PERSPECTIVES - Bridging voices, inspiring hope

Méndez Principles: Promoting alternatives to coercive interrogations

March 15, 2022 Association for Prevention of Torture
PERSPECTIVES - Bridging voices, inspiring hope
Méndez Principles: Promoting alternatives to coercive interrogations
Show Notes Transcript

This is the second episode in a series exploring  the Méndez Principles on Effective Interviewing: a new tool to help end coercive interviewing. 

The Méndez Principles are designed to support investigators collect reliable information – not a confession – using rapport-based interviewing techniques. They also uphold the rights of those being interviewed by ensuring that key safeguards are respected in practice. 

Our guest, Ruth Ssekindi, is a highly experienced lawyer working with the Uganda Human Rights Commission. Her work involves monitoring police stations, prisons and other places of detention across the country. She knows the experiences of detainees and has been a vocal advocate to end torture and ill-treatment. She also understands how and why police in her country work the way they do.

Find out more about the Méndez Principles:

Almudena Garcia

Hello and welcome to Perspectives, the APT’s podcast which explores contemporary issues related to torture prevention and dignity in detention. 

I’m Almudena Garcia, APT’s Digital Communication Adviser, and this episode is the second in a series on the Méndez Principles on Effective Interviewing: a new approach to end coercive interviewing 

Our Deputy Secretary General, Audrey Olivier Muralt, spoke with Ruth Ssekindi, who leads the Directorate of Monitoring and Inspections with the Uganda Human Rights Commission. 

Audrey Olivier Muralt

We know the first hours of detention are when people deprived of liberty face the greatest risk of torture and ill-treatment, especially when they are being questioned about a crime. The Méndez Principles set out an effective alternative to coercive interrogations. They are designed to support investigators collect reliable information – not a confession – using rapport-based interviewing techniques. They also uphold the rights of those being interviewed by ensuring that key safeguards are respected in practice. 

The Méndez Principles were developed over four years by a multidisciplinary team with expertise in policing, investigations, human rights, psychology and other disciplines. Ruth Ssekindi is a highly experienced lawyer working with the Uganda Human Rights Commission. Her work involves monitoring police stations, prisons and other places of detention across the country. She knows the experiences of detainees and has been a vocal advocate to end torture and ill-treatment. She also understands how and why police in her country work the way they do. She shared these insights as a member of the Steering Committee responsible for drafting the Méndez Principles.

Ruth Ssekindi

My role in the process of drafting the Principles was more of being in the Steering Committee. And initially we were divided into two groups, one for investigations and the other was for the legal safeguards. And I was honored to be asked to head the legal safeguards group, which was not only a daunting task but very interesting. I worked with amazing experts from around the world, who came up with amazing views. There was meeting of the mind and I saw a lot of commitment and willingness to ensure that there was change when it comes to effective interviewing and addressing issues or of torture and ill treatment.

And so through all these discussions at the Steering Committee, which was well guided by Juan Méndez and APT really steering the process, particularly Mark Thomson, I think we later on came up with a very good document that was evidence-based, that was based on legal principles and international standards. Yeah, and the commitment and the hard work that was put in by the Steering Committee and other players, as well as APT, is really commendable. 

Audrey Olivier Muralt

Thank you but also congratulations for this excellent piece of work, everyone comments how excellent the document is. So Ruth, from your point of view of as a practitioner, as Director of Monitoring and Inspections of the Uganda Human Rights Commission, what is the added value of the Principles for torture prevention and also for law enforcement?

Ruth Ssekindi

The Principles are very important because they are practical and for once we have an international document, well researched, well documented and well written, that addresses issues of effective interviewing. And in relation to the legal safeguards, these Principles give guidance on what should be done to address issues of persons in conflict with the law. And the Principles are very important because they guide law enforcement on how to interview, effective interviewing, without resorting to torture and ill treatment or coercing victims.

And I find them very important because they bring out international human rights standards on what should be done. They highlight issues of vulnerability. How do you deal with a person in a vulnerable situation? This is often ignored. And many times law enforcement looks at someone as only a suspect, but forgets other aspects that are related to this person that may affect the investigation. For example, if you're a refugee, or whether it is age and the issues around age, whether someone has a hearing impairment, whether someone needs an interpreter, whether someone has gone hungry. It's all those little things that may affect an investigation and you may get the wrong information from a suspect or someone being interviewed.

