European Committee for the Prevention of Torture
and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment


Combating impunity
Extract from the 14th General Report of the CPT,
published in 2004

The raison d’être of the CPT is the “prevention” of torture and inhuman or degrading
treatment or punishment; it has its eyes on the future rather than the past. However, assessing the
effectiveness of action taken when ill-treatment has occurred constitutes an integral part of the
Committee’s preventive mandate, given the implications that such action has for future conduct.
The credibility of the prohibition of torture and other forms of ill-treatment is undermined
each time officials responsible for such offences are not held to account for their actions. If the
emergence of information indicative of ill-treatment is not followed by a prompt and effective
response, those minded to ill-treat persons deprived of their liberty will quickly come to believe –
and with very good reason – that they can do so with impunity. All efforts to promote human rights
principles through strict recruitment policies and professional training will be sabotaged. In failing
to take effective action, the persons concerned – colleagues, senior managers, investigating
authorities – will ultimately contribute to the corrosion of the values which constitute the very
foundations of a democratic society.
Conversely, when officials who order, authorise, condone or perpetrate torture and illtreatment are brought to justice for their acts or omissions, an unequivocal message is delivered that
such conduct will not be tolerated. Apart from its considerable deterrent value, this message will
reassure the general public that no one is above the law, not even those responsible for upholding it.
The knowledge that those responsible for ill-treatment have been brought to justice will also have a
beneficial effect for the victims.
Combating impunity must start at home, that is within the agency (police or prison service,
military authority, etc.) concerned. Too often the esprit de corps leads to a willingness to stick
together and help each other when allegations of ill-treatment are made, to even cover up the illegal
acts of colleagues. Positive action is required, through training and by example, to promote a
culture where it is regarded as unprofessional – and unsafe from a career path standpoint – to work
and associate with colleagues who have resort to ill-treatment, where it is considered as correct and
professionally rewarding to belong to a team which abstains from such acts.
An atmosphere must be created in which the right thing to do is to report ill-treatment by
colleagues; there must be a clear understanding that culpability for ill-treatment extends beyond the
actual perpetrators to anyone who knows, or should know, that ill-treatment is occurring and fails to
act to prevent or report it. This implies the existence of a clear reporting line as well as the adoption
of whistle-blower protective measures.

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