How can torture be tackled more effectively?


Brought to you by Bristol University Press and Policy Press, the Transforming Society podcast brings you conversations with our authors around social justice and global social challenges. We get to grips with the story their research tells, with a focus on the specific ways in which it could transform society for the better.


In this episode of the Transforming Society podcast, Jess Miles speaks with Malcolm Evans, former Chair of the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture and author of Tackling Torture: Prevention in Practice.


They discuss the traps we fall into when talking about torture, including the disturbing normalisation of torture in television and film, why the distinction between torture and inhuman treatment is a sensitive area, and what could be done to help prevent torture more effectively.


Tackling Torture by Malcolm D. Evans is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £19.99.


Bristol University Press/Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 25% discount – sign up here.


Image Credit: Malcolm D Evans





00:00:06 Jess Miles

My name is Jess Miles and this is the Transforming Society podcast. Today we are privileged to be speaking to Malcolm Evans, principal of Regents Park College, Oxford. Malcolm was formerly professor of public international law at the University of Bristol and was chair of the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture for 10 years.

00:00:24 Jess Miles

In 2015, he was appointed to KCMG for services to the prevention of torture and the promotion of religious liberty, having previously been awarded the OBE. In 2004, Malcolm’s new book, tackling torture prevention and practice, could not be written by someone more qualified. Torture is universally prohibited, always as a matter of international law.

00:00:46 Jess Miles

But this is not enough to ensure that no one is tortured. It can feel remote from the realities of the modern world. But as a human rights issue, we need to talk about how we think about torture and why it’s not being tackled as effectively as it could be.

00:01:00 Jess Miles

Welcome, Malcolm. Thank you so much for speaking to me today. I spoke about your background briefly just now, but can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and why you wanted to write this book?

00:01:01 Malcolm Evans

Good morning.

00:01:13 Malcolm Evans

Well, yes, thank and thank you for the opportunity to speak on this topic today.

00:01:18 Malcolm Evans

I suppose I’ve lived with this topic as an academic for most of my most of my life. As you said at the outset, I started teaching at Bristol University.

00:01:29 Malcolm Evans

A long time ago, back in the late 1980s, in fact, I was there for the best part of 3435 years and one of the very first things I.

00:01:42 Malcolm Evans

Did was read some articles about the emerging new ideas around tackling torture. When I was a very young academic, just just starting off in the days, as I say in the book, when academics seem to have the time to be able to sit down.

00:01:58 Malcolm Evans

And just read interesting.

00:01:58 Jess Miles

Yeah, he did say that in the book.

00:01:59 Malcolm Evans

Academic articles.

00:02:02 Malcolm Evans

Which is a a a bit of a, a bit of a lost world in some ways. Now just for the interest of it.



00:02:09 Malcolm Evans

It really did interest me, but what I then found was that there were colleagues working in Bristol who were actually working on exactly the same thing, but from a different angle. I had a very good friend who was professor of Criminology at Bristol, Professor Rob Morgan, and he was also working on these these issues.

00:02:29 Malcolm Evans

In a much more practical perspective than I was as a much more experienced person who was used to visiting places of detention. And so we started talking and working a little bit together. He as a as a practiced criminologist, me as an embryonic public international.

00:02:44 Malcolm Evans

There. And so we started off on, let us call it a bit of a research journey together. But having started off on that, if you like, research journey, it very quickly led on to my becoming involved with advocacy NGO’s working for prevention of torture and the establishment of new international law.

00:03:05 Malcolm Evans

To international instruments around that way and that work directly led to the establishment of the Optional Protocol for the Prevention of Torture in about 20/20/22. The sorry 2002 time passes. The instrument was adopted.



00:03:22 Malcolm Evans

And so then when a few years later I had the opportunity of putting myself forward to become a member of the committee, it really was quite remarkable because it meant that I’d sort of studied this instrument, as I say, across my academic life. First of all, as an academic then as something of a of a of an activist.

00:03:42 Malcolm Evans

And then to have the opportunity of being able to, well, let’s see how it really works in practice.

00:03:47 Jess Miles

That’s quite unusual, isn’t it? You kind of end up seeing it from every perspective.

00:03:47 Malcolm Evans

And it was.

00:03:49 Malcolm Evans

It’s very unusable.

00:03:53 Malcolm Evans

Exactly. And so in the light of that, I felt when I finally stepped down from my role on the committee.

00:03:54 Jess Miles


00:04:00 Malcolm Evans

The next important thing was to, I suppose, return to the art to move from research advocacy operationalisation to reflection, and this is what this book is really all about. Trying to pull together in different guises that basically 30 years of different forms of engagement around the optional.

00:04:20 Malcolm Evans

Protocol and how we do better about trying to tackle torture.

00:04:24 Jess Miles

OK. And so you do say in the book that this isn’t just an academic study for all these reasons and you describe it as an honest and personal reflection. So I did want to kind of bring a bit of that to this podcast today.

00:04:40 Jess Miles

Can you talk about any particular experiences or things you’ve seen that were pivotal or affirmative for you personally during your work on torture and detention?

00:04:52 Jess Miles

Stories. I’m suppose I’m thinking of the stories in the book that.



00:04:55 Jess Miles

Are really powerful.