So then the Principles highlight issues, for example, vulnerability, issues of accountability, issues of training law enforcement. What should law enforcement know? If we are going to monitor as an NHRI, to monitor the dealings or operations of law enforcement, what are the standards that we hold them accountable for? What are the standards of accountability?

Now, the Principles make it easy because they highlight the standards of accountability and what should be done. So then these Principles become a checklist for NHRIs, persons like me. And also when we are monitoring and visiting places of detention, what should we look out for? And so they guide, they give very practical guidance to law enforcement but also they give guidance to prosecutors and lawyers and judges on how evidence may have been received. And they give an alternative to torture because when you use the Principles, it's highly unlikely that someone resort to torture. So that then is a great alternative for law enforcement.

Audrey Olivier Muralt

You've covered so many issues already. And the added value of the principles for torture prevention, for NHRIs, for law enforcement and other actors. And you've hinted at a few issues we'd like to discuss a bit further with you, pulling on all your expert insights. So from your experience in monitoring detention in Uganda, do you share the finding that the highest moment of risks are in the first hours or first moment of detention? And have you seen that some legal safeguards containing the Principles, reinforced by the Principles, when they really implement it, they also contribute to decrease these risks?

Ruth Ssekindi:

Yeah, I hold the same view because in my work, 70 per cent of our cases related to torture and ill-treatment. And out of these, for all the cases that related to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, 99 per cent of these cases or the persons, the victims, indicated that they were tortured in the early stages of arrest. And why? It's a fact that when law enforcement arrests suspects, they want easy confessions, they want to solve complaints or crimes very easily, and the first thing they do is to sometimes brutalize or torture or subject victims to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. So if this then is the issue, then it's very important that we have a legal document, we have guidelines, on how investigations, interrogations, interviewing should be done. Because this is the area which is the problem because law enforcement does not torture people because they're criminals. It mainly tortures them because they need to win a case. They want to take their case to a court of law and win. They want a confession, they want to know where the stolen goods are. They want to know where the weapons have been hidden. And this is why people get tortured, to get confessions, to inform them to solve their cases. 

And so that is where the Principles come in. As an NHRI then it is very important that we emphasise on the Principles because they give guidance and help us solve this vice. But also, law enforcement has always asked, what do you think we should do? What alternative are you giving me? This guy has killed seven people and I need the weapon. And really this is a ‘ticking bomb’ scenario. They just want to justify their actions. But many believe that torture actually works. And if this is their belief, and they think that they have solved a number of crimes because of ill treatment and torture, then we have to give them an alternative. Because when we are training law enforcement, they give us incidents where they have solved crimes by slapping up or beating up people or suspects. And if they feel, and they actually believe that it works, we have to give them an alternative of getting confessions and getting information through science.

Now, the Principles then encourage the use of science. Because if you do that, then I don't need your confession. I can find the facts without necessarily resorting to a confession. And I think the Principles also emphasise that evidence obtained as a result of torture is inadmissible in court. That's a legal principle, but really they've continued to torture people. So it's very important that then we dissuade law enforcement from acts of torture and ill treatment so that then they can find an alternative to win cases.

Audrey Olivier Muralt

I think you've mentioned so many added value and innovative features of the Principles and the practical aspects for law enforcement. We focused a lot on the positives and, what they represent for law enforcement, but also for NHRIs. Do you see any challenges, in particular, when it comes to implementation, also looking at your country and the region?

Ruth Ssekindi

Yes. But when we talk about challenges, I think we should first look at the positives, which we have dwelt so much about. And just even to add on the positives, the way the safeguards are intertwined and brought into the Principles and linked very neatly with the investigation is amazing. They are blended in so that the investigator knows the safeguards when they're interviewing. 

This is very important because the Principles make the legal safeguards a reality during the investigation processes. If the investigator or, or the interrogator knows the legal safeguards, then it will limit the chances of subjecting this person to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or even torturing them. Now, the challenges that we may understand, if I can speak for the African region, is one, ‘well, it's another international guide or they're principles yes, but we are not bound by them’. So then it calls upon us and everyone, every human rights defender out there, and every practitioner, legal practitioner, to ensure that we popularise the Principles and that we highlight the relevance of the Principles and the beauty of the Principles and why they should be implemented in our different countries, in our different regions or continents. 

