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Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Part I Substantive Articles, Art.12 Ex Officio Investigations

Moritz Birk

From: The United Nations Convention Against Torture and its Optional Protocol: A Commentary (2nd Edition)

Edited By: Manfred Nowak, Moritz Birk, Giuliana Monina

From: Oxford Public International Law (http://opil.ouplaw.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2023. All Rights Reserved.date: 20 April 2024

Torture — Treaties, interpretation — Jurisdiction of states, universality principle

(p. 336) Article 12  Ex Officio Investigations

Each State Party shall ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.

1.  Introduction

Widespread impunity is one of the root causes for the continuation of torture and ill-treatment.1 Although many States have aligned their legal framework to international standards by enacting new anti-torture laws, these have often not been used in practice. The implementation gap between law and practice has reportedly even increased over the last decades.2 The exception is where the law requires the investigation by fully (p. 337) independent bodies—of which there are however only very few examples worldwide.3 Thus, impunity remains a widespread problem.

In the 2010 Global Study on the Phenomenon of Torture and other forms of Ill-treatment, the then UNSRT Manfred Nowak has described the magnitude of impunity in most countries visited as ‘close to total’ and as ‘one of the most disappointing findings’ of his tenure.4 He identified a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach among law enforcement officials regarding suspects who show signs of torture thereby ignoring the obligation to initiate ex officio obligations.5 Allegations of torture are all too often not taken seriously in a general mistrust of (suspected) criminals.6 Where investigations are carried out, this is often not done in an effective manner. The key problem appears to be that most investigations are carried out by the same authorities who are accused of committing such acts or that have close links to the suspects, usually the police. The strong feelings of loyalty and solidarity among police officers pose a serious conflict of interest for the investigators.7 The lack of impartiality often extends to prosecutors and judges, who are more likely to side with law enforcement officials than alleged ‘criminals’ or ‘terrorists’, resulting in a considerable reluctance to bring charges.8

Combating impunity is one of the most important objectives of the CAT.9 It obliges states to criminalize torture (Article 4), to establish (universal) jurisdiction over the crime (Articles 5 to 9), and thereby to ensure that there is no ‘safe haven’ for torturers. Moreover, victims of torture need to have the effective possibility to complain about torture without having to fear reprisals and have their case promptly and impartially investigated by competent authorities (Article 13).

Article 12 reinforces the investigative duty by shifting the responsibility of initiating an investigation to the State. It does not depend on a complaint but the competent authorities need to proceed ‘wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction’. This obligation to institute investigations ex officio is very important as victims of torture and other forms of ill-treatment often have no access to complaints mechanisms or fail to complain due to fear of reprisals and a lack of trust in the mechanisms. Therefore, during the discussions of both provisions, the Working Group in 1980 reversed the order contained in the Declaration and the original Swedish draft to start with the obligation now contained in article 12 on the ground that ‘the prevention and punishment of acts of torture were primarily the responsibility of the Government of States parties and not that of the victim, who may not be in a position to make complaints’.10

Although the reasoning for the reversal of Articles 12 and 13 in the Working Group refers to ‘prevention and punishment’, one needs to distinguish the investigation required by these two provisions from the criminal investigation and prosecution (p. 338) foreseen in Articles 6(2) and 7. Articles 5 to 9 require States parties to establish different types of jurisdiction with the aim of avoiding safe havens for individuals responsible for torture practices and, as soon as such individuals are present on their territory, to arrest them for the purpose of either prosecution or extradition. The obligation to bring individual perpetrators to justice only applies to torture, not to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.11

Articles 12 and 13, on the other hand, are not part of the criminal jurisdiction provisions in the Convention, but of those establishing effective measures for the prevention of torture as well as other forms of ill-treatment.12 The obligation to investigate is not triggered by the fact that a suspected torturer is on the territory of a State party, but by the suspicion of the competent authorities of a State party that an act of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment might have been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.13 The duty to investigate is explicitly applicable to torture and other forms of ill-treatment (Article 16 (1)). However, in its practice, the Committee does not always make a clear distinction between Articles 12 and 13 as well as between these two preventive provisions and the requirement of criminal investigations under Articles 5 to 9.14