00:04:57 Malcolm Evans

Well, the the I I can answer that on a number of different different levels to just step back for just a moment about I suppose part of the motivation for why I tried to write the book in the way that I wrote it. Because as you rightly say, I have tried to write it in the style which I suppose for a traditional crusty academic like me, it’s a little bit unusual.

00:05:17 Malcolm Evans

And and I will freely say no, I really struggled with doing it. It’s not the sort of thing that academics normally try to do when you sort of step, if you like, forward from the, you know, from the from the gales of academic approaches. You know, we we as academic lawyers always hide behind all our footnotes and our.

00:05:20 Jess Miles


00:05:37 Malcolm Evans

Use of third, third you know. Should we? Should we say third person language? You know, it is generally thought that here CV 70 different citations to prove it and and that wasn’t gonna cut it as far as I was concerned.

00:05:49 Malcolm Evans

There was partly a good reason for that. Much of the work that I was doing on the committee was confidential, and so frankly, I could only write in the way that I would want to without revealing sources, without making direct references to materials which were and still remain not in the public domain. And so it was.

00:06:08 Jess Miles


00:06:09 Malcolm Evans

Partly of of necessity. But it was also that the that the voice that I wanted to get.

00:06:14 Malcolm Evans

Through really needed to be quite a personal voice and it’s not something that people like me normally write in. And so it was a difficult register to find.

00:06:22 Jess Miles

You do talk quite.

00:06:24 Jess Miles

You talk quite a lot about how it made you feel and like almost like these visceral experiences. Yeah, yeah.



00:06:30 Malcolm Evans

Yes and and. And whilst that may be true in terms of you know what we did and what we saw, I think also you know and and perhaps I’m only just thinking about this for the first time as I’m speaking to you, you know really also about my discipline.

00:06:43 Malcolm Evans

Self as an international lawyer because again, you know we have all these things we think about our discipline, not only the way that we you know the the way that we write about it, but we talk about it, all the assumptions that underpin that and in a way much of what I’m doing and having completed the book I now recognise.


And right.

00:07:04 Malcolm Evans

Is sort of puncturing many of the should we say the working assumptions upon which the entire let us say edifice of international law in some ways?

00:07:12 Malcolm Evans

He’s he’s built the fictions to muck all them the the assumptions some might call them the lies which which permeate, you know, the way that we construct international law because, you know, I’m an international law. I know why it is the way it is. It needs to be that way if it’s going to work. But it would be difficult to deconstruct this.



00:07:33 Malcolm Evans

How can I say in a purely academic fashion than speaking from experience and letting that element of it come through from a more experiential perspective? I think is the only way that it can be done. I think the book tries to do it in terms of my responses to.

00:07:47 Malcolm Evans

Torture. But I think it also says something about increasing in my views about my own discipline as well that we need to rethink some of the ways in which, if we’re being honest, we we we actually think as international lawyers too. And in a sense, yeah, that is one of the hallmarks of the book. It’s a question of.

00:08:07 Malcolm Evans

Let’s be honest about what we know, shall we?

00:08:10 Jess Miles

Yeah. And one thing, I think that really came through in the book for me is that disconnect between law and reality. And one of the points you make in the book.

00:08:21 Jess Miles

That you can have all these laws and you can have all these like protocols and things, but actually every situation is different with very particular needs. And so you you have to have that human experiential element to it as well. I don’t know enough about it to know how that would ever work in practice, but.

00:08:39 Malcolm Evans

Well, well, no, I I.

00:08:40 Malcolm Evans

Think that that’s right. And and and you asked me to think of a, you know, a few moments ago about some, if you like, some pivotal moments. And yeah, in a sense, some of the pivotal moments that brought me to where I am, some of them. Well, well, a a number of them spring to mind. Some of them from a long time before I actually joined the committee and started work.

00:08:47 Jess Miles


00:09:00 Malcolm Evans

Thing you know with it and and these again perhaps go more deeply to you know, the way I respond to you know, to to international law, international human rights protection and in particular. And I do want to try to emphasise this, the, you know, the need, I think, to take the idea of prevention of abuse as human rights lawyers a lot more seriously.

00:09:20 Malcolm Evans

Many people think, well, that’s a stupid comment, isn’t it? Because the entire point is to prevent, well, actually.

00:09:27 Malcolm Evans

It may intend it that way, but it’s not the way it often works in practice. You know a a couple of things I remember it was about 20 years ago now. It was just after the when the so-called War on Terror was was underway and all of a sudden, in a country such as this, in your introduction, you mentioned the absolute prohibition on torture.

00:09:47 Malcolm Evans

Probably nothing is more absolutely prohibited in international law than torturers. You know, there’s endless prohibitions. And yet.

00:09:52 Jess Miles


00:09:56 Malcolm Evans

20 years ago War on Terror and what do we find? Suddenly all sorts of people are spending huge amounts of time trying to find justifications for torturing people.

00:10:07 Malcolm Evans

And I I I.

00:10:07 Malcolm Evans

I it’s still.

00:10:09 Malcolm Evans

I vividly remember being asked to go on a a radio discussion show 111 evening.

