Torture & Human Rights

Protection from persecution is a fundamental human right.

Article 5 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

  • No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Many refugees have experienced the worst of mankind’s inhumanity as a result of persecution and other human rights violations.

Persecution, and the associated acts of violence and torture, are systematically perpetrated, can be state sanctioned and/or part of conflict between groups for reasons of establishing power over people and territory.

What is torture?

Torture is practiced widely, in three-quarters of the world, often with impunity or effectively tolerated by the failure to rigorously prevent it occurring or failure to prosecute or punish perpetrators.

The most widely adopted definition of torture is that of the United Nations’ Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture), with the key elements being:

  • It is an act that involves the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental
  • It may be inflicted for a variety of purposes e.g. to obtain information or a confession, to intimidate the person or another person, or for any reason based on discrimination
  • The pain or suffering is inflicted by a person acting in an official capacity or is at the instigation of, or with the consent or acquiescence of, a public official
  • It does not include pain or suffering arising only from lawful sanctions (e.g. imprisonment for an ordinary crime imposed by a court after a fair trial)

Torture may:

  • Be constituted by a single ‘episode’ perpetrated in a short time
    (e.g. security officials detain and beat someone demonstrating against the government and they are released after a few days of incarceration)
  • Consist of actions that occur over an extended period
    (e.g. a minority group subjected to repeated interrogations with beatings and ongoing threats to family members)

Many different methods of torture have been used and they continue to be practised and refined. Some methods are peculiar to just one country while many other forms appear commonly practised in a variety and number of countries.

Torturers may try and cover up torture by using increasingly sophisticated methods that do not leave physical scars in an effort to allay the suspicion of an international world.

Physical torture

Common methods of physical torture include:

  • Beating
  • Electric shock
  • Stretching
  • Submersion
  • Suffocation
  • Deprivation of sleep and sensory stimulation
  • Starvation and exposure to heat and cold
  • Mutilation
  • Burns
  • Sexual violence and rape

Psychological torture

Psychological forms of torture include:

  • Isolation
  • Threats
  • Humiliation
  • Mock executions
  • Mock amputations
  • Verbal abuse and threats
  • Witnessing the torture of others, including loved ones

Reasons for torture

While torture may be used for a variety of purposes (e.g. to punish, to obtain information or to coerce), a primary reason for its use is as a means of social control.

Governments employ torture as part of state policy in order to deter real or suspected dissidents. Regimes use torture as part of a continuum of repressive measures and suppression of democratic rights. Rarely, if ever, is torture practiced alone; it has become a constituent part of mechanisms for social domination.

Victims of torture

Anyone can be a victim of torture and selection is often indiscriminate with individuals targeted for their connections to groups and communities or belief systems that are perceived as in opposition to the perpetrators.


Perpetrators are likely to include people and groups who are part of, and trained by, particular organisations or institutions where they are ordered, conscripted or employed to torture.

Perpetrators may be:

  • Prison officers
  • The police
  • The military
  • Paramilitary forces
  • State controlled anti-guerilla forces
  • Health professionals
  • Legal professionals
  • Other prisoners forced to act under duress

Perpetrators can also be victims

Child soldiers can be forced to kill a family member as part of their recruitment or face death themselves if they do not comply. In such situations, the distinction between perpetrator and victim is a blurred one.

The impact of torture

Torture impacts people, families and communities in different ways. It has a profound, immediate and long-term impact on physical and psychological health.

A high percentage of survivors of torture and other traumatic events suffer from extreme levels of depression and anxiety, which manifest in many ways .


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