HC Deb 22 May 1981 vol 5 cc619-26

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Cope.]

1.50 pm
Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)

Torture was virtually eliminated from European States at the end of the nineteenth century. Nowadays, however, it cannot be regarded simply as a remnant of a barbaric age. For the past 20 years the incidence of torture in many forms has been spreading over the world in a terrifying way.

Modern techniques are used effectively to increase the pain of torture and the success of those inflicting it. There is especially a misuse of medicine and science to achieve results, and pain can be intensified by those means without actually killing the victims. The torturer is the reverse of the good doctor. He creates and intensifies pain instead of reducing it, and the Nazi experience shows that apparently ordinary people can be turned into brutal sadists.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has described torture as a cancer attacking the very foundations of our civilisation. Democrats fight for the dignity of man. Torture transforms man into a decrepit, spiritless husk without any dignity. Yet torture is commonplace in many parts of the world—for example, in Central and South America but in other parts as well.

We need to use every possible means to fight such a spreading evil, and there are organisations which have been formed to fight it. For example, there is Amnesty International, which deals with 2,000 cases a year and whose members, to their great credit, take the trouble to send scores of thousands of letters to the Governments of countries where persons are incarcerated or tortured. There are committees such as the all-party Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights and the Campaign Against Psychiatric Abuse in the Soviet Union. At an international level, Europe has a Court of Human Rights, and hon. Members often do what they can in company with other Members of Parliament. In the past two or three weeks, I have visited the Romanian embassy on behalf of a Catholic priest and on behalf of miners in Romania, and the Soviet embassy with members of all parties on behalf of the imprisoned Mr. Shcharansky.

Anything which deters even one nation from succumbing to the vile practice of torture has to be supported. Any measure which reduces the scale and intensity of torture anywhere is to be encouraged. The struggle against the use of torture is a fundamental priority in the general struggle for universal human dignity.

But the efforts of individuals and individual organisations are not enough and have not been seen to be enough to reverse the huge growth in the use of torture, so we have to find an international system of implementation capable of doing so.

There have been important international declarations and conventions on human rights in the past, especially since the end of the Second World War. But, sadly, although they have been worth while in setting a general standard, they have been rather toothless in preventing torture. There is the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which has some value, but since it came into existence the incidence of torture has continued to increase. It has to be said that electric shock torture, which was not practised much before the Second World War, is now common in a number of countries.

What is required is some effective monitoring mechanism to prevent torture practices from continuing or at least to reduce their incidence.

That brings me effectively to the subject matter of this debate and to the basic aspect of it to which I wish to direct attention.

On 19 December 1979 the United Nations General Assembly adopted, in effect, another declaration. It was described as a Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from being subjected to Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. On the same day, the General Assembly requested the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to study the question of torture and any necessary steps for ensuring the effective observance of that declaration. In 1977, the General Assembly asked the Human Rights Commission to propose a draft convention based on its 1975 declaration.

In 1978, to help with the objective, the Swedish Government, to their credit, unveiled a draft convention at the Human Rights Commission meeting in that year. That draft convention of the Swedish Government, together with another draft prepared by the International Association of Penal Law, was considered by a working group of the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations at its meetings between 1978 and 1980. The matter will be considered again at the thirty-eighth session of the Human Rights Commission in 1982. If accepted there, the convention will be recommended to the General Assembly of the United Nations for consideration, as I understand it, in 1983.

For a convention against torture to be worth while, the key proposals must relate to effective means of implementing the purpose of the convention; otherwise it becomes a matter of mere words. The Swedish Government have made proposals for implementation, but I do not propose to deal with those today because I believe that the International Commission of Jurists has produced a fairly effective method of enforcing the convention.

The International Commission of Jurists is a non-governmental organisation with headquarters at Geneva and is devoted to promoting throughout the world the understanding and observance of the rule of law and the legal protection of human rights. It has consultative status with the United Nations, and its general secretary is Niall MacDermot, QC, a former Member of this House and a former Minister of the Labour Administration in the 1960s.

I have had the privilege of undertaking human rights missions to South Africa and Namibia in years gone by for this remarkable world watchdog organisation in the field of human rights.

The International Commission of Jurists has proposed a draft optional protocol to the United Nations' draft convention already produced by the Swedish Government, and that protocol is based on the ideas of a Swiss lawyer called Gautier and on the experience of the International Committee of the Red Cross in visiting persons detained in prisons throughout the world.

The crunch proposal of the International Commission of Jurists is that an international committee of experts, elected by the States which sign the protocol, should have the power to send its delegates, on a regular basis or as required, to visit places of detention of any kind in territory under the control of the signatory States. The committee would report its findings and recommendations in confidence to the Government concerned. Only in the event of an unresolved disagreement between the particular Government and the international committee would the committee have a discretion to publish its findings in whole or in part.

The beauty of this proposal is that, given the committee's power to visit all places of detention, including interrogation centres and police stations, and, one hopes, psychiatric hospitals—the International Committee of the Red Cross being able to visit none of those—without notice and regularly, the visits would serve to deter torture practices on a casual basis practiced in those places and, where they existed as systematic practices of torture, there would be likely to be a discovery of that systematic torture as a result of those visits.