00:10:16 Malcolm Evans

Around this time, one of these sort of quasi philosophical reflections, etcetera, etcetera, and there were other very well meaning people all trying to discuss at great and what quite could make torture acceptable.

00:10:28 Malcolm Evans

And I think we.



00:10:30 Malcolm Evans

You know, how is it that when we are faced with something and this word has got out there that well, we may need to torture suspects in order to save lives, for example, ticking on situations? Well, how do we do it in ways that work and and one of them that I don’t know why it.

00:10:38 Jess Miles


00:10:44 Malcolm Evans

Just stayed with me. They were talking.

00:10:46 Malcolm Evans

Ohh well well, if you were to insert sterilised needles.

00:10:50 Malcolm Evans

Under people’s fingernails.

00:10:52 Malcolm Evans

Yeah. So what difference does it?



00:10:54 Malcolm Evans

Make whether they’re sterilised.

00:10:57 Jess Miles


00:10:58 Malcolm Evans

That makes it.

00:10:59 Malcolm Evans

OK then does.

00:10:59 Malcolm Evans

It and and similarly when people say, Oh well, get judicial authorization for torture and then we can make sure that it’s being done properly and properly bounded. Well, I’m sorry. How do any of these things equate with an absolute prohibition and and it it’s just reflective to me of the way that when the pressure is on.



00:11:18 Malcolm Evans

Just so often resort to.

00:11:20 Malcolm Evans

Yeah, Fig leaves to try to justify what happens, and these were at the time our fig leaves.

00:11:27 Malcolm Evans

And yet we are very.

00:11:29 Malcolm Evans

Critical of other people who come up, what we consider spurious excuses and what it shows to me is that you know when you feel things are on the line, you’ve always got to be vigilant for, you know, the lengths that people will will, will, will go to and that we are all, you know, susceptible to do what we ought not to do, you know, which is one of the reasons why you need consent.

00:11:48 Malcolm Evans

And focus on what you need to do to squeeze out the possibility of torture. Because simply saying it’s prohibited is clearly not enough to stop it from from happening. But then it also, I think, leads in also to you know, how we actually do respond to matters to do with human rights situations again.

00:12:08 Malcolm Evans

Ten years ago, I was at a I don’t think I mentioned this in the book, but I was.

00:12:12 Malcolm Evans

At at at an event and have the title of, you know what are we going to do about the human rights situation? It was actually in Libya at the time, again quite a long time ago with at the time when Colonel Gaddafi was still in power but falling from power, and there were all these well meaning people in the room.

00:12:30 Malcolm Evans

And they were talking about establishing possibility of courts getting the lawyers in, taking witness statements, training people on how to gain witness statements, to be able to bring about prosecutions.

00:12:41 Malcolm Evans

And it suddenly dawned on me and I said.

00:12:44 Malcolm Evans

And everyone looked at me as if.

00:12:45 Malcolm Evans

I was mad. What’s?

00:12:47 Malcolm Evans

Any of this got to do with quote, the human rights situation in Libya, yeah.

00:12:53 Malcolm Evans

And the answer was nothing. Which isn’t to say you don’t need accountability. You really must hold perpetrators. But of course. But in terms of addressing the situation of the persons at risk, this wasn’t doing any of it.

00:13:06 Malcolm Evans

And again, it just struck me that, you know, this was becoming just a little bit of a diversion.

00:13:12 Jess Miles

It’s really interesting and that I think that kind of leads on to my next question in a way there’s something strange in how we think about torture and ill treatment, isn’t there? It’s kind of quite an abstract thing that.

00:13:25 Jess Miles

We are very.

00:13:26 Jess Miles

Keen to justify sometimes in in that that just wouldn’t happen with any other kind of.

00:13:28 Malcolm Evans


00:13:34 Jess Miles

And I think your book challenges are assumptions about torture. So I wondered if you could say a little bit about this kind of thing about the kind of traps we fall into when we’re talking about torture and how we think about torture.

00:13:38 Malcolm Evans


00:13:51 Malcolm Evans

Yes, well, what is torture?

00:13:57 Malcolm Evans

You know in in a sense, I think we are still, shall we say, many of us are still victims of our old medieval imagery, shall we say, and in some ways that’s not that, that that’s not entirely wrong. It’s certainly reflected, as I explained in the book, in in much of the language and the assumed approaches, even of contemporary.

00:14:16 Malcolm Evans

We’re on the subject.

00:14:18 Malcolm Evans

You know, we still have got this.

00:14:19 Malcolm Evans

Idea that torture.

00:14:23 Malcolm Evans

Is really all about the application of extreme pain for particular purposes such as garnering information, getting, you know, confessions, finding out what’s going wrong, and it normally takes place, you know, in a pretty controlled atmosphere, by a torturer with the victim, you know, the sort of things that we see.

00:14:44 Malcolm Evans

You know, endless TV dramas, et cetera, reading books and and so on and so forth. And it tends to be done by, you know, terrible people on, should we say, innocent victims or other people were pretty terrible. But the people doing it are more terrible again, et cetera, et cetera.

00:15:03 Malcolm Evans

And this at times is entirely true.

00:15:07 Malcolm Evans

It does happen that way, and terrible things that people have done for political reasons to political prisoners for political purposes, you know, to intimidate and terrorize populations, etcetera, etcetera. Absolutely. Yet in my view is that the bulk of torture that takes place in the world today, no.

