Under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, degrading treatment and punishment is absolutely prohibited. This paper examines the nature of and wrong inherent in treatment and punishment of this kind. Cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights (the Court) as amounting to degrading treatment and punishment under Article 3 include instances of interrogation, conditions of confinement, corporal punishment, strip searches, and a failure to provide adequate health care. The Court acknowledges the degradation inherent in imprisonment generally, and does not consider this to be in violation of Article 3, but it also identifies a threshold at which degradation is so severe as to render impermissible punishments that cross this threshold. I offer an account of the Court’s conception of impermissible degradation as a symbolic dignitary harm. The victims are treated as inferior, as if they do not possess the status owed to human beings, neither treated with dignity nor given the respect owed to dignity. Degradation is a relational concept: the victim is brought down in the eyes of others following treatment motivated by the intention to degrade, or treatment which has a degrading effect. This, so I will argue, is the best account of the concept of degradation as deployed by the Court when determining punishments as in violation of Article 3.

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