What Is Inhuman And Degrading Treatment?


Treating other people as less than human; causing them fear, suffering and humiliation – these are violations of human dignity. Everyone has a right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment.

What does the right say?

Article 3 of the Human Rights Convention protects people against torture and inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment. It states simply:

No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The rights in the Human Rights Convention, including freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment, take effect in UK law through the Human Rights Act.

How are ‘torture’ and ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ defined?


Torture is deliberate inhumane treatment, causing very serious and cruel suffering. This suffering may be mental, physical or a combination of the two. Treatment must reach an intense level of severity in order to qualify as torture.

Less severe forms of ill-treatment are also banned if they are ‘inhuman’ or ‘degrading’, as we cannot be treated in ways which violate our human dignity. Inhuman treatment causes ‘intense physical and mental suffering.’ Degrading treatment ‘arouses in the victim a feeling of fear, anguish and inferiority capable of humiliating and debasing the victim and possibly breaking his or her physical or moral resistance.

Ill-treatment must go beyond any suffering which is connected to a legitimately inflicted punishment.  The circumstances of each case (for example the sex, age and health of the victim, the duration of the treatment and its physical and mental effects) are relevant. The courts have been clear that the State does not necessarily have to intend to cause pain and suffering to violate Article 3.

States must not do anything which results in inhuman and degrading treatment, but must also take reasonable steps to prevent ill-treatment, to protect those at immediate risk of ill-treatment and to provide remedies where ill-treatment has occurred. This may mean, for example, that there must be an investigation where there are credible allegations of serious ill-treatment by public officials.

Can torture or inhuman treatment ever be justified?


Many rights in the Human Rights Convention have a built-in mechanism setting out when the enjoyment of rights can justifiably be restricted or interfered with. For example, Article 10 (freedom of expression) states that the exercise of free expression can be restricted by law in order to protect the reputation or rights of others. Rights that have these built-in limitation mechanisms are sometimes known as qualified rights.

By contrast, the right to freedom from torture and inhuman and degrading treatment under Article 3 is thought of as an absolute right – which means there are no circumstances in which it will ever be justifiable to torture someone or treat them inhumanely, even in times of public emergency or war.

But the UK would never violate Article 3, right?

Wrong. There are several examples of the UK breaching the prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment.

A severely disabled woman was sentenced to prison for 7 days. The cell in which she was first placed was not adapted for a disabled person and she was forced to sleep in her wheelchair. Prison staff also had difficulty helping her on and off the toilet. The Human Rights Court said that she had been the victim of degrading treatment.

A young boy was beaten by his stepfather, which left clearly visible marks on the boy’s skin. At the time, there were no clear restrictions on how severely parents could hit their children as a form of ‘reasonable chastisement’. The Human Rights Court found that the law did not adequately protect children against treatment or punishment contrary to Article 3. The law was later changed so that it will always be a crime to hit children, if it causes any damage – for example, breaking the skin or leaving a lasting red mark.

Some asylum seekers were denied support by the Government. The UK House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) found that, as asylum seekers were not allowed to work, the refusal of support put them at risk of homelessness and poverty, violating their rights under Article 3.

These are just a few examples. We need to know what our rights are, so that we can stand up for ourselves and others whose fundamental human rights are violated by the State.

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