00:15:27 Malcolm Evans

The bulk of torture that takes place in the world.

00:15:29 Malcolm Evans

Say is to use expressions that other people have used banal. It happens in the routine operation of of law enforcement, criminal justice systems around the world, affecting, you know, not just a handful of high profile political prisoners or the people, frankly, that we will campaign about, and rightly.

00:15:50 Malcolm Evans


00:15:51 Jess Miles


00:15:51 Malcolm Evans

But thousands, 10s of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who we will never know about will never hear about. We will never know their names. I doubt whether the people who are torturing them will never know their names. It it is just, you know, should.

00:16:06 Malcolm Evans

We say at.

00:16:06 Malcolm Evans

That less prominent level pretty it. You can’t even say it’s industrial torture.

00:16:12 Malcolm Evans

This is just.

00:16:12 Malcolm Evans

The way that people behave within the with within with within systems in too many places for too much of the time so.

00:16:20 Malcolm Evans



It’s not what.

00:16:21 Malcolm Evans

We think it is another thing that has has troubled me for some years is also the way that torture is so generally presented.

00:16:29 Malcolm Evans

Not only in the media, but in films, on television, in and so on and so forth. Yes, we know that there can be, despite the absolute prohibitions, this almost glorification of torture in many, you know, films, television, serialisations, etcetera, etcetera. We wouldn’t do this about other things.

00:16:49 Malcolm Evans

Which are absolutely prohibited. Would we do this in, you know, in context of rape or of child sexual abuse or or or other such matters? No, we wouldn’t. And yet somehow, when you think of, you know, many, you know, famous dramas, you’ve always got that figure of the torturer who or the OR the investigator who?

00:17:08 Malcolm Evans

Who beat somebody up to get the information and saves XY and Z, but also at the same time. If you look at the people who are ill treated in these things, we all love a good James Bond movie and we know it’s not meant to be real and all the rest of it. But you know, when the central character is taken away by the evil people and terribly ill treated.

00:17:28 Malcolm Evans

In the next scene, maybe a week later, they’re still leaping around from building to building. There’s not a mark, and they all look absolutely fine. Yeah, and that’s not true.

00:17:33 Jess Miles


00:17:39 Malcolm Evans

People who have been tortured are not fine a week later and all this again, this false presentation of what the reality of torture is in terms of what it is and the effect that it has on people again, I think can contribute to this background feeling that we have that ohh well, you know it it’s maybe it’s one of the ways that we deal with things to think it’s not as.

00:17:44 Jess Miles


00:18:01 Jess Miles


00:18:02 Malcolm Evans

Reassure that are as important as it is, but it does bother me that of all the things that we that we, we outlaw, we still seem to get endless presentations of torture taking place in in ways that are quite.

00:18:14 Malcolm Evans


00:18:15 Jess Miles

It’s presented as like a necessary evil, isn’t it? That has a certain nobility about it, because we’re trying to get to the truth.

00:18:22 Malcolm Evans

Entire body thought that talks about well, John Rawls from a legal perspective, you know, dirty hands theory that you can only do things if you’re prepared to get your hands dirty at times and and you you know the this idea and we certainly saw it in a lot of the writing as I was saying earlier after the after the 9/11 attacks on the war on.



00:18:32 Jess Miles

Yeah. Wow.

00:18:41 Malcolm Evans

Terror where, you know saying ohh well you know, even if the torturer is then punished for their crimes, they just have to take that on board because it’s the price they have to pay to save.

00:18:52 Malcolm Evans

Society and you know, it was almost it was quasi messianic talk. Yeah, that the talk that almost of the the saviour of humanity you know the torture would and then take upon themselves the punishment of society rightly so because what was done was wrong because that somehow exculpates us this is just dangerous.

00:19:12 Malcolm Evans


00:19:13 Jess Miles

It really, really is, isn’t it? And yeah, and it’s all also presented as something that happens in one moment.

00:19:15 Malcolm Evans


00:19:20 Jess Miles

And like you say, like the long, long, long lasting repercussions of it for everyone, I’m sure just that’s not factored in at all. One of the things that I was really taken with with the book was the fact that a lot of what the work the UN does is visiting places of detention, isn’t it? And so a lot of what you talk about in the book is actually like.

00:19:40 Jess Miles

Descriptions of how people are treated in places of detention and the problems with that, so I’m guessing that’s what you mean when you say most torture isn’t the dramatic kind of things we see in films. It’s this kind of ill treatment of people and inhuman treatment.

00:19:58 Malcolm Evans

Well, absolutely. And suddenly say, Oh yes, but is that torture? Well, the answer to that is, well, from a legal point of view, inhuman and degrading treatment is as absolutely prohibited, as is torture itself. And so, you know, to try to say, ohh, well, you know, it’s it’s not torture. It’s only treating people in an inhuman or degrading.

00:20:18 Malcolm Evans

Passion. Yes, as as as as a lawyer, I do understand that different legal consequences flow from those labels. But in terms of.

00:20:25 Malcolm Evans

Whether they are.

00:20:27 Malcolm Evans

They are permissible or not, or they’re absolutely prohibited in.

