The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) was the first international instrument to explicitly oblige states to establish bodies tasked with regular and unannounced visits to places of detention in order to prevent torture and ill-treatment.
It also established the Sub-committee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT) to visit places of detention across the globe, in states that ratified the Protocol. Until then, the only comparable body was the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) in the Council of Europe region.
The OPCAT was groundbreaking. It sought to fill a gap and extend and strengthen detention monitoring by requiring state parties to establish their own National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs). An NPM is an independent expert body (or bodies) tasked with monitoring places of detention through regular visits.
To be compliant with OPCAT, the NPM must be independent and entitled to make unannounced and unhindered visits to every place in the country where people are deprived of their liberty. Their mandate also needs to include the competence to review existing and proposed legislation.
NPMs should gather information during visits, analyse the legal and practical framework, query government and authorities, and recommend measures to reduce the risk of torture and ill-treatment.
The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) explicitly enshrines the following preconditions for effective preventive monitoring:
- Independence: they need to be independent, financially and operationally. Members must not hold any positions that raise a conflict of interest.
- Mandate: they should regularly examine the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty, have the power to make recommendations to relevant authorities, and to comment on (draft) legislation.
- Visits: they should have access to all places where people are deprived of their liberty, without prior announcement and throughout the country. Visits should be undertaken frequently to ensure regular scrutiny.
- Unlimited access: they must have unlimited access to – and within – any place where people are deprived of their liberty. This includes access to information.
- Private interviews and confidentiality: members of monitoring bodies must be able to conduct private interviews and protect information acquired from detainees on a confidential basis.
- Professional team: the members must have proven multi-professional experience. The team must include female members and have an ethnic and minority representation.
- Protection against reprisals: detainees who speak to members of the monitoring mechanism must be protected from any form of sanction or reprisal as result of having done so.