What I Learnt at the UN Committee Against Torture’s Review of the UK

Last month I went to Geneva to attend the 66th session of the United Nations (UN) Committee Against Torture as it reviewed the UK’s progress in implementing the UN Convention Against Torture. The Committee is made up of 10 international experts, two of whom were designated as rapporteurs for the UK – Ms Gaer from the United States and Mr Heller from Mexico.

What is the Convention Against Torture?

The full name of the Convention is the ‘Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.’ It is a UN convention that was ratified by the UK in 1988, which means that the UK has a binding legal obligation to implement its terms. These can be summarised as preventing and investigating torture and other ill-treatment, punishing perpetrators, and ensuring victims are compensated and provided with rehabilitation.

Article 1 sets out the definition of torture:

“For the purposes of this Convention, the term ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. […]” [Emphasis added]

Article 16 sets out the definition of other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (which I refer to as ‘ill-treatment’ in this article):

“Each State Party shall undertake to prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture as defined in article 1, when such acts are committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. […]”

Male violence against women and girls (VAWG) is, by definition, discrimination based on the victim’s sex and is recognised as a human rights violation. So acts of torture or ill-treatment that are perpetrated against women and girls based on their sex fall under the definitions of torture or ill-treatment in the Convention when they are (a) committed by public officials or (b) by private individuals when the Government hasn’t taken effective measures to prevent such treatment, or when the Government doesn’t investigate it and hold the perpetrators to account and provide the victims with redress and support.

Why is this relevant to the abolitionist campaign?

In a 2016 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture said:

“Historically, the torture and ill-treatment framework evolved largely in response to practices and situations that disproportionately affected men. The analysis has thus largely failed to have a gendered and intersectional lens, or to account adequately for the impact of entrenched discrimination, patriarchal, heteronormative and discriminatory power structures and socialized gender stereotypes.”

He went on to say:

“States fail in their duty to prevent torture and ill-treatment whenever their laws, policies or practices perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes in a manner that enables or authorizes, explicitly or implicitly, prohibited acts to be performed with impunity. States are complicit in violence against women […] whenever they create and implement discriminatory laws that trap them in abusive circumstances.”

This approach has been supported and upheld by the Committee and other bodies. In the case of Opuz v. Turkey, the European Court of Human Rights made a landmark ruling that Turkey had violated the prohibition on torture and ill-treatment by failing to prevent, and acting in a way that encouraged, violence against women. It found that official failure to respond appropriately to domestic violence gave rise to impunity, and that encouraged violence against women, and that this was a form of sex discrimination.

What promotes and perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes more than the sex industry?

In excess of 99% of prostitution users are male and upwards of 85% of those used are female, mainly from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. Prostitution serves up women and girls as objects for male sexual consumption and flattery, while she must swallow down her involuntary feelings of disgust, anger, humiliation and terror, hoping she’ll escape the worst physical and psychological violence that are rife in prostitution.

And if that isn’t enough to convince us that prostitution is relevant to the Convention Against Torture, the 1949 UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others states that “prostitution and the accompanying evil of the traffic in persons for the purpose of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and endanger the welfare of the individual, the family and the community,” and in 1992 the CEDAW Committee concluded in its General Recommendation 19 that prostitution and human trafficking are forms of gender-based VAWG.

However, it is clear that without continued pressure from women, this gendered analysis of the Convention is likely to be swallowed up by the rising tide of misogyny and sexism that is once more sweeping the planet.

The Committee’s meeting with NGOs

Nordic Model Now! submitted a report to the Committee in advance of the session, laying out our concerns – including that the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA) does not follow the international definition of human trafficking; it is profoundly sexist; it implicitly normalises and trivialises prostitution; and that the UK Government is abrogating its responsibilities to take effective and robust measures to address sex trafficking. We also argued that prostitution itself is a form of VAWG, and it fits the definition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in Article 16, if not the definition of torture in Article 1; and that the Government is complicit in women being forced into prostitution under the coercion of extreme poverty caused by austerity measures.

On Monday 6th May 2019, the Committee had a private meeting with the NGOs that were present. Each NGO was given 70 seconds to make a presentation. This is what I said when it was my turn:

“Our report to the Committee explains that the Modern Slavery Act mangles the definition of the forms of human trafficking that women and girls are most likely to be victims of, incorrectly centring the definition on the victim’s travel. As a result most sex trafficking is unrecognised, its victims unsupported and its perpetrators let off the hook.

A survivor of prostitution in our group sends you this message:

‘In my experience, prostitution is a form of torture. My ‘clients’ weren’t paying me to play-act; they were paying me to genuinely submit. One ‘client’ beat me with paddles, belts, shoes, canes and batons. Subsequent ‘clients’ were aroused by my bruises, cuts and scars.

I was spat at, beaten, and raped over and over and, worse, was forced to look like I enjoyed it – or risk him not paying and I end up homeless.’

This is what countless women in the UK are enduring to keep a roof over their heads, with the full complicity of the Government.”

