Time for Europe to be a torture–free zone
A photo taken on December 10, 2013 shows Thorbjørn Jagland delivering his speech at the start of the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony at the Oslo City Hall. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL SANNUM LAUTENTwenty-five years ago a team of foreign experts walked into an Austrian prison. Over eight days they heard from prisoners who had been beaten while in police custody. Serious abuse was discovered in a country where few had imagined it. Subsequent protections were installed. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture was born.
You may not have heard of them. And yet they can walk into any prison, police station, psychiatric ward or immigration detention centre without a moment’s notice. Their interventions have helped stop deeply degrading practices across the continent. Hospitals leaving mental health patients strapped to their beds. Immigrants packed together, living in squalor. Prisoners held underground for months – pre-trial – with no access to natural light and no idea whether it was night or day.
The CPT is part of the Council of Europe – the body I lead, responsible for defending human rights across 47 European states. Thanks to many willing politicians and countless activists, we have made much progress in the fight against torture. But on this anniversary, let’s be candid: there is still a great deal to be done.
It is now well-known that a number of European states were complicit in the abuses conducted by the CIA in the hunt for Al Qaeda after 9/11. Less understood is the current ill-treatment at the hands of European police or prison officers.
Particularly worrying is the persistence of police brutality in custody, often to extract a confession. Electric shock treatment. Asphyxiation by plastic bag. The stringing up of suspects by their hands, barely able to breathe while they are punched and kicked. We know this still goes on.
Today I urge all European states to recommit to erasing torture from our continent. Criminals owe their society a debt and it is right that they are punished for their deeds. But to quote Nelson Mandela – who better? – “a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones”.
This is also a matter of security. As governments across Europe now grapple with the problem of radicalisation among prison inmates, state authorities must uphold the highest standards. Torture in our cells will only feed terror on our streets. Treating people like animals is the surest way to help their humanity disappear. For the sake of our shared values and our collective security, we must guarantee basic human rights for anyone detained by the state.
The Council of Europe is a vigorous watchdog and we will continue to help our members implement reforms, but we cannot be everywhere at once. National governments must now take greater responsibility, with independent oversight bodies which have real expertise. Inspection is a sensitive business. We must be constantly alive to the need to protect prisoners and whistleblowers from recrimination once we have left.
As we move ahead, the Turkish example will be important. No other European state has travelled so far. When we first came here, in 1990, the majority of people we interviewed reported violence at the hands of the police. The abuse was systematic. In 2013, by contrast, the majority had no such complaint. There are still serious problems and human rights violations which must urgently be addressed – Turkey must not be complacent. But the progress is encouraging. I hope Turkey continues in the right direction, and that others follow suit.
What will be needed, above all, is political will. This is the lesson of the last twenty five years. In our efforts to unearth torture, the Council of Europe has seen many grave things. But we have also seen what is possible when governments commit to human dignity. The time has come to make Europe a torture free zone.