00:20:30 Malcolm Evans

The and the too much talk around torture has been focused upon trying to differentiate should we say what really amounts to torture from things which and I use the words of.



00:20:41 Malcolm Evans

Others which are only inhuman.

00:20:44 Malcolm Evans

Yeah, stop and think of it for a moment. Think back to what I was saying. The sterilised needle under thing. Is that torture, or is it merely an?

00:20:51 Malcolm Evans

Inhuman thing to do to.

00:20:52 Malcolm Evans


00:20:53 Jess Miles

And it’s that that allows us to kind of justify torture and it’s that.

00:20:57 Malcolm Evans


00:20:59 Jess Miles


00:21:00 Malcolm Evans

Exactly. So and and to me this is just not the way we should be looking at it. I know that for a legal perspective, we have to do a degree of this, but you know that the the most famous example of of of of, of, of this would be you know the again going back in time when the US issued what was called its famous infamous torture.

00:21:01 Jess Miles


00:21:18 Malcolm Evans

Most to say that, well, what was going on was certainly in human, but it didn’t attain the level of severity necessary to make it into acts of torture. And before, when he so becomes too critical of the US for that approach, that is precisely the language that we find in universal international conventions, that it’s only things of a of a particular severity.

00:21:39 Malcolm Evans

Across the threshold into torture, which which encourage us to always think in terms of well, is it severe enough and not to ask that more important question? Is this appropriate at all?

00:21:51 Jess Miles


00:21:52 Malcolm Evans

And it becomes one of these great sort of ways that actually we we process and allow it to happen we we make torture, it is described league as having a special stigma. There is a special taboo.

00:22:04 Malcolm Evans

It makes it.

00:22:05 Malcolm Evans

Virtually impossible to talk about torture or put labels on it, which actually makes it a lot easier for it to happen.

00:22:12 Jess Miles


00:22:13 Malcolm Evans

I found it myself in our own work. If you saw things, if you described something as torture, people say no, we won’t do that. You know that’s not true. Not this is that. If you say, well, that’s a terrible thing to be doing. They go. Yeah, I know. But because of XY and Z. But the minute you put the label on it, it.

00:22:27 Malcolm Evans

Almost becomes undiscussable.


And that becomes.

00:22:30 Malcolm Evans

A problem when you’re trying to deal with it.

00:22:32 Jess Miles

Yeah, it’s really interesting how you talk about that in the book. I remember that section. There was one moment in the book that really, really made this very clear for me. And I wondered if you’d tell the story. It’s the time. I can’t remember where they were, but it was the time when you went to visit a place of detention, and there were lots and lots of people.

00:22:53 Jess Miles

Being held in a tiny, tiny cell and and the whole, the whole situation was just awful and and I felt when I was reading that like, that was probably an example of what we’re talking about here.



00:23:08 Jess Miles

In terms of the general way people are treated and that being that, that’s yeah.

00:23:12 Malcolm Evans

Well, well, well.

00:23:14 Malcolm Evans

Absolutely. And and to try to turn around and say, well, OK, from a strict legal perspective, this not may may not actually meant to torture because they weren’t, you know, trying to get information, evidence, etcetera. Whatever it was completely besides the point. Nobody should be held in conditions like that because the effects of it.

00:23:33 Malcolm Evans

Will be, you know, terrible for the people.

00:23:36 Jess Miles

Could you describe it just for the listeners who haven’t read the book yet?

00:23:37 Malcolm Evans


00:23:38 Malcolm Evans

Sure. Well, you know, I I I think you know, if it’s the one that I think you’re mentioning referring to within the book and I know there are several of.

00:23:45 Malcolm Evans

Of of of this nature, one that immediately springs to mind was a situation in which we went into one prison and there was a a small, a relatively small cell. No, it wasn’t there, it was. It wasn’t that small. It was probably about four by 5 metres. Yeah, but it was holding about 20 or 30, or at least 3035 people.



00:24:06 Malcolm Evans

In other words, there.

00:24:07 Malcolm Evans

Was less, well, less than a a metre a square metre of of space per person. It was impossible for everybody to see.

00:24:14 Malcolm Evans

Down at the same time, not a a course. No chance of everyone being able to lie down to sleep. Not that there was anything to sleep on, otherwise other other than the concrete floor and people were being held in this for very long. You know, for, for, for, for prolonged periods. And they were in a a pretty desperate say there was no sanitation facilities of course.

00:24:34 Jess Miles

There was no toilet, was there? Yeah.

00:24:35 Malcolm Evans

No, no, no, no, no. And so I just let you your mind wander over what the implications of of of of of that might be. But you know, there was also, you know in one situation like this there was also.

00:24:40 Jess Miles


00:24:50 Malcolm Evans

You know, but what was particularly striking about this one prison where we saw something like this, there was a cell next to it that was larger than the small cell, and it was empty.



00:25:02 Malcolm Evans

And so we said, well, at the risk of stating the obvious, why don’t you take half the people in this one and put them in the cell next door? It will still be horribly overcrowded. It will still be unacceptable, but it will be a heck of a lot better for these people than is currently happening. No, no, no, we that was impossible. Why was that impossible?

00:25:22 Malcolm Evans

Well, because apparently there was only one padlock and so you could only put it on one door. Well, OK.

