Torture

Part of Petition – in the House of Commons at 2:09 pm on 22 May 1981.

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Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid 2:09, 22 May 1981

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.