The other challenge that I anticipate that may need a lot of work will be the training and the different laws that we have in our countries. It may call for one amendment or ratification of instruments, maybe the ratification of the Optional Protocol. It may call for the ratification of the UN CAT for States that have not ratified them. Because if you have not ratified the UN Convention against Torture, then the Principles will really not make sense to you. So it's very important that we ensure that there’s ratification of the UN CAT, the ratification of the OPCAT, and then the Principles will make a lot of sense to those States as well. 

There's also the aspect of training law enforcement and attitude change that I anticipate. Because you are changing things or beliefs and attitudes that law enforcement have believed for years. Many have believed that actually beating up criminals works. That criminals deserve to be beaten, they deserve to be lied to, to be coerced, they deserve to be treated like trash. And now we are coming up to say respect these people, they're human beings, they have legal entitlements, they deserve to be treated with dignity. They have to unlearn the things that they learned from way back when and that may take time. And yet time is not on our side, we want it like yesterday. And I think we should go into the police training schools, law enforcement training schools and make the Principles part of the curriculum. I think that will go a long way into the change of attitude, particularly the young, the new cadets, to have new ideas towards enforcement. 

The other challenge that I see or anticipate would be the cost. When we are bringing these Principles, they come with financial implications. We are talking about how do you set the interview room? We know that it's not a reality in all countries. Some of us have small, that even the police officers (laughs) lack places to sit. Do they even have phones in their stations? Do they have the space? So while the Principles are good, they also call for investment in law enforcement to enable them to work appropriately. 

Audrey Olivier Muralt

Very inspirational Ruth. Thank you so much for setting the path in a very practical way. There are challenges but also opportunities, right, for change. You've mentioned, what NHRIs could do with the Principles. They can use them as a checklist, they can use them as a monitoring guidance on whether legal safeguards and interviewing, and investigations are conducted properly. I'd like maybe to hear your views about what else NHRIs could do with the Principles, maybe to help dissemination or other activities.

Ruth Ssekindi

NHRIs can do a lot when it comes to the Principles. NHRIs have a very, very wide mandate. And because the NHRIs are the watchdog of the State and the promoters of human rights in their countries, it's very important that NHRIs are onboard. One, they provide a monitoring role where they monitor acts of all government agencies and all actions. And because they have that, they have a role to monitor the operations of law enforcement, including interviewing, interrogating, and how police does its work. That way they can hold law enforcement accountable.

NHRIs have an advisory role to advise States and state institutions on how to ensure that human rights are respected. So that advisory role then can help them bring, pick up the Principles and advise law enforcement on the standards they should observe and how they should do their work. And NHRIs also receive and investigate complaints. And the Méndez Principles can guide NHRIs on what to investigate, how to investigate, and what to look out for during investigations.

NHRIs have a role to train, create awareness, educate, sensitise, the whole nine yards. And the Méndez Principles are really the right place to be and to start. So they can pick up the Principles and come up with very good guide or IEC materials for law enforcement. When they go to the training schools for law enforcement or they’re invited, these are the principles they should be using when training law enforcement. 

NHRIs also have a role to ensure that there's access to justice for victims. And if you're talking about access to justice for victims who have been violated, who have been abused, then the Principles are the right guide to use when they're ensuring there's any violation, including training prosecutors, magistrates and judges. Okay? They can use the Principles during their training of judicial officers to train them on what to look out for during adjudication, what are the standards, the human right standards. And the Principles then become the human rights standards that they should be using for training, for law enforcement, for training for judicial officers, for accountability. And they should also, when we're talking about enforcement, they should use these Principles to ensure that they're enforced in every country. And I think they're great principles to use.

Almudena Garcia

Ruth Ssekindi is Head of the Directorate of Monitoring and Inspections with the Uganda Human Rights Commission. 

We hope you enjoyed this episode of Perspectives. 

We’ll be back soon with another episode in this series exploring the Méndez Principles.

And if you have an idea for us to cover on Perspectives, we’d love to hear from you. Contact us via email on Or find us on social media – Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn

 Thanks for listening and we look forward to your company next time.