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.

Professor Rachel Murray is the director of Bristol’s Human Rights Implementation Centre (HRIC). Set up in 2009, the HRIC is internationally recognised for its work on the prevention of torture, in particular through research aimed at strengthening the implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT).

The OPCAT aims to prevent torture and other ill-treatment through the establishment of a system of regular visits, to places where people are deprived of their liberty. These visits are carried out by a UN treaty body, the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) and national bodies known as National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs).

All States that ratify the OPCAT are obliged to set up an independent NPM. The HRIC team have worked closely with those establishing them in the UK and elsewhere. The HRIC has played a leading role in the implementation of OPCAT since its entry into force in 2006. At that time Professor Murray received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the team authored what is regarded as the pioneering study of OPCAT and the establishment of NPMs. In 2011 Professor Sir Malcolm Evans was elected chair of the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT)

Continuing support to prevent torture

Addressing the UN’s General Assembly in October 2013, Professor Sir Malcolm Evans said: “We consider the NPMs as the ‘front line' of torture prevention and the HRIC continues to play a key role in supporting the establishment of NPMs". The HRIC has hosted numerous meetings dedicated to OPCAT and NPMs, bringing together governments, agencies and human rights groups.

In the UK the Bristol team has worked closely with the UK National Preventative Mechanism’s coordinating team. Professor Murray and Professor Judy Laing (Director of the Centre for Health, Law and Society) have undertaken research and held events, in collaboration with the UK NPM, on ill-treatment, mental health and detention, and lay visitors, among others. The HRIC also maintains a database on the mandate and functions of the various bodies which comprise the UK NPM.

Further afield, the HRIC has compiled and maintains the NPM Directory which holds fundamental information about all the designated National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) around the world, providing its users with quick and easy access to the basic information about each NPM.

International impact

Internationally the HRIC has carried out various projects to strengthen the implementation of the UNCAT and OPCAT. For example, the team has helped in the development of a set of NPM guidelines and self-assessment tools to serve  as a benchmark and which is used extensively by governments, the SPT and other key bodies.

The Bristol team has also advised numerous countries on draft and existing legislation relating to NPMs, including through a report commissioned by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission regarding the implementation of OPCAT in Ireland, in Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, among others.

Debra Long, research fellow at the HRIC, has also led work to support the establishment of an NPM in Rwanda, which resulted in the development of an NPM law in 2018. Debra has also held grants to strengthen the implementation of the UNCAT and OPCAT in Nigeria, providing input into the drafting of anti-torture legislation. These projects were funded by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Professor Murray and Debra Long  have also  collaborated  with counterparts at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights in Vienna, on a project to help strengthen the implementation and follow-up of recommendations of torture monitoring bodies within the European Union. The findings of this research were published in a Study in 2015. This 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.

Between 2010 and 2014 Debra Long was one of the principal investigators on an EU funded research project, undertaken jointly with three organisations, on the implementation of the UN Convention against Torture in Africa. This project formed the ‘Article 5 initiative’ partnership which has informed policy and decision makers within the six research countries and has contributed to the development of national frameworks and strategies for the prevention of torture. The Article 5 Initiative partners continue to work together to support torture prevention activities at the national, regional and international levels.

The HRIC continues to build collaborative partnerships with key organisations to promote the prevention of torture. To that end the HRIC is a member of the Group of Friends of the Convention against Torture Initiative (CTI), a State led initiative for the universal ratification and implementation of UNCAT.  Recently Debra Long has been assisting the CTI to develop a series of tools to offer practical guidance and ideas for State practitioners and policymakers to effectively implement the UNCAT. Students enrolled in the have helped to carry out research to find good State practice to be included in these tools.

The HRIC has also worked closely with Amnesty International to publish a revised manual on combating torture and other ill-treatment. Debra Long led the drafting process for this manual, which offers a practical guide to international and regional standards, that prohibit and seek to prevent torture and other ill-treatment worldwide. 

Professor Murray and Debra Long also continue to provide support to the Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa (CPTA), a Special Mechanism of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. This long standing collaboration between the HRIC and CPTA was the product of a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council held by Professor Murray between 2008 and 2012. Since then Rachel  and Debra have continued to provide assistance to the CPTA and the African Commission, for example through the development of country briefings for the CPTA and participation in the process to draft a General Comment on the right to redress for victims of torture, adopted by the African Commission in 2017.

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