The beauty, again, of the proposal is that it is a system of prevention as well as a system of investigation. The system initially involves no public attack or accusation against a member State. The Government in question are informed privately of the findings and recommendations of the visiting committee. Therefore, there is less incentive for a Government to refuse to sign the protocol or to delay visits by the committee. Each Government would have an incentive to co-operate in a confidential procedure to remedy abuse so as to prevent later unflattering publication. In other words, if the Government in question against whom a complaint is found to be proved are willing to remedy that abuse and to carry out the recommendations of the committee, no one will hear about those findings. But if they do not, the committee has the discretion to publicise its findings and its unfullfilled recommendations.

The proposals are an extension of the experiences and practices of the International Committee of the Red Cross. As I have said, the differences between visits made by the committee and those made by the Red Cross are that there would be no obligation to give notice of visits in advance, there would be visits to institutions not only at agreed times, but at any time, and visits would have a wider scope and cover not only prisons but all other places of detention. The committee would have the additional power to make its findings public where its recommendation was not accepted. The location of interrogation centres where torture takes place is often kept secret. However, experience shows that the existence and location of such centres becomes known. The committee can demand to visit such an interrogation centre.

The good faith of the Governments in question is crucial. No system of implementation can be fully effective if a Government are determined to render it ineffective. If a Government deliberately delay entry of the committee at their frontiers until torture equipment has been moved, or seek in other ways to delay the visit of the committee to an institution, the inference will be obvious. The committee could expose that obstruction and the inference of torture existing at that institution would be obvious to all.

It is said that few countries will ratify such a convention or protocol. However, the very fact that such an objection is made shows that it is thought that the monitoring procedure will be effective. If it were thought that all countries would sign without any problem, the implication would be that all those Governments had reached the conclusion that it was just another declaration which meant nothing. The extent to which some Governments will object to signing such a protocol shows that they fear that the proposed system of monitoring may have some effect.

If 80 countries have accepted the Red Cross visiting procedure in prisons, as is the case, why should not a substantial number of countries accept an extension of that practice in a new convention? Even if few countries accepted the convention initially, others might do so at a later date. That has been the experience of other conventions. There are already signs that many countries in the Third world are willing to ratify. If a country does ratify, it will prove useful if, at some time in future, a repressive regime succeeds the current regime. That repressive regime might be ashamed to remain part of the convention and protocol signed by its predecessor.

The British Government know all about the negotiations taking place in the committees of the United Nations. I am well aware that the convention and the protocol cannot be signed or enforced tomorrow. A timetable has been set out and it would be churlish of me to accuse the British Government of not having signed the convention, which is still in draft form, or not having signed the protocol, which again is still in draft form. However, I ask the Government to indicate their general policy towards the draft convention and draft protocol submitted by the International Commission of Jurists, and to assure the House that Britain will take the lead—as a place where general human rights have a good record internally—in pushing internationally for the implementation of an effective convention. The precise wording of the convention and the protocol has still to be decided. As I have said, both remain in draft form.

There will be countries seeking to weaken the provisions and there will be other countries seeking to strengthen and extend them beyond mere torture into other areas. I hope that the British Government will be seen not to drag their footsteps. The signing of the Helsinki agreement by some countries, possibly in the hope that that would be the last that they would hear of it, has rebounded on them. Although they do not observe the human rights provisions of the Helsinki agreement, they are never allowed to forget it.

That is an encouragement to those in other countries who are suffering indignity, torture and oppression. That is important to courageous people in different parts of the world who are suffering under various regimes, some military, some Communist, some capitalist and some ostensibly democratic. It is an encouragement to individuals who are fighting lone battles in those countries to know that the issue is being raised internationally.

The United Kingdom has a long parliamentary tradition. It has a tradition of tolerance in areas such as free speech and worship. I should like to see the United Kingdom Government at the forefront of efforts in this area. I read that the Swedish Government prepared the draft convention and that the Costa Rican government submitted the protocol to the convention that was prepared by the International Commission of Jurists. I wanted to see where Britain's name appeared. I wanted to know what Britain was doing. I would be interested to read of any drafts that Britain was preparing. It is my wish to see Britain in the lead.

I ask the Government to outline British proposals to ensure that these worthwhile efforts will come to fruition as early as possible and that Britain will encourage other nations to sign the convention and protocol and use its diplomatic activity to that end. That is the purpose of the debate.

2.9 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

The hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) has raised an important subject and I am glad that he has done so. I listened carefully to the eloquent and accurate way in which he condemned the use of torture and to the careful way in which he developed his detailed argument. We are all far too familiar with examples and allegations of torture across the world. It must be right that countries and Governments should get together with the support of their publics opinion to try to diminish this evil.

The hon. and learned Gentleman gave an outline of the history of this effort and I shall try to fill in the picture. It was seven years ago in 1974 when the General Assembly asked the Fifth United Nations Congress on the prevention of crime and treatment of offenders to produce rules for the protection of people from torture.

