Leading Article: Don't debase the fight for human rights

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The Independent Culture
BRITAIN HAS been found guilty of torture, or rather "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment", by the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which has found a number of "subjects of concern" in this country's record. These subjects range from deaths in police custody, through the use of detention centres and plastic bullets in Northern Ireland, to "the dramatic increase in the number of inmates held in prisons in England and Wales over the last three years".

Now these are all indeed subjects for concern, but to use the language of torture in this context is to debase the currency of universal human rights. Yes, it is terrible that the British police have such difficulty keeping people, especially angry black men, alive while in detention. It is a matter of national shame, and the proper object of censure, even by an international body. It is even legitimate that there should be an element of international supervision of British policy in Northern Ireland. But when the UN complains about the rising prison population it undermines its own authority. This is patently a matter of domestic criminal justice policy.

The committee was set up to police a UN Convention Against Torture, which was ratified by the Conservative government 13 years ago. The Convention itself is an offshoot from Article Five of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - the one about "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment", and one of the 30 which The Independent is featuring this month to highlight the continuing need for vigilance.

International oversight to protect fundamental human rights is one thing, but the implication that Britain is therefore on a par with a police state which uses torture as an instrument of policy should be forcefully rejected.