00:25:29 Malcolm Evans

You you suspend disbelief for a moment and.

00:25:32 Malcolm Evans

Say well, OK, put everyone.

00:25:35 Malcolm Evans

In the big cell next door, you know?


It’ll still be.

00:25:38 Malcolm Evans

A little bit better.

00:25:40 Malcolm Evans

And then move the padlock from one to the other. Now you couldn’t do that. Why? Well, it was that sales padlock.



00:25:50 Jess Miles

Yeah, listen, just can’t see my face. Yeah.

00:25:50 Malcolm Evans

Yeah, exactly.

00:25:53 Malcolm Evans

Yeah, you know, what do you do and you say ohh. Well, does that amount to torture? Well, they could point where you don’t really care. And if you’re trying to approach situations from a preventive perspective, it doesn’t matter what label you put on something. What you can see are people suffering great greatly. An easy solution or at least an easy partial fix.

00:25:54 Jess Miles

And I think, yeah.

00:26:15 Malcolm Evans

Or a very simple amelioration which people are absolutely not could do very easily. Absolutely refusing to do.

00:26:26 Malcolm Evans

I don’t know.

00:26:26 Malcolm Evans

That I care what I call it.

00:26:28 Jess Miles


00:26:30 Jess Miles

The definitions become irrelevant when.

00:26:33 Malcolm Evans

Yeah, there are other things. And if you’re talking about prevention, the label is for other things.



00:26:37 Jess Miles


00:26:40 Jess Miles

Yeah. And why do you think so? You. I from what I remember from the book, you basically said to those people.

00:26:47 Jess Miles

Buy a padlock, buy a second padlock and buy a bucket so it’s a little bit more sanitary for these guys. But they didn’t do it, did they? Even though those would be really easy things to do. So what? Why, like, people will deny that they’re torturing people and find excuses for ill treat or treating people incredibly inhumanely.



00:27:11 Jess Miles

But why? Why?

00:27:12 Jess Miles

Are they reluctant to do these things? That would make things a little bit better.



00:27:17 Malcolm Evans

You know, it’s an interesting one and you know it’s something I have reflect I I have it sort of you will understand. It preys on the mind doesn’t.

00:27:24 Malcolm Evans


00:27:25 Jess Miles

Well, I was going to ask you about that as well, yeah.

00:27:27 Malcolm Evans

Yeah. And, you know, sometimes think well, is this just rationalising for the sake of, you know, should we say rationalisations for the sake of rationalisations but, you know, some of the things you see you think, well, just how, how do people do this to a?

00:27:41 Malcolm Evans

For people, because you know, many of the people doing it are not monsters. They’re not terrible people. You know, many of the people we spoke to were running these things, you know, and in their own ways are perfectly normal, decent human beings. So at the end of their shift are gonna go home to their wives and children, you know, and want just a pleasant night off with the family, you know, just like the rest of us.

00:28:02 Malcolm Evans

Well, how is it that you can get this and and I suspect that in a way it’s their own way of trying to deal with exactly the same problem that we’re talking.

00:28:10 Malcolm Evans

About that the.



00:28:12 Malcolm Evans

Moment you start admitting that the situations that they find themselves responsible for are as bad as.

00:28:19 Malcolm Evans

Other people say they are or see that they are. You can like their own House of Cards starts falling down.

00:28:25 Malcolm Evans

And as long as you just accept that things are just the way they are because they.



00:28:29 Malcolm Evans

Have to be then.

00:28:30 Jess Miles


00:28:31 Malcolm Evans

That actually becomes a way of dealing with them. It goes back to what I said at the moment that my own discipline of.

00:28:36 Malcolm Evans

International law we.

00:28:37 Malcolm Evans

All know that there are some states in the world which are absolutely, you know, pariah states who do terrible things yet.

00:28:45 Malcolm Evans

You or treat them as if they’re decent states with governments that should be properly respected. Give them all the same dignities of statehood and we don’t call them out for what they are, because that’s what the system demands.



00:28:58 Malcolm Evans

You know, sovereign equality of states that that everyone is to be entitled to be treated with respect on the international plane.

00:29:05 Malcolm Evans

No matter how.

00:29:05 Malcolm Evans

Monstrous and crazed, you know. You know, some people will say things in diplomatic for it is always thank you very much for your valuable contribution to the debate, which we greatly appreciate when what you’re really thinking is well.

00:29:18 Malcolm Evans

Won’t tell you on the podcast what we know. Everyone is really thinking that’s the way it works, and it may have to work.

00:29:22 Jess Miles


00:29:24 Malcolm Evans

That way, but I suspect for those people in those positions, you know, even running those things, which is unacceptable, which is quite wrong. I mean, so many. And of course, when it’s direct, physical treatment should be called out, but they too, you know, will have limitations on what they can do. They may not be able to really be able to fundamentally change.

00:29:46 Malcolm Evans

What’s going on around them? And so perhaps just?

00:29:49 Malcolm Evans

Ignoring it all and not even doing the little things that could be done to make it.

00:29:52 Malcolm Evans

Better I don’t.

00:29:53 Malcolm Evans

Know perhaps it’s their way of dealing with it.

