Dictionary of Gross Human Rights Violations

Torturers, Recruitment and Training of

By - Kjell Follingstad Anderson

Torture units are usually elite units within the military command structure and they recruit relatively uneducated and poor individuals who share the ideology of the regime. Torturers themselves can be "careerists" (motivated by career advancement), "ideologues" (motivated by ideology), or "sadists" (psychopaths who enjoy, or are ambivalent to, the infliction of pain – these are relatively few in number, according to most psychological studies).1

The crimes of the perpetrators may also be made easier by the diffusion of responsibility within a group or by the absolution of the state. Employing torture as an adjunct to legal proceedings also imbues it with a sense of legitimacy as does the use of medical personnel (although it must be noted that the participation of medical personnel in torture is contrary to the Hippocratic oath and other codes of medical ethics). Medical personnel are also utilised to ensure that the victim does not die unintentionally.

The training of torturers often involves an element of dehumanisation and a disconnecting of torturers from "reality’ which allows them to commit unacceptable acts. This training may employ such techniques as indoctrination, extreme physical activity, strict rules, sleep deprivation, extreme discipline, and humiliation. Moreover, the torturer trainees are also isolated from their families and the broader community. The training involves great amounts of repetition and "conditioning" which mould the torturer so that they obey authority without question and also behave in a predictable manner in response to certain stimuli.

Needless to say, there are great similarities between the conditioning undertaken in military training and that for the training of torturers. Both exist within a strict hierarchical structure in which obedience and the use of controlled violence are learned through repetition and indoctrination. The great difference however, lies in the socialisation of the trainees as to which forms of violence are acceptable and which are not.


1  Ronald Crelinsten, "In their own words: the world of the torturer," in Ronald Crelinsten and Alex Schmid (eds.), The Politics of Pain, (Leiden, Netherlands: Projecten interdisciplinair onderzoek naar oorzaken van mensenrechtenschendingen, 1993) p. 56. For a further discussion of the prevalence of psychopaths and the general resistance to killing see Dave Grossman, On Killing, (New York: Back Bay Books, 1996).