The effective investigation of torture and other forms of ill-treatment has numerous purposes as spelt out in the Principles on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Istanbul Principles) that have been endorsed by the Committee against Torture and other human rights bodies:15 clarification of the facts and establishment and acknowledgement of individual and State responsibility for victims and their families; identification of measures needed to prevent recurrence; facilitation of prosecution, and/or, as appropriate, disciplinary sanctions for those indicated by the investigation as being responsible, and demonstration of the need for full reparation and redress from the State, including fair and adequate financial compensation and provision of the means for medical care and rehabilitation.16

(p. 339) 2.  Travaux Préparatoires

2.1  Chronology of Draft Texts

Declaration (9 December 1975)17

Article 9

Wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture as defined in article 1 has been committed, the competent authorities of the State concerned shall promptly proceed to an impartial investigation even if there has been no formal complaint.

IAPL Draft (15 January 1978)18

Article IV

The Contracting Parties undertake to adopt legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures necessary to give effect to this convention to prevent and suppress torture, and in particular, to ensure that:

  1. (c)  all complaints of torture or any circumstances which give reasonable grounds to believe that torture has been committed shall be investigated speedily and effectively and that complainants shall not be exposed to any sanction by reason of their complaints, unless they have been shown to have been made falsely and maliciously.

Original Swedish Draft (18 January 1978)19

Article 10

Each State Party shall ensure that, even if there has been no formal complaint, its competent authorities proceed to an impartial, speedy and effective investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment has been committed within its jurisdiction.

10  United States Draft (19 December 1978)20

Combining Articles 9 & 10

If there is reasonable basis for belief that an act of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment has been or is being committed within a State Party’s jurisdiction, its competent authorities shall initiate and carry out an impartial, speedy and effective investigation.

(p. 340) 11  Revised Swedish Draft (19 February 1979)21

Article 13

Each State Party shall ensure that, even if there has been no formal complaint, its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.

2.2  Analysis of Working Group Discussions

12  In written comments on Article 10 of the original Swedish draft, France suggested that the words ‘reasonable ground’ (‘de bonnes raisons’) be replaced by ‘serious grounds’ (‘des raisons sérieuses’).22

13  The United States explicitly voiced the opinion that it would be appropriate that the obligation to conduct a speedy, impartial, and effective investigation apply both to acts of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment if there is reasonable basis for belief that an offence has been committed.23

14  The United Kingdom proposed that the word ‘jurisdiction’ be deleted from the last line of Article 10 and replaced with ‘territory’.24

15  During the discussion in the 1980 Working Group it was suggested that Articles 12 and 13 be reversed. The rationale of the representative who made this proposal was that the prevention and punishment of acts of torture were primarily the responsibility of the Governments of States parties and not that of the victim, who may not be in a position to make complaints. The Working Group agreed to this proposal. It further decided to delete the phrase ‘even if there has been no formal complaint’ contained in Article 13.25

16  In response to the question on the scope of the phrase ‘territory under its jurisdiction’, it was said that it was intended to cover, inter alia, territories still under colonial rule and occupied territories.

3.  Issues of Interpretation

17  The duty to conduct prompt and impartial investigations is of crucial importance in the fight against torture and other forms of ill-treatment. Therefore Committee has recommended ‘the setting up of a specific legal framework, to eliminate impunity for perpetrators of acts of torture and ill-treatment by ensuring that all allegations are investigated promptly, effectively and impartially’,26 notably the inclusion of the obligation in legislation such as the criminal procedure code.27 The UNSRT has equally recommended enshrining the fundamental principles of investigation in legislation28 and (p. 341) that there ‘should be protocols and guidelines for the prison administration about cooperating with the authorities by not obstructing the investigation and by collecting and preserving evidence’. The CPT emphasized that ‘the legal framework for accountability will be strengthened if public officials (police officers, prison directors, etc) are formally required to notify the relevant authorities immediately whenever they become aware of any information indicative of ill-treatment.’29

18  At the same time the Committee has criticized the frequently substantial gap between the legal framework and its practical implementation with many countries without any or no meaningful record of investigations, prosecution, and sentencing of torture despite widespread reports and numerous complaints of torture.30 Therefore a legal framework is clearly not enough: the relevant authorities also need to be sensitized about the obligations incumbent upon them31 and practical measures need to be taken to ensure effective investigations—most importantly by creating an independent investigation mechanism.32 A continuous point of criticism is the lack of data provided by States on the number of complaints, investigations, prosecutions, and sentences for torture. This makes it very difficult for the CAT Committee to assess whether the State party is effectively implementing the duty to investigate.

