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An examination of the role of soft law in international human rights law


During the period 2006-2012 the AHRC funded two research grants led by Professor Rachel Murray from the University of Bristol’s Human Rights Implementation Centre (HRIC). Both awards focussed on the topic of torture within international human rights law. One part of the research investigated regional, national, and international mechanisms for preventing torture and changed how the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture (OPCAT), was implemented in the international arena.

The projects have also led to the research team being asked to comment, review, and advise on policies to prevent torture by organisations such as the UN and its Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, the UK NPM, HM Inspectors of Prisons, various governments, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and other actors – they have helped these groups in preventing torture in various areas of the globe.

The United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) works with national governments that have ratified OPCAT to prevent and eliminate torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment of detainees and those deprived of their liberty. The AHRC funded research has had a direct impact in changing how OPCAT was implemented in the international arena, through the research team providing comments on draft and existing domestic legislation and UN level documents and policies.

The researchers established the “OPCAT Contact Group”, which is comprised of relevant civil society organisations, and eventually obtained standing before the SPT. In addition, Co-Investigator of both awards Professor Malcolm Evans was made a member of the Subcommittee in 2009 and was subsequently appointed as Chair in 2011.

The research team can point to direct impact on policy changes within the UK as well. From 2008 onwards, the remits of the HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary were amended to ensure they could visit police cells, thereby increasing the UK’s compliance with its international treaty obligations.

The research team continue to receive requests for advice on draft and existing legislation on NPMs in a range of countries (Maldives, Georgia, Hungary, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Paraguay, South Africa, and Montenegro) among others. In some cases, the research team commented on drafts of legislation which had an impact on the final legislation in these countries.

A further result of this research is that Rachel Murray has delivered an on-line training course and workshop on the African human rights system for national human rights institutions in Africa in collaboration with the Network for African National Human Rights Institutions (NANHRI) and the Open Society Justice Initiative. This led to the adoption of Guidelines by African National Human Rights Institutions on Monitoring the Implementation of the decisions of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Members of the research team have a good working relationship with the African Commission’s Committee on Prevention of Torture in Africa and have been closely involved in the drafting of a General Comment on the Right to Redress for Victims of Torture.

The team has also managed to obtain further funding for a continued research into the area, receiving an award in excess of £1m from the ESRC as well as further awards from the European Commission and other organisations.

Gateway to Research Project Links: An examination of the role of soft law in international human rights law: the Robben Island Guidelines on the Prevention of Torture in Africa (Oct '08 - Dec '12).