Skip to main content

Four Countries That Opened Their Closed Institutions—and Prevented Torture

Two people walk near a prison building
A security guard escorts an inmate past a jail in Boychinovtsi, Bulgaria, on January 29, 2015, a facility where staff have been accused of routinely beating the inmates with bats and broomsticks. © Nikolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty

Forty years ago, Jean-Jacques Gautier, the founder of the Association for the Prevention of Torture, proposed what was then a simple but revolutionary idea. He believed we could prevent torture by opening closed institutions—prisons, police stations, psychiatric hospitals—to unannounced visits by independent experts, and do it on a global scale through an international convention.

The first major step towards realizing Gautier’s idea came about a decade later, with the creation of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, a European body that visits places of detention in the Council of Europe’s 47 member states.

The success of the European model set the stage for the United Nations to follow suit by adopting the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), and creating the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. Crucially, the UN introduced a new and unique approach: it obliges states to set up a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM), a national body whose sole focus is to prevent torture and ill treatment. This year marks the tenth anniversary of OPCAT’s entry into force. Today, the treaty has ratifications from 81 states, 64 of which have established their own NPMs.

The principles first outlined by Gautier and later enshrined in the European and UN conventions have become fundamental to effective torture prevention. As the following examples from OPCAT’s first decade show, the “Gautier proposal” has had a global impact, providing flickers of light in a world still full of too many dark places.

Accessing Places of Detention

In 1991, psychiatrist Catherine Paulet’s workday in a Marseille prison was interrupted by a visit from the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, the committee’s first-ever visit to France. Two decades later, Paulet was unequivocal about the impact of that visit on her recognition of the importance of access to places of detention. 

Later, as an expert with the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, she herself visited dozens of such institutions, including a psychiatric hospital in Eastern Europe that she saw three times in a decade. On her first visit, schizophrenic patients, scared and emaciated, wandered the halls in rags, while nurses equipped with sticks guarded the door. By her third visit, the hospital had implemented many of the committee’s recommendations—it had been completely restructured, and its doors stood wide open.

Engaging in Dialogue and Cooperation

In 2012, Amnesty International Senegal saw years of work alongside the Association for the Prevention of Torture come to fruition as the Senegalese government established the National Observer of Places of Deprivation of Liberty. With the help of Amnesty International Senegal, the observer began regular consultations around the country with local governments, civil society organizations, and survivors of torture and their families. These meetings helped local actors understand the risk factors and root causes of torture and ill treatment, and contributed to changes in detention practices.

Being Part of a Global Community

In 2008, Kyrgyzstan joined OPCAT and established its NPM, the National Center for the Prevention of Torture. Its creation was an example of successfully combining national efforts—led by Open Society grantees Golos Svobody Public Foundation and Kylym Shamy Centre for Human Rights, among others—with the support of international actors, such as the UN Subcommittee, whose visit to Kyrgyzstan helped in moving the NPM establishment process forward. 

In 2014, the Association for the Prevention of Torture invited the National Center to a meeting in Vienna to share its experiences with other NPMs. The following year, the National Center went to Geneva where, thanks to this facilitated exchange with other NPMs and international experts, they began to consider the sensitive issue of LGBTI persons in detention as part of their work.

Protecting People Deprived of Liberty

In 2015, after the Paraguayan National Preventive Mechanism spent two years documenting abuses and poor conditions, five shelters and care homes for children were closed. Dozens of children were reintegrated into family and community life, and three of the institutions were transformed into day centers. 

Through close cooperation with the responsible authorities, the NPM also contributed to policy reform regarding deinstitutionalization of children. In a linked judgment, the Supreme Court issued a resolution underlining the importance of alternatives to institutionalization, and establishing a formal procedure to make sure children stayed in shelters only temporarily.

The Decade Ahead

OPCAT’s second decade holds many challenges. Even established NPMs are at risk of reprisals and attempts to limit their effectiveness. States of emergency that restrict detention safeguards, and the migrants now detained around the world, pose new challenges for NPMs.

The Association for the Prevention of Torture will help NPMs work more effectively, giving them the tools they need to address the most vulnerable groups in detention and working to improve coherence in national oversight systems. We will partner with NPMs and others to improve regulation of detention practices like solitary confinement and reform police practices that lead to forced confessions. And we will work to strengthen legal and procedural safeguards in the first hours of detention, such as detainees’ right to contact family and access a lawyer. 

The next 10 years will be challenging, but if the previous decade has taught us anything, it is that together, we can prevent torture.

The Association for the Prevention of Torture is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

Read more

Subscribe to updates about Open Society’s work around the world