3.1  Meaning of ‘reasonable ground to believe’

19  A head of a police station or a pre-trial detention centre does not have to wait until a detainee comes to his or her office and lodges a formal complaint of torture. Article 9 of the Declaration and the different drafts of Article 12 CAT required States to proceed promptly to an impartial investigation ‘even if there has been no formal complaint’. This phrase was only omitted after the order of Articles 12 and 13 had been reversed with the aim of underlining that investigations should normally start ex officio and not on the basis of a formal complaint.33

3.1.1  Obligation to Proceed to an Investigation Ex Officio

20  The obligation to proceed to an investigation ex officio34 in Article 12 shifts the responsibility to initiate an investigation from the victim to the State authorities most directly involved. It does not need a complaint and evidently even less so proof by the alleged victim that he or she has been subjected to torture. This is of vital importance since torture and other forms of ill-treatment usually take place behind closed doors without any outside witnesses, and the survivors are often too afraid to complain officially about such practices. The obligation extends to other forms of ill-treatment as explicitly stated (p. 342) in Article 16, para 1. Consequently, legally requiring a formal request as a precondition for opening an inquiry and the initiation of judicial investigation proceedings constitutes a violation of Article 12 CAT.35

21  The Committee repeatedly stressed that once there is a reasonable ground to believe that torture or ill-treatment have been committed the decision on whether to conduct an investigation is not discretionary.36 It found a system that leaves the option of not ordering an investigation or not prosecuting the perpetrators of acts of torture and other forms of ill-treatment involving law enforcement officers to be in contravention of Article 12.37 It also rejected the requirement of prior ministerial authorization for investigating law enforcement officials.38 The Council of Europe Guidelines on Effective Investigation of Ill-treatment additionally prescribe that the decision to discontinue or not an investigation should only be taken by ‘an independent, competent authority upon thorough and prompt consideration of all the relevant facts’ and ‘should be subject to appropriate scrutiny and challengeable by means of a public and adversarial judicial review process’ in order to ensure the mandatory nature of investigations.39 The Committee has also continuously criticized amnesty laws and stressed that waivers of prosecution and statutes of limitations do not apply under any circumstance to the crime of torture.40

3.1.2  Origin and Level of Suspicion Required

22  The origin of the suspicion to be considered is interpreted broadly by the CAT Committee. In the leading case Blanco Abad v Spain the Committee found that the authorities have a duty to investigate ‘wherever there are reasonable grounds to believe that acts of torture or ill-treatment have been committed and whatever the origin of the suspicion’.41 This is confirmed in the Istanbul Principles, passed by the General Assembly in 2000, stating that the investigative duty is triggered ‘if there are other indications that torture or ill-treatment might have occurred’42 as well as in ECHR case law, CPT reports, and the CoE Guidelines.43

23  Most evidently a suspicion arises where a person shows signs of abuse. If a person arrives healthy at a police station and leaves the same police station a short time later with (p. 343) certain bruises or injuries, this is a ‘reasonable ground’ to believe that an act of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment has been committed.44 This also goes for injuries that have occurred otherwise in the control of the state, eg during arrest. This has been confirmed in the case FK v Denmark where the complainant had cut himself resisting arrest and maintained that the treatment of the authorities amounted to ill-treatment. The Committee considered that in light of the fact that the circumstances of the incident and the intensity of the force used were disputed, the police could not accept ‘face value the explanation that the complainant had hurt himself’ and remained under the duty to initiate a prompt investigation.45 Consequently, whether the injuries were self-inflicted, the result of a legitimate use of force by the respective police officers or the result of ill-treatment needs to be established by a prompt and impartial investigation before an independent body.

