Enhancing Human Rights Protections in the Security Sector is a three year research and action oriented project seeking to identify and test innovative strategies for preventing torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment. The project aimed to create new models of cooperation between different stakeholders in the field, with a view of developing sustainable and contextually sensitive solutions to entrenched human rights problems. The project began in 2012, led by The University of Sydney in partnership with the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the University of Colombo (Sri Lanka) and the Kathmandu School of Law (Nepal). Project teams have also worked cooperatively with police and military in the two countries.

Two observations provided the impetus for the project’s development:

  1. Despite extensive efforts to prevent torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment, these practices remain endemic in many parts of the world, particularly in the context of security and law enforcement.
  2. Most of the approaches aimed at preventing torture that have been adopted in the past have operated by developing legal sanctions, monitoring places of detention or educating potential perpetrators about the illegality of torture. In other words, like many other strategies in the human rights field, they rely on the power of the law to alter behavioural patterns, or on external supervision designed to limit the excesses of aberrant organisations or individuals. And yet, a large body of evidence and literature now tells us that systematic violence is not the result of aberrant individual motivation or morality, but rather the product of a range of social, cultural, economic, institutional, legal, ideological and political dynamics in which it emerges and is sustained. Emerging evidence also indicates that legal sanctions and external monitoring have very limited effectiveness in cases where the violations are deeply embedded in institutions and broadly accepted social practices.

The disparity between our two observations and the evidence that torture is caused through a range of situational factors led us to conclude that the task of developing more effective prevention strategies will require a new approach– one that locates torture in its social cultural, material, institutional and political context and seeks to prevent it by addressing the contextual factors that cause and sustain it. The project is an experiment in developing such an approach.

With this background in mind, we have focused on two key sites where torture has long been systemic – in police and military institutions in Nepal and Sri Lanka. Certainly, it must be acknowledged that reform efforts have led to some improvements. However, in certain parts of these institutions and countries, ill treatment of detainees remains fairly routine. Given that both Nepal and Sri Lanka have now passed through periods of intense conflict and are seeking to stabilise democracy and the rule of law, developing new and effective torture prevention strategies is timely. Leaders in security and law enforcement institutions in both countries were willing to work with the project teams to explore and develop a novel approach to prevention, most importantly one that would develop their capacity to build and sustain institutional practices and structures that would inhibit torture.

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