The Convention 5: Freedom from torture

Suilemam Al-KhalidiArticle 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights is concerned with the freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.

We have grown so used to this freedom in Europe that some of our citizens don’t even consider it a possibility in the modern world. That fact alone is testament to the impact of the ECHR. Consider though what happens outside European borders.

“AMMAN (Reuters) – The young man was dangling upside down, white, foaming saliva dripping from his mouth. His groans sounded more bestial than human. It was one of many fleeting images of human degradation I witnessed during four days as an unwilling guest of Syrian intelligence, when I was detained in Damascus after reporting on protests in the southern Syrian city of Deraa.”

“Nearly two months later, time has helped me absorb the impact of those four days, to the extent that I can record the experiences in writing. But I am haunted by the human cost of the Arab uprisings for people seeking the sort of freedoms which others elsewhere in the world take for granted.”
Suilemam al-Khalidi
May 2011

Suleiman al-Khalidi is a journalist. His ‘crime’ was to report what he had seen in Syria where freedom of speech (another convention right incidentally) is not taken quite so seriously. After four days of torture, degradation and interrogation he was expelled from the country along with other foreign journalists. Of course that sort of thing could never happen here ……

When planning this blog post I found myself with a dilemma. There’s an ‘elephant in the room’ that cannot be ignored in relation to UK compliance with article 3. The uncomfortable reality is called Guantanamo Bay.

This place of detention was operated outside of European soil by a nation state, The United States of America, that has not signed up to the ECHR. It has, however signed up to other international declarations on human rights and was also supported by the UK. As a signatory of the ECHR this country has a duty to oppose torture and inhuman treatment under article 3 and also unwarranted deprivation of liberty under article 5.

Both of these convention articles were ignored at Guantanamo and the claim that UK officials knew nothing of this seems laughable.

So there is an obvious hypocrisy here that I don’t want to ignore. Neither though do I propose to spend much time discussing Guantanamo. That isn’t the purpose of this blog. So I’ll simply acknowledge the discrepancy, serious though it is and move on. I do believe that there are some very important questions to be answered about UK’s support for Guantanamo but this isn’t the place for that.

Essentially Article 3 prohibits all forms of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. It prevents any ‘arm of the state’ such as government departments or public services from treating people inhumanely. It also makes the UK government responsible for ensuring that private citizens don’t torture each other either. This sets up a sort of hierarchy that is the same for all of the convention rights:

The European Court hears cases against the state;
The state (UK) is bound by the ECHR;
The state (UK) created the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) to comply with ECHR;
The UK Courts hear Human Rights cases against departments or individuals;
All UK individuals and organisations are bound by the Human Rights Act 1988.

Of course this all seems fairly straightforward until we consider that torture and inhuman or degrading treatment means much more than political intrigue and over-zealous anti-terrorism practices. A range of abusive uses of authority or position might meet the definition. For example the appalling ‘care’ at Winterbourne View, a home near Bristol is very likely to be classed as torture.

That’s why so many of the home’s employees have been arrested. The UK is responsible for making such abuses illegal (hence the Human Rights Act 1998) and for prosecuting abusers accordingly.

So far so good – the ECHR prevents European states from killing and torturing its citizens. In the next part of the series we’ll consider article 4 – the prohibition against slavery and servitude.
About ‘The Convention’

This series of posts first appeared on Stuart’s blog in June 2011. It is not intended to be a comprehensive or even particularly authoritative reference guide to the ECHR. Rather it is a brief introduction to a much larger and infinitely more fascinating subject. You can download the entire series in PDF format here:

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