What is torture?

Torture is the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental. It aims to dehumanise and brutalise victims through calculated acts of cruelty to remove the victims’ dignity and make them powerless.

It is a very serious human rights violation and an international crime. It is also a crime under UK national law, wherever the torture was committed. Torture is forbidden under all circumstances.

The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984) defines torture as:

  • severe pain or suffering (physical or psychological), which
  • is caused intentionally, which
  • is done for a purpose, and which
  • somehow involves a State official.

Usually, the infliction of pain or suffering must be carried out by or on behalf of a public official (such as the police, security forces, soldiers). Sometimes this can be extended, for example, to a private security or military company that is performing public functions.  If the acts are committed by a private person but the authorities fail to prevent and punish them, the State where the crimes took place can sometimes be legally responsible for the acts.

Not all ill-treatment is defined as ‘torture’. ‘Ill-treatment’ is cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Unlike torture, these acts need not be inflicted intentionally or for a specific purpose (such as obtaining information or a confession, punishment, intimidation, coercion, or discrimination).

International law does not specify exactly what treatment amounts to ‘torture’ or ‘ill-treatment’. Common methods of torture and ill-treatment include: beatings, rape and sexual assault or molestation, electric shocks, stretching or suspension, submersion in water, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, starvation, suffocation, prolonged solitary confinement, burns,  hooding and other sensory deprivation, constant noise, extremes of hot or cold, humiliation (including mocking a person’s religious belief), mock executions, threats to the victim’s life or the lives of others (such as friends or family), extremely poor conditions of detention (such as gross overcrowding) and witnessing the torture of others.

Torture can leave prolonged physical and psychological scars, including difficulties trusting others or relaxing, even in a safe environment. Many survivors divide their lives into two time periods: before and after torture. Although the impact of torture can last a lifetime, there are countless stories of resilience in the aftermath of torture. It takes immense strength to escape the context in which someone has suffered human rights violations, and it also requires huge courage to rebuild one’s life and seek justice, despite economic, cultural, or linguistic barriers.

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