Everyone has the right to humane and dignified treatment. This means that agents of the State must not only avoid treating you in an inhumane or degrading way, or torturing you, but must also actively protect and investigate any cases where such treatment has been done by someone else.

Learn more about: 

Duty to provide humane and dignified treatment

Certain conditions in a detention facility or prison (such as the conditions in your cell, eg. provision of light and number of people) or the actions of state officers (such as the use of force or body searches), if not carried out properly, can cause physical pain or the feeling that you have been degraded or humiliated. Human rights prohibit state institutions or officials from causing such suffering to you at any time or in any situation. It is called the prohibition against inhumane or degrading treatment, or in the most serious cases – torture.

Certain restrictions of your rights will not cause immediate suffering.

example Although you are entitled to an adequate level of light in your cell, a day with the lights dimmed will not ordinarily cause you major inconvenience. However, four months in half-dark conditions could seriously damage your emotional well-being or potentially harm your eyesight.

To establish that someone has been treated inhumanely, in a degrading manner, or even tortured, there must be certain minimum level of suffering caused to them. Mere inconvenience, even if it lasts for a certain period of time, will not be considered a violation of the prohibition against inhumane or degrading treatment. Therefore, whether there was a restriction of your rights and whether the effect of that particular situation was so severe on you personally, that it violated your rights, must always be evaluated.

Criteria for evaluation

The situations in which the conditions could be considered inhumane or the treatment to be degrading may differ from one person to another. A situation, which is completely normal for one person, may be humiliating to another. Therefore, it is important to evaluate each individual situation separately, taking into account the characteristics of the treatment and the person involved, such as:

  • their age, sex and state of health etc.

example Being kept in a cold cell for a certain time may cause minor inconvenience to a healthy adult; however, a longer period in a cold temperature may cause serious suffering and damage to an elderly person in a poor state of health. 

example If meat is provided to a person with no special dietary needs, this should not cause them any humiliation. However, forcing a person whose religious beliefs prohibit them from eating meat will, most likely, not only violate their freedom of religion, but also cause them humiliation and moral suffering.

  • the conditions and the effects of the treatment etc.

example If a full body search is carried out for no apparent reasons, but only once, in private, by an officer of the same gender, it is unlikely to violate the prohibition of degrading treatment. However, if such a search is carried out every day for a month, for no apparent reason, it will most likely be degrading and cause serious humiliation. Similarly, if a full body search is carried out once, but it is done publicly, it will most likely cause serious humiliation and be considered degrading.  

  • the duration and frequency of the treatment, etc.

example If two persons share a small cell with two beds just fitting in it, but they still have access to a larger common room for most of the day, most likely it will not violate the prohibition against inhumane treatment. However, if those persons are forced to spend 23 hours a day for an extended period, in a cell which has no space for sitting down or for taking a few steps, it may cause severe mental and physical suffering. 

Use of force

There are strict conditions on any use of force. Most importantly, it should only be used when strictly necessary to prevent danger or ensure order. For these conditions, read more about the use of force.

Generally, any use of force which is not strictly necessary will be considered a violation of the prohibition against inhumane treatment or even torture. Even use of light physical force can violate human rights if it infringes upon a person’s human dignity.

To evaluate whether a person’s rights have been violated by the use of force, in addition to the general criteria above, it is also important to evaluate the nature of the detainee’s or prisoner’s conduct, the level of danger it posed and whether the measures used were not excessive for ending that conduct.  

example The repeated striking of a handcuffed detainee or prisoner who is being transferred to another building and is not physically resisting the transfer, will violate the prohibition against inhumane treatment. However, the pinning down and handcuffing of a detainee or prisoner who is in a physical fight with another inmate will most likely not violate the prohibition against inhumane treatment. 

If the use of force by state officials has resulted in someone’s death, please read the more about the right to life.

Duty to investigate

The prison administration or other relevant authorities in charge of your detention are also under an obligation to prevent and properly investigate any cases where you may have been treated inhumanely, humiliated or even tortured by prison officers, detention guards or other inmates. Although the State may not even be directly responsible for the treatment itself in these situations, it must properly investigate your complaints about ill-treatment or inhumane conditions and prevent them from reoccurring in future. If it fails to fulfill that duty, the State will be considered to have violated the prohibition against torture or inhumane or degrading treatment. 

Human Rights Guide

A European platform for human rights education