Preventing torture: How NHRIs can be powerful agents of change 

National human rights institutions (NHRIs), including those designated as National Prevention Mechanisms (NPMs), can be powerful actors to prevent torture and ill-treatment, as well as safeguard the rights of those who face heightened risks when deprived of liberty. Barbara Bernath, Secretary General of the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT), speaking at the 14th International Conference of NHRIs, describes some of the practical ways that NHRIs can use their unique mandate to drive change at the national level.   


There was significant discussion during the conference about the heightened risks that different groups can experience when deprived of liberty. What steps can NHRIs take to integrate a focus on this into their monitoring and preventive work? 

We know that the risks experienced in society by persons in situations of vulnerability are magnified when they are deprived of liberty. For NHRIs, it is crucial that, firstly, they understand the nature of the risks that different groups can experience in places of detention. And, secondly, it is important that NHRIs bring visibility to these risks – with the authorities and with the general public – in order to better protect people during the period of their detention and ensure their specific needs are met. 

If they can conduct visits to places of detention, either as the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) or as the NHRI, they can strengthen monitoring methodology by integrating this focus on vulnerabilities and paying special attention to the risks and needs of different groups of people. A key principle as they undertake this monitoring work, of course, is to ‘do no harm’. For example, LGBTI+ persons deprived of liberty may not wish to be identified, especially as gay or lesbian. NHRIs and NPMs should be careful about the way they conduct their monitoring, while also ensuring that they pay attention to the impact of specific vulnerabilities. 

The APT is currently coordinating a large-scale project to support gender-sensitive monitoring by NPMs worldwide, including how the develop and present their reports and recommendations. We will also compile the data we collect in a global report on women in prison that can help strengthen the advocacy of NPMs at the national level, as well as strengthen the international community of NPMs for greater impact.  

What are the important relationships that NHRIs can establish or strengthen to bolster national efforts to prevent torture and ill-treatment? 

Many people, including here at this conference, have expressed the idea that NHRIs act as a bridge. This is very true in many areas of the work of NHRIs and it is also true of their efforts to prevent torture and ill-treatment. NHRIs have a significant convening power. They can be a bridge between the authorities and civil society organisations, especially those representing marginalised groups. They can also be a bridge between the different arms of government – the judiciary, the executive and the legislature – because they can present reports to parliament, provide advice to government and intervene before the courts.  

NHRIs can bring people around the table, both for large public events and for small or private meetings with stakeholders, to discuss their reports, their findings, their concerns, and their recommendations. They have direct contact with victims, with authorities, with persons deprived of liberty, but also with all the actors that can drive change. They can inform change in laws, policies and practices. They can support or lead training for the police and prison officials. They also have great credibility with their mandate and legal powers to be the primary human rights defender at the national level. 

However, some participants mentioned that it can be a lonely position for NHRIs to play such a pivotal but singular role, especially when they operate in a national environment of war, conflict or tension. This is why the regional and international NHRI networks are so essential. They allow NHRIs to connect with peers who face similar issues or operate in similar situations, to exchange good practices and to learn from one another’s experiences. This International Conference is a perfect example of this because it brings together NHRI representatives from all the regions. I believe that we are stronger together and building a global community of practitioners greatly supports our work for a torture-free world. 

The APT has been leading advocacy for the Méndez Principles on Effective Interviewing, which were released in 2021. What do the Méndez Principles set out and how can NHRIs support their implementation at the national level? 

The Méndez Principles on Effective Interviewing for Investigations and Information Gathering are a tool to help shift law enforcement officials away from confession-driven interrogations towards rapport-based interviewing. They are far more effective for gaining accurate and reliable information, and they are far more protective of human rights. The Méndez Principles outline a shift in law enforcement practices; for example, how to conduct an interview and how to integrate legal and procedural safeguards throughout the investigation process. But they also propose a shift of mindset for law enforcement officials, by considering the person they are interviewing as a fellow human who can help them gather the information they need to get to the truth. And this goes to the heart of the Méndez Principles: that we start with the presumption of innocence and seeking the truth, not a confession. 

The Méndez Principles are not an instruction guide. Rather, they provide a framework of reference for policymakers. They also need to be integrated into the national legal and policy context. And this is where NHRIs can play an important role. Firstly, NHRIs can introduce the Méndez Principles at the national level with senior police and law enforcement officials, the judiciary, civil society and other stakeholders. They can build on this by helping to develop a national roadmap for implementing the Méndez Principles. They can ask: Where to start in my country? Is it with training for the police? Or maybe the gap is with the implementation of legal and procedural safeguards? Is there an obvious need for audio-video recording of police interviews? It helps to start with strategic and focused steps, rather than try to do everything all at the same time. 

For change to happen, it requires strong leadership, support and buy-in. It requires the involvement of the police training academy and it means building awareness and understanding from the bottom up. All this together can lead to powerful and sustained change. And I think NHRIs, because they can intervene at all these levels, can be effective leaders for implementation of the Méndez Principles.