(This article was published in the annual report for the Parliamentary Ombudsman as National Preventive Mechanism 2018. You can read the NPM´s 2018 annual report here)
The UN Committee against Torture based its assessments on Norway’s report on the implementation of its obligations under the UN Convention against Torture, and an oral dialogue between Norwegian government representatives and the committee that took place in Geneva in spring 2018.1 A number of Norwegian institutions and non-profit organisations also submitted supplementary information. The National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) provided a written submission to the committee on key findings from visits it conducted under its prevention mandate. The NPM also attended a preliminary meeting with the members of the committee and attended the hearing in Geneva.2
Major concern about the use of isolation
The UN Committee against Torture highlighted several problematic circumstances relating to the use of isolation in Norway. The committee was concerned about long-term isolation in prisons and the increase in the number of registered administrative decisions on isolation, often on grounds of circumstances relating to the prison premises or staffing. The committee was also concerned that practices which constituted de facto isolation were not registered as individual decisions that could be appealed. The committee pointed out that legal requirements for the use of isolation were not sufficiently precise, and that ambiguous requirements for making a decision on isolation may lead to measures that amount to violations of the UN Convention against Torture.
The expert committee also expressed concern that Norwegian legislation does not stipulate a maximum limit for how long an inmate may be held in isolation. This was also problematised by the UN Human Rights Committee in April 2018, which recommended that an absolute time limit be set in accordance with international standards.3
Based on these concerns, the committee recommended that the authorities ensure that law and practice relating to isolation are brought in accordance with the UN Convention against Torture and the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules). The committee made a number of detailed recommendations on the use of isolation in prisons, including that:
› matters relating to the prison building or staffing conditions may not be used as grounds for isolation
› the legal framework must be amended to ensure that solitary conefinement is only used in exceptional cases
› inmates in solitary confinement must receive daily medical supervision, and isolation must be discontinued if the inmate suffers detrimental effects
› the person in isolation’s right to appeal and to legal review must be maintained
The committee was also concerned about the systematic use of isolation in police custody facilities, and the suicide rate of persons on remand that may be caused by being placed in isolation. The committee recommended that the authorities implement measures to prevent unnecessary use of isolation in police custody facilities, including by ensuring sufficient staffing and suitable premises to attend to inmates on remand.
Shortcomings in prison mental healthcare
Concern was also expressed about inadequate mental health follow-up in prison. The committee referred to a particularly high rate of mental illnesses among inmates in Norwegian prisons, and to the fact that a severe lack of beds in the mental healthcare service meant that inmates were placed in isolation in prison rather than being offered healthcare.
The committee expressed serious concern about reports of such inadequate medical follow-up of inmates with symptoms of severe mental health illnesses. The committee recommended that the authorities
› abolish the use of isolation on inmates with serious mental health conditions
› implement measures to ensure full access to adequate mental health care for inmates, both in prison and in the mental healthcare services
The UN Human Rights Committee made similar recommendations to the Norwegian authorities in its concluding observations.4
Coercive measures still widely used in the mental healthcare services
The UN Committee against Torture also raised several problematic issues relating to the mental healthcare services. The extent of the use of coercive measures and other means of force gave particular cause for concern. It was pointed out that forced medication constituted a risk of lasting and irreversible harm. The committee also criticised the lack of attempts at using less invasive measures before forced treatment was initiated, and that the authorities lacked an overview and control when electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) was administered without consent. The committee recommended a number of measures, including that the authorities
› ensure that the patients’ dignity is preserved and that attempts at eliminating unlawful use of force be continued, including by considering further legislative amendments
› establish efficient procedural safeguards for the patients, including by ensuring effective complaint mechanisms
› ensure clear and detailed rules for the use of coercive measures, including restraint beds, with a view to achieving a significant reduction in both scope and duration
› consider eliminating forced treatment with intrusive and irreversible effects, such as ECT
› ensure reparation and rehabilitation for persons subjected to arbitrary psychiatric treatment against their will, without procedural safeguards and independent supervision
The UN Human Rights Committee also expressed concern about the use of force in the mental healthcare services in its observations regarding Norway.5
Criticism of the conditions at Trandum
The committee was concerned about the treatment of detainees at the police immigration detention c entre at Trandum. The committee referred among other things to the use of body searches that the detainees experienced as humiliating. The lack of routine medical examinations on arrival was p roblematised, and many municipalities’ long waiting times and lack of willingness to offer health services to this group of people was considered particularly worrying. It could in this respect become impossible to identify signs of torture and provide the necessary treatment to those concerned. The committee recommended that the authorities ensure that persons detained at Trandum receive treatment in accordance with international standards, including that
› detainees promptly receive an offer of a medical examination on arrival at the detention centre
› procedures be established to identify victims of torture and to assess the risk of torture in cases of deportation
Need for better training in documenting torture injuries
Another area of concern for the committee was findings relating to the prison staff and health personnel’s limited knowledge of how torture injuries should be efficiently investigated and documented. The committee recommended that all health personnel and public servants working with persons deprived of their liberty be given training based on the Istanbul Protocol. This is the UN’s manual for effective investigation and documentation of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.6 The committee also recommended that the authorities provide obligatory training relating to the rules of the UN Convention against Torture and on the absolute prohibition against torture for police and prison staff, judges, prosecuting authorities, and defence lawyers.
Challenges relating to the serving of sentences in another state
The committee’s final point was related to Norway leasing prison places in the Netherlands. It was recommended that the Norwegian authorities refrain from leasing prison places outside their territory.7 The authorities were also requested to ensure that public monitoring bodies like the NPM are entitled to monitor and supervise the conditions in all prisons and other places where people are deprived of their liberty.
Persons deprived of their liberty are subject to particular risk
Overall, the committee’s observations show that several aspects of the way in which persons deprived of their liberty in Norway are treated give rise to international concern. The placement of inmates with severe mental health conditions in isolation gives rise to particularly great concern about violations of the prohibition against torture and ill-treatment.
The areas of concern highlighted by the committee are very much in line with the NPM’s findings after 50 visits to places in which people are deprived of their liberty between 2014 and 2018. Both the committee’s observations and the NPM’s findings indicate that there is a need for targeted efforts on the part of the Norwegian authorities to prevent violations of the prohibition against torture and inhuman treatment.
1 The UN Committee against Torture, concluding observations for Norway’s eighth periodic report on implementation of its obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 5 June 2018, CAT/C/NOR/CO/8.
2 More information about the reporting process and the NPM’s input is available here (in Norwegian only):
3 The UN Human Rights Committee, concluding observations for Norway’s seventh periodic report on implementation of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 25 April 2018, CCPR/C/NOR/CO/7, paragraph 24–25.
4 The UN Human Rights Committee, concluding observations for Norway’s seventh periodic report on implementation of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 25 April 2018, CCPR/C/NOR/CO/7, paragraph 26–27.
5 See note above, paragraph 22–23.
6 The Istanbul Protocol, Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Professional training series no. 8/Rev. 1, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva and New York, 2004.
7 The lease between Norway and the Netherlands was terminated on 1 September