The Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“SPT”) is a new kind of treaty body in the United Nations human rights system. It has a preventive mandate focused on an innovative, sustained and proactive approach to the prevention of torture and ill treatment. The SPT started its work in February 2007.

The SPT was established pursuant to the provisions of a treaty, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (“OPCAT”). The OPCAT was adopted on December 2002 by the General Assembly of the United Nations and entered into force in June 2006.

The SPT is composed of 25 independent and impartial experts coming from different backgrounds and from various regions of the world. Members are elected by States Parties to the OPCAT for a four-year mandate and can be re-elected once.

What does the SPT do?

Mandate – The SPT has two primary operational functions. First, it may undertake visits to States Parties, during the course of which it may visit any place where persons may be deprived of their liberty. Second, it has an advisory function which involves providing assistance and advice to States Parties on the establishment of National Preventive Mechanisms (“NPM”), which OPCAT requires that they establish, and also providing advice and assistance to both the NPM and the State Party regarding the working of the NPM. In addition, the SPT cooperates, for the prevention of torture in general, with relevant United Nations organs and mechanisms as well as with international, regional, and national institutions or organizations. The SPT produces a public annual report on its activities which it presents to the Committee against Torture and the UN General Assembly in New York. In addition to its field work, the SPT also convenes three times a year for one week-long sessions at the United Nations Office at Geneva.

Visits – Under the OPCAT, the SPT has unrestricted access to all places where persons may be deprived of their liberty, their installations and facilities and to all relevant information. The SPT visits police stations, prisons (military and civilian), detention centres (e.g. pre-trial detention centres, immigration detention centres, juvenile justice establishments, etc.), mental health and social care institutions and any other places where people are or may be deprived of their liberty.
The SPT is able to interview in private persons deprived of their liberty and any other person who in the SPT’s view may be able to assist it with relevant information, including Government officials, NPMs, representatives of national human rights institutions, non-governmental organizations, custodial staff, lawyers, doctors, family members, etc. People who provide information to the SPT must not be subject to any form of sanction or reprisal for having provided information to the SPT.

In order for the SPT to fully realize its mandate under the OPCAT, the SPT has so far devised four types of visits: these are SPT country visits, SPT country follow-up visits, NPM advisory visits and OPCAT advisory visits. (For details see the information on SPT visits and follow-up).

All visits are conducted by at least two members of the SPT, accompanied, if necessary by experts with relevant professional experience and knowledge, as well as by members of its Secretariat and, where needed, interpreters.

Assistance and advice – Pursuant to article 17 of the OPCAT, State Parties have an obligation to establish NPMs, which are independent national bodies for the prevention of torture and ill treatment at the domestic level. The OPCAT and the SPT provide guidance concerning the establishment of those bodies, including their mandate, powers and methods of working. It is the responsibility of the State to ensure that it has in place a NPM which complies with the requirements of the OPCAT.

For its part, the SPT's mandate includes assisting and advising States in the establishment of NPMs and it has produced guidelines on NPMs to add further clarity to what is required of states in this regard. The SPT also assists NPMs by providing them with guidance on effective operational practice and on how best to reinforce their powers, independence and capacities in order to strengthening safeguards against ill treatment of persons deprived of their liberty. To that end, the SPT makes itself available for engaging in continuous dialogue and works in close collaboration with NPMs.

How does the SPT do its work?

The SPT undertakes country visits during which a delegation of its members visits places where persons may be deprived of their liberty. During its visits, the SPT examines the conditions of their detention, their daily life, including the manner in which they are treated, the relevant legislative and institutional frameworks, and other questions that may be related to the prevention of torture and ill treatment. At the end of its visits, the SPT draws up a written report which contains recommendations and observations to the State, requesting a written response within 6 months of its receipt. This then triggers a further round of discussion regarding the implementation of the SPT’s recommendations, and thus begins the process of continual dialogue. The SPT visit reports are confidential, though State Parties are encouraged to make them public documents, as permitted by the OPCAT.

When undertaking NPM advisory visits, the SPT focuses on issues concerning the establishment and/or operation of the NPM in the country concerned. OPCAT advisory visits focus on high-level discussions with the relevant authorities concerning a whole range of issues concerning OPCAT compliance.

The SPT is guided by the principles of confidentiality, impartiality, non-selectivity, universality and objectivity. The SPT conducts its work in a spirit of co-operation. It aims to engage with States Parties through a process of constructive dialogue and collaboration rather than condemnation. Nevertheless, if the State party refuses to co-operate or fails to take steps to improve the situation in light of the SPT’s recommendations, the SPT may request the Committee against Torture to make a public statement or to publish the SPT report if it has not yet been made public

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