00:29:55 Jess Miles

It’s almost if you do a tiny thing, if you then you open something up, isn’t it? So having having.

00:29:58 Malcolm Evans


00:30:00 Malcolm Evans

It it raises the question of what else could be done and.

00:30:04 Malcolm Evans

You don’t even want to go there.

00:30:05 Jess Miles

Yeah. Yeah. How have you been able to kind of process all the things you’ve seen and live with them like, especially when change is so deep?

00:30:16 Jess Miles




00:30:18 Jess Miles

Or when it seems so unlikely that we’ll start thinking about this in radically different ways.

00:30:25 Malcolm Evans

Well, I suppose the easy answer is I wrote a.

00:30:27 Malcolm Evans


00:30:28 Jess Miles


00:30:28 Jess Miles

Part of the process.

00:30:30 Malcolm Evans

Yes, it was. When when I finished, I didn’t. When I start, when I, when I stepped, I’ve been on the committee, as you said at the outset. For 10 years I’ve been working in the background for a great deal longer, you know, quite frequently people when you’re doing the job. Said Ohh, how do you handle the things that you see and and and then you give the normal answers.

00:30:30 Jess Miles


00:30:48 Malcolm Evans

Almost like I was just giving. Well, it’s you you would like to think.

00:30:50 Malcolm Evans

It’s a degree.

00:30:51 Malcolm Evans

Of you know, I’m an amateur, but it’s a degree of professionalism. It’s what you do it it’s, you know you and you’re not doing your job properly. If you should, we say over remote about things or let it get to you. You’re in there for a purpose. You understand what you can do and what you can’t do.

00:31:08 Malcolm Evans

And you owe it to those that you’re doing it for to try to do it as well as you can. And if you allow all this stuff to get to you, well, you’re not gonna do that. Are you self indulgent, you know? Well, that’s the lie we give to ourselves. Of course it affects you and. And it’s only when you sort of step back and finish that, that then becomes slightly more.

00:31:27 Malcolm Evans

And yeah, so for me writing this book, it was not only because I think felt that I had things to say. I really did feel that I sort of needed to say them and and that became if, if you like. Partly for me the the very thing that you described, you know, at least I’ve put them out there now and that may be about as good as it’s going to get.



00:31:46 Jess Miles

Yeah, well, my final.

00:31:49 Jess Miles

Question is, what would you like to see happen?



00:31:53 Jess Miles

Who do you want to read your book? Where? I mean, there’s what we haven’t had time to talk about too much here is like the overview of, like, all the structures in the UN and the protocol and the committee and how they work. But I don’t know what, where, where, where would you like the conversations on torture?

00:32:03 Malcolm Evans


00:32:12 Jess Miles

Go next.

00:32:14 Malcolm Evans

Well, in a way I’m, you know, I’d be very happy to spend a huge amount of time talking about the detail of the conventions and how it operates, but I would much rather talk about the things we’ve been talking about, the bigger picture things rather than the nuts and bolts mechanisms and going back to what would happen now. Of course, I would like the the nuts and bolts mechanisms of how the.



00:32:35 Malcolm Evans

The optional protocol works, you know to be better funded, better resource to be able to do more. I will say it’s probably a.

00:32:43 Malcolm Evans

Out one of the most powerful potential mandates for human rights protection that the international the UN community has ever put together. It did give our committee the right to go to any of our now 90 states parties around the world anytime we wanted to do it, to go into any place of detention.

00:33:03 Malcolm Evans

We wanted to go without giving any notice at all. We would literally turn up there with no notice in front of a prison or walk into a police station and say we’re looking around.



00:33:14 Malcolm Evans


00:33:15 Malcolm Evans

And and speaking in confidence in private to anyone seeing any piece of any documentation, it was an incredibly powerful tool that we had there and the why? Ohh why it’s not empowered to be able or or supported to be able to do what it can do far more widely is just beyond me.



00:33:36 Malcolm Evans

Just beyond me and you know. So so one thing is you’ve got this incredibly powerful, potent tool. Why, oh, why oh why is it only able to conduct 7 or 8 visits a year on a good year?



00:33:38 Malcolm Evans


00:33:51 Malcolm Evans

Sometimes 5:00 or so.

00:33:51 Jess Miles

Because of funding.

00:33:53 Malcolm Evans

Because of funding, because of lack of secretariat resource because of lack of just just lack of vision or imagination about what it could be.

00:34:02 Malcolm Evans

Done. And yet.

00:34:03 Malcolm Evans

Vast sums of money are spent on other things which are far less useful in terms of bringing about change. So of course there’s all the stuff about.

00:34:12 Malcolm Evans

Trying to make.

00:34:13 Malcolm Evans

Far better use of this incredibly powerful tool, which we have our disposal but is simply not being used anything like as much as it can or should.

00:34:22 Malcolm Evans

Be. Yeah, but.

00:34:23 Malcolm Evans

Beyond that, I think the other thing I would like you know to.

00:34:29 Malcolm Evans

You know, to to emphasise is some of the broader lessons of all this for the how way we go about protecting human rights more generally. Most of the rest of the UN human rights system, and I don’t by this mean any criticism. I think they do a brilliant job, but they’re set up to work in different ways. It’s much more focused on committee room meetings in Geneva.

