Last month I took a look at the relevance of article 2 of the Human Rights Act and pondered on why you would ever want to get rid of the right to life. This month I thought I’d put spotlight on article 3: Prohibition of torture.
Article 3 makes it illegal to subject anyone to torture or to inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. This is an area open to wide interpretation in Britain and many cases are brought before the courts which are ultimately rejected because they do not meet the threshold necessary for it to be a breach of article 3. However, there are some cases which are successful.
One such case came before the European Court of Human Rights in 2013. The Secretary of State ordered the extradition of a British prisoner to the United States to face further charges there. However, he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and the US could not rule out that he would probably be held in one of their ‘SuperMax’ prisons, under extreme conditions. The expert witnesses said that, if this were to happen it would be likely to exacerbate his mental illness and the court agreed, stating that any such extradition would therefore constitute inhumane treatment and would therefore breach the claimant’s article 3 rights. They upheld the complaint and overturned the extradition order.
Cases like this, which prevent prisoners from having to be deported, extradited, or otherwise sent to another country rather than staying in prison here, are often criticised in the press and the underlying insinuation is that Britain always gets the short end of the stick. However, there have been far more consequential rulings under article 3 against other European states. In one case against the Romanian government a non-smoking prisoner was made to share a cell with three smokers and his repeated transfer requests were all refused. Despite, being diagnosed first with pulmonary fibrosis and later with chronic obstructive bronchopneumopathy, he was still not moved. The court ruled that he had been treated in an inhumane and degrading way and that his article 3 rights had been breached. They awarded him 4,000 euros in compensation. As it happens, the High Court here in Britain recently ruled in a similar case which relied primarily upon the 2006 Health Act rather than the Human Rights Act but which nevertheless ruled that the ban on smoking in public places applies in prisons as it does outside of them, contrary to what Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has so far argued. If this ruling stands and action isn’t taken to prevent smoking in British prisons soon, the door will be wide open for British prisoners to launch similar cases to the one in Romania.
Now you might think that this just proves that such articles needn’t exist, if the act itself should exist at all. But if actual torture should remain illegal (as all right thinking people would agree) then where do you draw the line? Is it ok to subject someone to conditions which you know will lead to long term harm so long as it doesn’t hurt them there and then? And is it ok to allow something to cause such harm to come to a person so long as you don’t do if yourself? Or should we actually prove that we live in a civilised society and protect the well-being of all people in Britain? I for one think that anything else would be sheer hypocrisy, and I would never want to live in a country which doesn’t hold article 3 dear.