Sunday, May 23, 2010

France slammed by UN Torture Committee

In November 2009, France enacted a law designed -- as claimed by President Nicolas Sarkozy's administration -- to recognize prisoners' fundamental rights (inter alia, civil, social, family, health, labor and training rights) in order to promote human dignity and social rehabilitation. In a strong indictment of this administration's policies and practices in the areas of criminal justice and immigration/asylum, the UN Committee Against Torture's latest report indicates that rather than being "exemplary" in the area of human rights, this law, and more broadly the penal policies implemented since the Committee's last review in 2005, are a miserable failure.
The first subject of concern for the Committee is the fact that, though France criminalizes torture and acts of barbarity and violence, it has not brought its legislation into "strict conformity" with the definition of torture provided by the Torture Convention (art. 1). In particular, the Committee notes that such a definition would provide the clarity and foreseeability required of criminal law and satisfy the Convention's obligation to distinguish acts of torture committed, tolerated or instigated by public officials or others acting under color of law from acts of violence committed by non-state actors. The Committee also repeats its recommendation that France make torture an imprescriptible crime (§13).
Secondly, the Committee reproaches France its "priority procedure" for asylum requests, which does not provide for suspensive appeals. Those whose requests are denied may therefore be sent back to countries where they risk torture before their appeals are heard. In 2009, 22% of asylum requests were subject to this procedure (§14).
Thirday, the Committee is concerned with France's 2003 law introducing the concepts of: (1) "internal asylum," "asylum" in an area of the home country where the individual is deemed safe from persecution, applicable, for example, to women seeking protection from gender-based persecution suffered within the tribal setting; and
(2) "safe countries," the concept that countries may be deemed safe for refugees to return if, for example, the armed conflict or political regime from which they fled has ended. The criteria used generally do not protect women from gender-based persecution. The Committee "deplores" France's returning of individuals to countries where they risk torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (§§16-18).
With respect to police custody, interrogation and imprisonment (image credit), the Observatoire International des Prisons notes the severity of the Committee's remarks, and summarizes the recommendations -- which are final and cannot be appealed -- as follows:
  • The Committee requests that France "consider abrogating" the rétention de sûreté, which allows for indefinite imprisonment of those deemed not safe to release even after they have served their time. Noting in §29 that this extra penalty flouts the principle of legality and is "of a nature to raise questions" as to the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the Committee also points to its incidence on prison overpopulation. Finding a "direct corollary" between the current overpopulation and the "numerous criminal laws recently enacted that aim to stiffen penalties and reduce recidivism, the Committee enjoins France to apply penalties other imprisonment more often.
  • The Committee aligns itself with several national and European human rights authorities by criticizing France's system of differential detention, which "necessarily" renders the conditions in which sentences are carried out arbitrary: "disciplinary punishment, or denial of access to certain rights while in prison could, by their repetition, absence of justification, and/or the arbitrary way in which they are dispensed, constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment."
  • The Committee once again criticizes the system of full body searches of prisoners, asking that this practice be completely eliminated.
  • The Committee warns that the use of Tasers (electrical discharge pistols) may constitute torture. (Prior IntLawGrrls post)
  • The Committee is highly preoccupied by the number of suicides in French prisons (more than 15% of the detainees who killed themselves in 2009 were being held in disciplinary quarters as punishment) and requests that isolation be used only exceptionally and for a limited time, in accordance with international norms.
  • The Committee is also preoccupied by continued allegations of mistreatment of detainees by officers/guards and requests that each such allegation benefit from a transparent and independent investigation. In this regard, the Committee expresses its concern that the Sarkozy administration's new "Défenseur des droits" (rights defender) replace other authorities designed to protect fundamental rights. It therefore requests the government to ensure the effective and uninterrupted operation of the Contrôleur général, as well as other independent authorities (national mediator, office of children's rights, and the national commission on security ethics).
Lastly, the Committee notes that it was inadequately informed of France's efforts to combat human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and recommends that it adopt a program designed to punish traffickers and to protect and rehabilitate trafficked persons.
The same criticisms and recommendations have been made by the European Court of Human Rights, which found France guilty of violating the prohibition on torture 5 times between 1992 and 2007 in the prison context, and the French National Consultative Committee on Human Rights, which has issued recommendations on, inter alia, implementing the torture convention and on combating human trafficking and sexual exploitation (English version translated by yours truly).
It is time France listened.