00:34:49 Malcolm Evans

Meeting with states is all very important. What they’re not able to do as much as they should is to go out into the field and see things for yourselves.



00:34:58 Malcolm Evans

And the one thing that when we had gone into places of detention that never happened is that afterwards, when we went to see the national authorities in the countries and said, this is what we saw, this is what we’re, you know, this is what we’re telling you. We think never can I remember instance in which we were told.

00:35:18 Malcolm Evans

That’s not.

00:35:19 Malcolm Evans


00:35:20 Jess Miles


00:35:20 Malcolm Evans

Because they know they couldn’t.

00:35:22 Malcolm Evans

Say it was not true because they knew we had been there.

00:35:26 Jess Miles

You’ve seen it, yeah.

00:35:28 Malcolm Evans

And yet, if you listen to the debates in Geneva or in elsewhere in courtrooms, in other committee rooms, in into government, it’s all it’s a denial. That’s not true. You’ve gotten your information from these people who’ve got things with, you know, against us, etcetera, etcetera. When you’ve been there, seen it, smelt it.

00:35:48 Malcolm Evans

They’re not going to turn round and say you’re lying because they know you’re not, and that immediately puts you in a different place in terms of the conversations you can have the recommendations that you can make and what progress you can to try to bring things about, but it also means because you’re so close to it.

00:36:08 Malcolm Evans

You lose patience with dare I call it the political correctness of the things that you’re meant to say rather than the things that you think would make a difference. And you think, well, I don’t care if that should or shouldn’t be said, but I’m going to.



00:36:20 Malcolm Evans


00:36:20 Malcolm Evans

It anyway, not in terms.



00:36:24 Malcolm Evans

You know, just being gratuitous in your criticism, but you say, well, that may not be a human rights standard, but it would be a jolly good idea to do it. And that is what prevention, to me is all about seeing a situation and using that preventive mandate in order to try to bring about positive change. And likewise, it may often mean that the positive change.

00:36:44 Malcolm Evans

You know what you’re suggesting isn’t what some people.

00:36:46 Malcolm Evans

Think you should.

00:36:46 Malcolm Evans

Be saying in the book, though, plenty of examples of that and some people have often criticised when they’ve seen some of the things. Well, why weren’t you saying this ought to apply to everything? Why we not arguing for XY and Z? You were only going for.

00:37:00 Malcolm Evans

You know, you know, small measures. What about the big ones? Because the small was all that could be done. And if you’d asked people to do other things, the chances of it happening were somewhere between nought and zero. And that might flatter your vanity. I told them to do it, but it wouldn’t actually help anybody anywhere, except perhaps make you feel a little bit better.

00:37:12 Jess Miles

Yeah, yeah.

00:37:21 Malcolm Evans

And that’s not what human rights work should should, should, should, should be about.

00:37:26 Malcolm Evans

And so really it’s about also thinking again about what effective protection of human rights looks like trying to put a much greater emphasis on what we can do to protect people from violations. After all, in my area, you know that the right is not to be subject to torture in human or degrading.

00:37:46 Malcolm Evans

Treatment it’s not the right to have your torture remedied by subsequent processes or to have those who torture you held to account. That, of course, is also a right, but the primary right is not to be too.

00:37:59 Malcolm Evans

Shared or not, to be ill treated and so let’s have a little bit more focus on what the real, the central substance of of of rights here and try to make a a difference, you know, for for the for the people who are most vulnerable here and understand also you know what the real drivers of much of torture.



00:38:19 Malcolm Evans

An ill treatment are, and perhaps I know time is coming to the close, but we haven’t touched on this, but I think.

00:38:24 Malcolm Evans

It’s important we often.

00:38:26 Malcolm Evans


00:38:27 Malcolm Evans

That you know, the thing that drives torture are, as we said earlier, wicked people doing bad things. Liberate. Yes, a lot of it is. But much of it is not. It is routine. It is a reflection of a whole host of things. There is corruption in so many situations, and that is a huge driver of torture. We tend to think that.

00:38:48 Malcolm Evans

The rule of law operates well when in many countries it doesn’t. We think if only we can get the professionals in, you know, the lawyers will sort it out. The doctors will act as good medics. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

00:39:01 Malcolm Evans

Many of the things that we think are the solutions to the problem are not solutions at all, because we’re not being honest about what the real drivers of the problem are, or actually what the effectiveness of our so-called solutions are, which is one of the reasons why in the book I’ve called the first half of it, which is describing the international systems and structures.

00:39:22 Malcolm Evans

The solution and the second-half of the book, which is looking at what really happens as the problem.

00:39:29 Malcolm Evans

In other words.

00:39:30 Malcolm Evans

We tend to devise the solution without actually understanding the problem.

00:39:36 Jess Miles

That’s fascinating. We do have to bring it to an end now, unfortunately, but it’s clear there are no clear solutions, but I think taking a few steps back and thinking about it in different ways is the is the thing to do, isn’t it? Thank you so much, Malcolm, for your time today. Thank you for speaking to me.

00:39:55 Malcolm Evans

Been my pleasure. Thanks very much.

00:39:57 Jess Miles

You can find out more about Malcolm’s book tackling torture prevention and practice on the Bristol University Press website which is


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