Article 3 No torture, inhuman or degrading treatment
The prohibition on torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is one of the most important provisions in the Human Rights Act.
It is an absolute right – in no circumstances will it ever be justifiable to torture someone.
- Inhuman acts will amount to torture when used to deliberately cause serious and cruel suffering.
- Treatment will be considered inhuman when it causes intense physical or mental suffering.
- Treatment or punishment will be degrading if it humiliates and debases a person beyond that which is usual from punishment.
There are a number of obligations on the UK in respect of this prohibition, both negative (prohibiting public authorities from doing things) and positive (requiring the State to take certain action).
Prohibition on torture and inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment
The most obvious obligation prevents State officials from torturing a person or subjecting them to inhuman or degrading treatment. This applies anywhere the UK exercises jurisdiction, which can include places outside the UK, as well as in UK prisons, hospitals, schools etc. Government policies that put a person in a situation where they face inhuman or degrading treatment may also breach Article 3.
UK courts and tribunals must not admit evidence obtained through torture, even when the torture was not committed by UK authorities.
Deportation to torture
The absolute prohibition on torture and ill-treatment also applies to prohibit the UK from deporting a person to another country when substantial grounds have been shown that he or she would face a real risk of being tortured or subjected to ill-treatment in that country.
Investigations and prevention
Like the right to life, the prohibition in Article 3 requires an official and effective investigation to take place where there are credible allegations of serious ill-treatment by public officials.
Article 3 also requires that public authorities take steps to prevent torture and ill-treatment. This requires laws in place to adequately protect vulnerable groups from ill-treatment and for public officials to act to protect vulnerable people from harm inflicted on them by others.
From 1971 to 1975 the authorities in Northern Ireland exercised a series of extrajudicial powers of arrest, detention and internment of terrorist suspects. Five interrogation techniques were used on suspects interned in Northern Ireland, which consisted of:
- forcing detainees to remain standing ‘spread eagled’ in stress positions for hours on end;
- hooding detainees’ heads;
- subjecting detainees to loud and continuous hissing noises;
- sleep deprivation;
- food and drink deprivation.
The European Court of Human Rights held that these techniques caused, if not actual bodily injury, at least intense physical and mental suffering, led to acute psychiatric disturbance and were humiliating and degrading. As such the UK was held to be in breach of Article 3 by allowing its security forces to use such techniques.