New tool encourages the last remaining nations to join the UN Convention against Torture

Rich and poor countries alike are able to meet the recommendations for an initial medical assessment of prisoners, says DIGNITY’s Medical Director, who wrote a new tool for the Convention Against Torture Initiative

»We want to show what it would take for any country to meet the international standards for an initial medical assessment of prisoners«, says Marie Brasholt.

She is Chief Physician and DIGNITY’s Acting Medical Director. Together with her colleagues Brenda Van Den Bergh and Jens Modvig  she wrote a 12-page tool, which has now been launched to pave the way for more countries to join the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT).

173 nations (status January 2022) have already joined the Convention, and new countries are added each year.

In order to persuade the few remaining governments among the world’s almost 200 nations to join UNCAT, Denmark joined forces with Chile, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia and Morocco back in 2014 and established the Convention Against Torture Initiative (CTI). The CTI is pushing for all countries to join the Convention by 2024.

The CTI works from a secretariat in Geneva and publishes a series of tools, or guides, with concrete advice on how to meet the international standards related to UNCAT.

For the CTI, DIGNITY has now developed a tool that deals specifically with the initial medical assessment, which should always take place when new prisoners arrive at a prison or jail.

One of the main purposes of the initial medical assessment is to determine whether the inmate has previously been subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

The initial medical assessment is not expressly prescribed in UNCAT. But it is recommended in the UN prison minimum standards, the so-called Mandela rules, and in the European Prison Rules, which are recommendations from the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

Best practice examples

The new CTI tool mentions a number of best practice examples of how an initial medical assessment can be carried out and what it may include. From the United States, for example, there is mention of a screening for covid-19, from Mongolia of examination for tuberculosis, and from Morocco of screening for risk of suicide and self-harm.

»We deliberately chose a broad variety of very different countries. We want to show that all countries, rich and poor alike, can meet the international standards when it comes to initial medical assessments of prisoners. We hope that our best practice examples will inspire those countries that are still hesitant to join UNCAT and mistakenly believe not to be able to meet the international standards«, explains Marie Brasholt.

Initial medical assessments are not made solely for the sake of the individual prisoner. If a prisoner is suffering from a serious, contagious disease, it is also important for other prisoners and for prison staff that they are isolated and receive relevant treatment.

An initial medical assessment, conducted in the right way, can also be used to make it easier for prison authorities to address false allegations of torture and ill-treatment. If torture has occurred before the arrival at the prison or jail and is documented during the initial medical assessment, no one can subsequently rightly accuse employees of the receiving prison of being responsible.

»I hope our new tool can help convince the last few missing nations to join UNCAT. And fortunately, the staff of the CTI Secretariat in Geneva will gladly advise and guide those states that have unresolved questions about what it takes to live up to the Convention and meet the international standards«, says Marie Brasholt.

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