24  It is however not necessary that the survivor displays signs of abuse. In the case Blanco Abad v Spain the Committee found a violation of Article 12 on the ground that the High Court had not started an investigation despite having before it five reports of a forensic physician which noted that the applicant had ‘complained of having been subjected to ill-treatment consisting of insults, threats and blows, of having been kept hooded for many hours and of having been forced to remain naked, although she displayed no signs of violence.’ The Committee considered that these elements should have sufficed for the instigation of an investigation.46 The UNSRT has repeated that demanding evidence of torture rising to the level of ‘proof’ (ie beyond a reasonable doubt) should not be necessary to establish the duty to investigate. Demanding visible or recognizable marks is problematic in countries where independent medical examinations are lacking and gives authorities the possibility to escape accountability by delaying an examination.47 Moreover, torture and ill-treatmnet often leave no visible marks.48 At the same time the Committee found in the case AA v Denmark that a general allegation that the detention as such—due to the vulnerability of the detainee as former victim of torture—amounts to a violation of the Convention is not sufficient as in that case ‘no reasonable purpose would have been served by such investigation’.49

25  The sources of information providing a ‘reasonable ground’ can be manifold. Efficient procedural safeguards are not only among the most effective means of preventing torture50 but the prompt notification of family members, access to a lawyer and an independent medical examination also provide for important means to detect torture and other forms of ill-treatment of a detainee and bring it to the attention of the competent investigation mechanism. Moreover, the examination before a judge within forty-eight hours after arrest, usually the first opportunity for victims to complain about their treatment, is an important opportunity to detect ill-treatment of detainees. The Committee has held that judges should inquire explicitly about the treatment received and should (p. 344) ask questions to check that all statements to the prosecutor were made freely and without any form of coercion. In case of an allegation the judge should record the allegation in writing, immediately order a forensic medical examination, and take all necessary steps to ensure the allegation is fully investigated.51

26  Of particular importance for the detection of possible ill-treatment is a thorough and independent medical examination of every detainee when arriving at a particular detention facility, when leaving this facility, and at any other time, in particular at his or her own request. Any physician examining a person detained or being released should question him or her specifically about torture and other forms of ill-treatment, take the answer into account in conducting the medical examination, and include both the question and answer in the medical report.52 It is of crucial importance that the examination is impartial which is why the Committee considers that the procedure for the medical examination of persons in police custody should be completely separate from the police element and the doctor independent of the police authorities.53 By means of a medical examination any sign of ill-treatment can be immediately detected and documented, making it possible to determine from which period it emanates, eg arrest, police detention, prison, etc. Moreover, it is often difficult and painful for a torture victim to talk about the traumatic experience and it is necessary to create conditions where the victim feels safe from reprisals and trustful that his or her allegations are taken seriously. An independent and competent doctor may be the best person to inquire about possible ill-treatment and gain the trust of the detainee.54 When a medical doctor detects ill-treatment, it is important that it is immediately reported. Therefore, the Committee considered that the obligation of confidentiality should not trump the need to report torture and other forms of ill-treatment and recommended establishing a reporting obligation for medical professionals.55

27  Detecting possible signs of torture and other forms of ill-treatment is however not always easy and requires knowledge about the methods employed in such situations (eg during interrogations) and its consequences, as well as investigative capacities. The lack of professional capacities of medical doctors and other professionals in contact with detainees and torture survivors constitute a problem in many countries.56 Therefore, the Committee regularly emphasizes the importance of applying the ‘Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading (p. 345) Treatment or Punishment’ (Istanbul Protocol), recommending it for the training of law enforcement officials, judges, prosecutors, forensic doctors, and medical personnel in dealing with detainees.57

28  Another very important way to find out whether and to what extent torture and other forms of ill-treatment are practised is to establish ‘a system of regular visits undertaken by independent international and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty’ as stipulated in Article 1 OPCAT. An effective and independent National Preventive Mechanism (NPM)—established in line with Article 17 OPCAT—which regularly carries out unannounced visits to every place of detention and conducts private interviews with detainees—can detect possible cases of torture and other forms of ill-treatment and refer it to an independent authority competent to proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation.58 A Government genuinely interested in fighting impunity and investigating all suspicions of torture should also open up its detention facilities to unannounced visits by international mechanisms such as the UN Subcommittee on Prevention (SPT), the UNSRT, or competent international or domestic NGOs.

29  In practice, reporting by non-governmental organizations receiving complaints, information, and providing assistance to victims and relatives play an important role in detecting and documenting ill-treatment. This was explicitly acknowledged by the Committee in the case Khaled Ben M’Barek v Tunisia where it specifically considered reports of international NGOs alleging that the applicant died as a result of torture in detention as providing reasonable grounds to initiate an investigation.59 Consequently, supporting an active civil society that can work without interference increases the effectiveness of the duty to investigate.

