Dictionary of Gross Human Rights Violations


By - Kjell Follingstad Anderson

Torture, the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering on someone under the custody or control of the perpetrator, is one of the most serious international crimes. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most common, particularly when the victim is in police custody or prison (for example, the recent use of torture by the United States against alleged terrorists in its custody). Torture is legally defined (somewhat narrowly) in Article 1 of the 1984 Convention Against Torture and other Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) as:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of being committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.


There are some significant shortcomings in this definition such as it only applies to states and not non-state actors, it only applies to torture done for certain reasons (information gathering, intimidation, coercion, and discrimination), and it does not include sexual crimes as constituting a form of torture.

Depending on the context in which torture is committed it can be classified as a war crime, crime against humanity, or as a separate international crime. Torture as a war crime must occur in the context of an armed conflict, torture as a crime against humanity must be part of a widespread or systematic attack, and torture as a separate international crime does not require any of these conditions. The crime of torture is considered to be a part of customary international law and universal jurisdiction: it can be prosecuted by any state. Torture as a war crime and crime against humanity also fall under the jurisdiction of certain international courts such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), and the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Under the CAT, individuals within those states that have acceded to the individual complaint procedure (through a special declaration to that effect) may file complaints. These complaints, as well as other matters of state reporting and follow up, are considered by the Committee Against Torture (an expert body within the UN system). The CAT also requires each state to classify torture as a crime under its criminal law (Article 4) and to prosecute or extradite any torturer found in their territory (Article 5 and Article 7). The convention also obliges states to take measures to prevent torture (Article 2, Article 10, and Article 11) and to offer appropriate legal redress and compensation to victims of torture (Article 13 and Article 14).

Torture is also prohibited by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the UN Human Rights Committee has responsibility for reviewing state reporting, state complaints, and individual complaints (for those states that have ratified an optional protocol) under the ICCPR. Thus, individual torture complaints may also be considered against certain states in the UN Human Rights Committee. Finally, the UN has a Special Rapporteur who has the ability to investigate torture allegations and apply pressure on states to abolish torture.

There are also regional conventions and enforcement procedures for the Americas and Europe, and torture cases fall under the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. Although there is no African torture convention, torture cases may soon be heard in the African Court on Human and People’s Rights.

Torture can have four functions: 1) the extraction of information (this is always the justification given after the fact), 2) reducing or reversing the political effectiveness of a prisoner (brain washing), 3) preparation for show trials, 4) creating a climate of fear in order to intimidate opponents. The extraction of information (for the protection of the state from internal and/or external enemies) is often the purpose given for torture but its actual purpose is usually more about the imposition of one person (or ideology’s or group’s) power over another.

It is important to consider torture as being a process rather than a single event. Torture "works" through the breaking down of victims by the application of stressors. Methods of torture include: inducing physical pain (i.e. beatings, electric shock, extreme temperatures, etc.), pharmacological techniques (i.e. the administration of drugs), and psychological methods such as isolation, threats to family members, being forced to watch the torture of other victims, sleeplessness, humiliation, temperature manipulation, excessively salty diet, sexual abuse and violence (this may also be considered as "inducing physical pain"), sensory deprivation, perceptual deprivation, etc. Torture, as a psychological construction, was defined by Apitzsch as a state "where the individual is forced into a state of extreme infantile helplessness, faced with the absolute mercilessness of an omnipotent persecutor."1  This helplessness also usually involves the creation an exceptionally unpredictable environment for the victim. It is material to note that in practise it is difficult to separate physical from psychological methods of torture.

The victims of torture often suffer from physical ailments such as fibromyalgia (widespread pain), cephalgia (headaches), nerve damage, and abnormal joint mobility. Moreover, psychological injuries are widespread including depression, social withdrawal, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions.2  Torturers now frequently utilise methods of torture that leave minimal physical evidence (i.e. scars, burns), so psychological diagnosis and other means of corroboration are greatly important. The rehabilitation (treatment) of torture victims generally requires a multi-disciplinary approach including such aspects as physiotherapy and medical care, social assistance (for example, to restore a livelihood), and psychotherapy.


1 Enrique Bustos, "Psychodynamic Approaches in the Treatment of Torture Survivors," in Metin Basoglu (ed.), Torture and its Consequences, (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 339.

2  Bente Danneskiold-Samsøe Else Marie Bartels, and Inge Genefke, "Treatment of torture victims –a longitudinal clinical study," Torture (Journal on Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and Prevention of Torture), Vol. 17, No.1, 2007.