 per cent stayed for four days and 17 per cent for over 100 days.  What was the definition of an asylum-seeking child - did the age considered refer to the age at the time of arrival or the age at the time of status determination?

There was a concern about the possible discrimination against foreign prisoners, given the fact that 80 per cent of prisoners transferred abroad were foreigners.

Other Committee Experts echoed the concerns previously expressed about the disappearance of unaccompanied minors from reception centres, and stressed the importance of finding out where those vulnerable groups of children went and what happened to them.

The use of electroconvulsive therapy was a very complex issue, and therapy was often used to treat depression and psychotic episodes.  What was the Norwegian experience in using the therapy to prevent suicide?

Norway had declared that it would not extend the agreement with the Dutch prison and that, upon its expiration, it would use alternative measures such as double bunking, to deal with the lack of prison capacity.  What other measures would be used to address the problem?

Replies by the Delegation

Considering that the stay in asylum reception centres was voluntary, including for children, Norway had a reason to believe that at the root of many of the disappearances of unaccompanied minors was in fact the voluntary departure of children from the centres.  Several measures had been taken to avoid the disappearance of children, including increased funding for the staff in reception centres, and the speeding up of the residence permit procedures.  Police investigations and cooperation with child welfare authorities had improved but in many cases it was impossible to conduct a proper police investigation into disappearances, which often happened shortly after the child’s arrival to the centre.  

There had been no deaths in custody in 2016, and only one such case at the end of 2017, which was still being investigated. 

There were close to 1,000 complaints against police officers submitted to the Norwegian Bureau for the Investigation of Police Affairs in 2017; 29 per cent had ended in conviction and 49 per cent had been dropped without investigation but after the information collection phase.  Once a decision was made about the case, the Bureau would contact both the accuser and the accused and inform them of the decision taken and the reasons for such a decision.

With regard to the use of electroconvulsive treatments, the delegation said that about 1,000 treatments were conducted every year with patient consent; however, national statistics on the use of the therapy without consent were not available.  From May 2018, all hospitals would have to collect this data, meanwhile, the Supervisory Commission was charged with overseeing all decisions to use the therapy.

Concluding Remarks

JENS MODVIG, Committee Chairperson and Country Co-Rapporteur for Norway, thanked the delegation for their answers and said that the concluding observations on Norway’s report would be issued at the end of the session.
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