The Human Trafficking Foundation gave an excellent presentation focusing on other weaknesses of the MSA and the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), particularly the lack of support for victims. They said that although more victims now enter the NRM process (which is the system for identifying human trafficking victims and providing them with support), no more reach the end of the process than before the introduction of the MSA.

After the NGO presentations, the Committee questioned us. They were astute and impressively well-informed as were the responses from the NGOs. Afterwards I gave the Committee members printed copies of the slightly longer presentation that I’d prepared, along with our report.

As we were leaving the conference room, I spoke to Ms Gaer and explained that the MSA doesn’t conform to the international definition of human trafficking set out in the Palermo Protocol. I told her about the recent ‘independent’ review of the MSA and that although it acknowledges the definition of human trafficking doesn’t conform to the Palermo Protocol, it recommends no immediate action to address this and asked the Home Office to do further research on its ‘typologies.’ I explained that these frame sex trafficking as ‘forced sex work,’ even when the victim is a child. She agreed prostitution should not be considered regular work and that the Palermo Protocol clearly separates it from forced labour. I directed her to the printed copies of my presentation and our report that I’d given her earlier.

The Committee questions the UK Delegation

The next day the Committee spent nearly three hours explaining their issues and questions to the UK Government delegation. These were wide ranging and included: why the Government has not transposed all of the measures in the Convention into legislation; exasperation that several requests for data disaggregated by sex, age and country of origin had been unmet; the 1,070 recorded alleged incidents of sexual abuse against children held in custody; whether Tasers were used in prisons; what action the Government was taking to ensure victims of the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes in Northern Ireland got redress; what reparations were planned for the victims of the Windrush scandal; whether the UK would be continuing to supply arms to Saudi Arabia in view of the grave human rights it has allegedly carried out in Yemen; the use of painful restraints and isolation against children in young offender institutions; access to psychological therapies for prisoners with mental health problems; that women do not have access to safe legal abortions in Northern Ireland; the Government’s reluctance to investigate reports of human rights violations that took place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and in Iraq during the occupation; a request for an end to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers; and much more.

On human trafficking, Ms Gaer asked why the Government doesn’t collect data centrally on the number of human trafficking complaints and investigations; what it is doing to address reported shortcomings in the identification of, and support for, victims, and the lack of independence of the Anti-Slavery Commissioner. She also asked why the MSA does not adhere to the international definition of human trafficking, which she said was leading to women who are trafficked into prostitution being unrecognised. I smiled and was grateful I’d had the opportunity to speak to her the previous evening.

Palais Wilson, Geneva, Switzerland, headquarters of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Istanbul Protocol

One of the Committee’s questions concerned whether medical personnel are trained in the use of the Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, known as the Istanbul Protocol. This describes the international standards on recognising and documenting symptoms of torture for use as evidence in court.

I hadn’t heard about this document before, so later that evening I looked it up. There was a section on ‘Sexual torture including rape.’ This begins as follows:

“215 . Sexual torture begins with forced nudity, which in many countries is a constant factor in torture situations. An individual is never as vulnerable as when naked and helpless. Nudity enhances the psychological terror of every aspect of torture, as there is always the background of potential abuse, rape or sodomy. Furthermore, verbal sexual threats, abuse and mocking are also part of sexual torture, as they enhance the humiliation and its degrading aspects, all part and parcel of the procedure. The groping of women is traumatic in all cases and is considered to be torture.” [My emphasis]

I immediately thought of some of the testimonies we’ve received from sex trade survivors through social media and the Share Your Story page on our website. Like this one, which was in response to the question, is ‘sex work’ real work?

“If ‘real work’ is having a 70 year-old drunk man bargaining with your ‘price’ because you won’t continue without a condom… that man getting aggressive and asking for his money back… if work is being forced to give up 50-100% of your income to a pimp… if work is being forced to have sex with men on the run from the police for domestic abuse… if work is being filmed without your consent… if work is being slapped/beaten/told you are a worthless whore… Then yes it’s work.”

I was struck by the similarity between what this section of the Istanbul Protocol describes and the dynamics that take place in most, if not all, prostitution encounters. But in prostitution there’s the added requirement that the woman has to pretend she’s enjoying it. As the survivor whose powerful words I read to the committee made clear, this is particularly terrible: it strips her of her human integrity, just as surely as the victim of state-based torture is stripped of his when he’s forced to give up all that is important to himself and to betray his comrades.

The UK Delegation responds to the Committee’s questions

The next day the UK delegation responded to the Committee’s questions and issues. It was painful listening to their self congratulatory tone, their complacency, and how they kept not really answering the questions. For example, on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Mr Candler said that the UK doesn’t export arms if there’s a clear risk they might be used for internal repression, to provoke or prolong conflict, or for aggressive attacks on another country. Yeah. Right.

We had heard previously that 56% of children in custody had been subject to painful restraint methods on their arrival at the detention centre. The response? The Government’s approach is to minimize the use of restraint through both de-escalation and diversion strategies.

