Bristol's international role in torture prevention efforts

Researchers in the School of Law play a central role at the UN, establishing national and international efforts to prevent torture.

Dozens of countries have signed up to the United Nations’ (UN) Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) since it came into force in 2006. But signing up is just the start – actually implementing an effective system to prevent torture is the job of little-known bodies called National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs).

All OPCAT signatories are obliged to set up an independent NPM, and researchers at the University of Bristol’s Law School have worked closely with those establishing them in the UK and elsewhere. In doing so, they have helped to reduce the likelihood of torture around the world.

Professor Rachel Murray is the director of Bristol’s Human Rights Implementation Centre (HRIC). Set up in 2009, it plays a key role bringing together governments, agencies and human rights groups, and has hosted several meetings dedicated to OPCAT and NPMs.

The HRIC’s deputy director Professor Malcolm Evans is another key member of the team. He and Murray authored what is regarded as the pioneering study of OPCAT, using Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funding to evaluate the effectiveness of NPMs.

The two researchers received that funding in 2006: perfect timing as OPCAT came into effect and agencies from signatory countries around the world set about implementing its requirements. Able to take a lead role from the start, the Bristol team has become central to the effort and in 2011 Evans was elected chair of the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT).

Front line

The fundamental job of each country’s NPM is to prevent torture through regular visits to places of detention where people are deprived of their liberty – most obviously police cells and prisons, but extending beyond these to include those detained under mental health legislation, held in customs custody, or in secure immigration facilities.

According to Elisabeth Odio Benito, a leading human rights lawyer who served as a judge at the International Criminal Court for more than a decade, NPMs are the bodies that “give the OPCAT strength, direction, momentum and hope to achieve its objectives”.

Addressing the UN’s General Assembly in October 2013, Evans said: “We consider the NPMs as the ‘front line’ of torture prevention.”

But setting up an NPM and ensuring that it is effective is not straightforward. Despite ratifying OPCAT in 2003, even the UK – regarded as a “beacon” signatory - did not establish its own NPM until 2009. That was partly a result of the inevitable complexities of having so many parties involved (at that stage, 18 bodies made up the UK NPM).

Since then the Bristol team has helped Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) improve co-ordination, with Murray saying that the UK’s NPM is now a more cohesive effort. That has resulted partly from meetings in Bristol, and in 2014 the HRIC hosted an event marking the fifth anniversary of the UK’s NPM and taking stock of its work to date.

International impact

That event identified ways to further strengthen the UK effort, for example by providing simple and accessible information to the public and creating a database that can be searched by theme. A set of NPM guidelines that the Bristol researchers assisted in developing has also emerged as a benchmark and is used extensively by governments, the SPT and other key bodies.

Internationally, the Bristol team has advised countries on draft and existing legislation relating to NPMs, with Murray highlighting work in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in particular. She and Evans also took part in a confidential meeting preparing the operation of Hungary’s NPM.

Most recently Murray and her Bristol colleagues have been working closely with counterparts at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights in Vienna, producing a report emphasizing the importance of further strengthening the impact of NPMs. Published on June 26 – the date designated as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture - the study provides the first collection of good practices for NPM follow-up tools and processes, and proposes ‘building blocks’ for the development of follow-up strategies to be used by NPMs and other bodies involved in the prevention of torture.

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