The UK National Preventive Mechanism are heading to Geneva to present evidence at the 66th session of the Committee Against Torture. NPM Chair John Wadham reflects on what will be presented and how ICVA and ICVs have fed into the process.
Perhaps one of the most enjoyable parts of my role as the Chair of the UK National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) is promoting our work with different groups of people.
As a body made up of 21 organisations but all with a common purpose, the UK NPM works in many distinct ways to try to prevent torture and ill-treatment in places of detention and to promote universal human rights standards. It is my role to support members in aligning their work with the requirements of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT). On my trip to visit the Committee against Torture in Geneva this week, I’ll be discussing the work we do at the NPM to promote and implement OPCAT. The Committee Against Torture is the official UN body – made up of independent experts from around the world – that evaluates States’ progress in implementing the Convention against Torture. Using the first-hand reports and evidence from the monitoring and inspections carried out by each of our members, I (with Louise and Jade) will try to present a comprehensive picture of detention in the UK, the challenges in preventing ill-treatment and field any questions the Committee may have about our work.
Reflecting on the NPM’s recent report to the Committee against Torture, I am aware of just how crucial the work of volunteers involved in custody visiting are as part of the NPM. Supported by their local schemes and nationally by ICVA, custody visiting is a brilliant example of how the human rights principles that form the basis of the NPM can be put in to action. ICVs monitor the rights and wellbeing of detainees in custody and provide independent reports with critical information about areas of good and bad practice, encouraging police forces to protect each and every detainee’s welfare.
ICVs have contributed invaluable information on the conditions in custody in our recent report, carrying out over 8,500 visits to custody suites between 2017-18. These independent and impartial visits provide real insight into custody suites in England and Wales and now that perspective will be presented to this important international human rights body at the UN.
You already know about the impact of ICV monitoring but it is good that this has recently become even more apparent to the public.
A key development started in August 2018 when the ICVA found that ‘inspections show that women are routinely being let down’ when it comes to their menstrual care in police custody. Specifically, ICVs reported on some worrying practices in custody: many police custody suites did not have an adequate number of menstrual products; CCTV was not always pixelated well enough to protect women who were changing, or women weren’t being told exactly how their privacy was (or was not) being protected. Measures to prevent self-harm showed a lack of gender-sensitive care in custody. A case in which a woman was left to bleed in a paper suite having been risk assessed and refused underwear was particularly worrying.
These findings were drawn to the attention of the media and politicians – an essential part of the job of NPMs – and resulted in policy changes from the government. The NPM welcome the Home Office’s recent commitment to introduce new legislation that will ensure women in places of custody are given effective menstrual care, that it is free of charge and can be accessed without having to ask in often-crowded booking in areas and custody suites. The government are also set to create a new policy to ensure that detained woman have the option to speak to a female member of staff about their personal care needs.
This is an extremely positive step for the rights of those in detention. All detainees deserve ‘clean and comfortable’ conditions in custody – respect and dignity are non-negotiable principles. Without the dedicated and professional work ICVs do every week to document what goes on in places of custody, crucial human rights issues relating to privacy, discrimination, and dignity would not be brought to light.
The CAT’s 66th session is a new and exciting opportunity for the NPM, and cases such as this are a shining example of how the work ICVs do can generate productive change. NPMs do not have a long history of involvement in this kind of review at the UN, so I hope to use our time in Geneva to highlight how we work to protect the rights of people in detention.