And so it went on.

On the MSA not conforming to the international definition of human trafficking, Mr Alexander said that it had been explicitly drafted to meet the requirements in the Palermo Protocol and they are sure it is compliant. On violence against women, he said protecting women and girls from violence and supporting victims was a key priority and £100 million had been pledged for this up to the end of 2020.

When the UK delegation had finished their responses, the Committee had a short time to raise further questions and issues. It was gratifying that they identified many shortcomings in the delegation’s responses. But they did not question the Government’s assurance that the MSA is compliant with the Palermo Protocol, even though I had explained to Ms Gaer that the recent ‘independent’ review of the MSA had acknowledged that it isn’t compliant and so did the CEDAW Committee.

Neither did the Committee question the Government’s response to the tidal wave of male VAWG that is currently engulfing the country. Presumably they thought that £100 million over two years was a suitable economic response, even though the Government’s own estimates put the cost of domestic abuse at £66 billion a year, and that doesn’t include the costs of the approximately 100,000 rapes annually and epidemic levels of child sexual abuse. They did not question why the Government didn’t have a proper systematic strategy for preventing this orgy of VAWG – neither in terms of challenging men’s attitudes and sense of entitlement, nor in terms of addressing the worsening material inequality between the sexes.

After the other members of the Committee had voiced their questions, Mr Modvic, the chair of the Committee, vehemently interjected that the commitment to measures and funds for addressing victims of modern slavery and violence against women and girls was excellent, but why was the same not being done for the victims of torture? His frustration bounced round the room like a physical force.

My body went cold. I wanted to scream and shout – does women’s systematic torture and ill-treatment not count? Are women not human too?

What about the young woman whose testimony I’d read out two days earlier, explaining how prostitution is a form of torture? Does that not count? And what about all the thousands of women and girls in England and Wales who are victims of sex trafficking but are unrecognised as such because the MSA doesn’t use the correct definition? Does their suffering and torture not count? And what about the 105 women killed by male partners, ex-partners or close family members last year? Is being trapped in a relationship with a violent man and then killed by him not torture? Really?

And why could he not see that in this context £100 million over two years is a paltry and miserable sum? Why could he not see that the Government’s assurances were in no way proportionate to the magnitude of the problem and the vastness of the suffering of the women and girls involved?

In the lobby of the building there was a large placard which had given me joy and hope when I was waiting earlier in the week. It says, “Human rights belong to everyone.” Clearly Mr Modvig does not extend this to female human beings. Or at least, not fully.

The sex trade in Switzerland

As I returned to my budget hotel, passing close to the red-light district, my mind travelled back to Julie Bindel’s research into the sex industry in Switzerland. When I got back, I read the article again. Like in Germany, prostitution has been legal in Switzerland for decades, but Julie says that she’s never seen anywhere where it is as normalised as it is in Geneva.

Someone who was working for one of the many major human rights organisations that are based in the city told Julie how her work colleagues are prolific prostitution users:

“Friday night is known as ‘ho’ night. The men in my team literally brag about going to prostitutes. One of the roles in the team is to raise awareness about trafficking and irregular migration, but these guys go out and abuse them without any thought.”

This is the sea in which everyone, including the members of the Committee, are swimming when they are in Geneva. Is it possible to understand the reality of women trapped in prostitution when you yourself are using her for your own selfish gratification?

Is it a coincidence that many UN organisations that promote the full decriminalisation of the sex trade, including the WHO and UNAIDS, are based in Geneva?

Making policy and similar decisions about prostitution while being a prostitution user is a conflict of interests. It is estimated that more than 99% of prostitution-users (punters) are male. But men still control all the great bastions of power, including the UN organisations.

Of the ten members of the current Committee, only four are female and it seemed to me that it was hard for them to lobby for women’s interests in that environment so dominated by male interests. We need to support and encourage women to speak out for women. We need to make men listen. We need to show the men in power that we will no longer accept their duplicity and the prioritising of their rights and interests. We will no longer condone their sexual cruelty and fetishes.

The Committee’s Concluding Observations

The Committee published their report and recommendations (Concluding Observations) on Friday 17 May.

They enumerate many important concerns and make many excellent recommendations, including: that women and girls in Northern Ireland should have access to abortion when the pregnancy is likely to cause severe pain and suffering; the Government should take measures to address the low prosecution and conviction rate for domestic abuse and sexual violence, and to revise practices that deter migrant women reporting VAWG for fear of the police handing them over to immigration authorities; and they should improve the investigation of human trafficking and the support for its victims.

I welcome the Committee’s recommendations and I sincerely hope the Government will implement them without delay. But I was a little despondent, if not surprised, that the Committee had not taken on board our concerns. It has been a learning experience and I would like to encourage women all over the world to use these mechanisms to the full to try and get women’s full human rights honoured and implemented and the heinous practice of prostitution recognised as what it is: torture.

Leave a Reply