The congress produced a draft declaration which the General Assembly adopted by consensus in 1975. The General Assembly then asked the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to consider ways in which the declaration might be made effective. The commission made a slow start, but at its session in 1978, following a further resolution of the General Assembly, Sweden circulated a draft convention as a basis for the commission's task. Negotiations have been conducted since then on the basis of that Swedish draft, which has been revised from time to time in the light of discussions.

The Commission on Human Rights set up a working group to consider the draft convention. We are represented in that working group. It meets from time to time and so far it has been able to agree ad referendum to Governments on over half of the substantive articles of the convention. We have played an active part in that drafting work in the working group. It is disappointing that more progress has not been made at the most recent session. We are keen to see the convention brought to a conclusion and the completion of a draft so that it can be considered by Governmnents and brought into force at an early date.

I pay tribute to the initiative of the Swedish Government in producing the draft. Valuable contributions have been made by others, for example by the International Associaion of Penal Law and other organisations to which the hon. and learned Member referred.

What are the problems? Why is the work slow? What is our view about those problems? One problem, which was touched on by the hon. and learned Gentleman, is the question of definition. It is important that torture should be clearly and unambiguously defined because if there are inexact definitions in the convention, it is unlikely to be effective when it is carried out and tested from time to time in the courts, or translated into legislation in certain countries. Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish clearly between torture and lesser forms of ill-treatment because the nature of the penalty would differ in the two cases. The experts continue to study that problem of definition.

There is another problem, to which the hon. and learned Gentleman did not refer, but which is worth mentioning as he asked for a full statement of the Government's position. We do not have many opportunities to make such statements. This is the problem of extra-territorial jurisdiction—the extent to which a Government should seek or take jurisdiction over events outside its territory, either committed by its nationals or against its nationals. That is a difficult area. In the light of experience, we are reluctant to extend the scope of our extra-territorial jurisdiction. That may seem tempting at first sight, but there are practical difficulties in obtaining evidence and carrying through jurisdiction over events in other countries in our courts. Those difficulties are great and, therefore, we are not inclined to go down that path more than to a limited extent.

Extradition—seeking to bring back within our jurisdiction people who may have committed offences here—is a better course but again there are difficulties about an automatic obligation to extradite. We have treaties with a number of States, but we feel that we must remain free to judge whether someone who is alleged by another country to be a torturer must be sent back to the country where the offence is alleged to have been committed. One can imagine cases where one harsh regime is succeeded by another and in which we would be reluctant to send back someone accused of torture for the first regime, perhaps to be tortured by the second. It is necessary to examine the practical effects of some of the proposals carefully and to be a little reluctant about some. Those are two areas in which work is still needed.

In the second part of his speech the hon. and learned Gentleman concentrated on the third main problem that remains, which is the crucial question of supervision of implementation. In general, we favour making use of the Human Rights Committee for the supervision. So many bodies are working in the field that sometimes one gets a bit mixed up between them, so it is worth making it clear that the Human Rights Committee, which we believe should be the body to supervise the working of the convention on torture, is distinct from the Human Rights Commission, which is a subsidiary body of ECOSOC and thus of the General Assembly. The committee was set up under the terms of the international covenant on civil and political rights and it already has the duty of considering reports on measures adopted and progress made in achieving the observance of the rights enshrined in it. The committee has 18 members, and the covenant provides that they should be: persons of high moral character and recognised competence in the field of human rights, consideration being given to the usefulness of the participation of some persons having legal experience". The members serve in a personal capacity, so they are not representatives of Governments. The British member is Sir Vincent Evans, who, the hon. and learned Gentleman and many others will know, is a distinguished former legal adviser to the Foreign Office. We understand that the view that the committee is the body that should be given the task of supervising the implementation of the convention when it comes into being is fairly widely accepted.

We now come to the difficulty, which the hon. and learned Gentleman put fairly. We want to do our best to make sure that a convention has an influence on what happens in the outside world, but it also has to be accepted. There is no question of imposing it by a majority vote of the General Assembly. It will stand or fall by the willingness of national Governments to sign and ratify it. There is widespread opposition—perhaps more than the hon. and learned Gentleman said—to any form of supervision. The opposition is strongest in the Third world. There would be disadvantages in trying for a convention with strong supervision provisions and an optional protocol clearly attached to it if only a handful of States agreed to accept it and put it into effect. There is a strong case for reaching an agreement on the convention soon, in the expectation that we can do so in a way that will ensure that large numbers of member States accept it, and then, later, considering the question of the optional protocol, including the scheme that the hon. and learned Gentleman spelt out in some detail from the International Commission of Jurists, which would be the kernel of the optional protocol.

There is a balance of judgment here, but since the going has been slow, and since we want to bring a convention into force on the widest possible basis of acceptance, it is probably sensible to press ahead with that and then to consider the question of an optional protocol for later negotiation. There are, therefore, these practical problems which must be considered further in the light of the real effect of the different proposals when the convention actually begins to bite on the practices of individual countries.

I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman that no British Government should drag their feet on this. We shall certainly continue to work hard in the working group, and after that in the other bodies which will then have to consider the draft convention, for a practicable and effective convention that will have the result of diminishing the evil to which the hon. and learned Gentleman rightly drew our attention.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Two o'clock till Monday 1 June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 21 May.