3.2  Meaning of ‘prompt investigation’

30  In the case of a suspicion of torture or ill-treatment, a prompt investigation is of particular importance ‘both to ensure that the victim cannot continue to be subjected to such acts and also because in general, unless the methods employed have permanent or serious effects, the physical traces of torture, and especially of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, soon disappear.’60 This naturally extends to other forms of evidence than physical traces as shown in the case Alexander Gerasimov v Kazakhstan where the Committee criticized that the results of the scientific examination of the clothes of the complainant and alleged perpetrators were compromised as it was carried out more than three months after the alleged torture and after they had been washed.61 Moreover, a prompt response to a suspicion by the authorities is essential for maintaining public confidence in the State’s adherence to the rule of law and its clear rejection of torture and other forms of ill-treatment.62

(p. 346) 31  In most cases in which the Committee found a violation of Article 12, no investigations had been carried out at all or only after long periods ranging from several months to many years.63 In some cases the Committee found a violation although the State authorities claimed that the investigation was still ongoing, because it had provided no evidence helping the Committee ‘to ascertain what progress has been made, to judge how effective the procedure might be or to explain the reasons for such a delay’.64 The Committee expressly rejected the argument that the lack of progress is due to lack of cooperation of the complainant residing outside the country.65

32  In order for an investigation to be prompt and effective, it must be initiated immediately or without any delay,66 within hours or, at the most, few days after the suspicion of torture or ill-treatment has arisen. This is confirmed by the case Blanco Abad v Spain in which a delay of two weeks was held to constitute a violation of Article 12. The case concerned the ill-treatment of the complainant by officers of the Guardia Civil between 29 January and 2 February 1992, where she had been kept incommunicado under anti-terrorist legislation.67 Signs of her ill-treatment were noticed by a doctor at a Women’s Penitentiary Centre who had examined her upon arrival on 3 February 1992. The prison director, in complying with the relevant obligations under Articles 12 and 13, immediately brought the physician’s report to the attention of the competent judge. The Committee observed that ‘when, on 3 February, the physician of the penitentiary centre noted bruises and contusions on the author’s body, this fact was brought to the attention of the judicial authorities. However, the competent judge did not take up the matter until 17, and February the Court initiated preliminary proceedings only on 21 February.’68 The UNSRT has even recommended that all suspicions and allegations of (p. 347) torture and other ill-treatment should be investigated and documented within twenty-four hours.69

33  An investigation must not only be initiated promptly but should also be carried out and concluded as expeditiously as possible.70 In this regard, the Committee has criticized countries where serious accusations ‘remain at the protracted investigation stage’71 and ‘judicial procedures remain excessively long and drawn out’.72 In the same manner the ECtHR has not only considered the starting of the investigation but whether different investigative measures, eg taking of statements or the forensic medical examination were taken belatedly.73

3.3  Meaning of ‘competent authorities’

34  While criminal investigations must necessarily lead to a decision by an independent and impartial tribunal within the meaning of Article 14 CCPR,74 Article 12 CAT only requires a prompt and impartial investigation by a ‘competent authority’. Apart from the courts, this can also be undertaken by national human rights institutions, ombuds-institutions, detention monitoring commissions, public prosecutors, administrative agencies, and even police chiefs and prison directors, who have a genuine interest in preventing torture and other forms of ill-treatment within their respective detention facilities.

35  The Committee recommends to establish national human rights institutions (NHRI) to carry out investigations.75 Although the Paris Principles do not specifically prescribe that NHRIs should have the mandate to receive and investigate complaints,76 the Committee has noted with concern where the mandate ‘does not empower it to investigate action taken by the Prosecutor’s office’.77 At the same time the Committee also expressed concern where ‘cases of torture continue to be investigated only by administrative, disciplinary or military, rather than criminal jurisdictions.’78

36  In order to be effective any genuine investigating body must be entrusted with full investigative powers, such as summoning witnesses, interrogating the accused officials, inspecting official documents, and carrying out forensic examinations, if necessary also after the exhumation of the mortal remains of an alleged victim of torture.79 Thus, the Committee expressed concern where investigative mechanisms are restricted in their investigative powers, eg when the prosecution service and enforcement judges have difficulties accessing prisons.80 This is confirmed by the Istan