Module 1: International Legal Standards (Overview)

What is Torture

Torture, as understood in international law, involves several elements: the infliction of severe pain (whether physical or psychological) by a perpetrator who acts purposefully and on behalf of the state. The United Nations Convention against Torture defines torture this way:

For the purposes of [the] Convention, the term “torture” means 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 having 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.

— [Article 1.]

Torture, as understood in international law, involves several elements: the infliction of severe pain (whether physical or psychological) by a perpetrator who acts purposefully and on behalf of the state. The United Nations Convention against Torture defines torture this way: … Continue reading

The Human Rights Committee

The Human Rights Committee is established as a monitoring body by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Committee comprises 18 independent experts elected by the states parties to the Covenant. It examines reports which states parties are obliged to submit periodically and issues concluding observations that draw attention to points of concern and make specific recommendations to the state. The Committee can also consider communications from individuals who claim to have been the victims of violations of the Covenant by a state party. For this procedure to apply to individuals, the state must also have become a party to the first Optional Protocol to the Covenant. The Committee has also issued a series of General Comments, to elaborate on the meaning of various Articles of the Covenant and the requirements that these place on states parties. The General Comment regarding Article 7 is contained in Appendix One of this manual.

The Human Rights Committee is established as a monitoring body by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Committee comprises 18 independent experts elected by the states parties to the Covenant. It examines reports which states parties … Continue reading

Module 1 Answers

  1. Answer: A, B, D

    Torture as defined by CAT, involves the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering, by or with the consent or acquiescence of the state authorities, for a specific purpose, such as gaining information, punishment or intimidation or for any other reason. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

  2. Answer: B, C, D

    Ill-treatment does not have to be inflicted for a specific purpose, but there does have to be an intent to expose individuals to the conditions which amount to or result in the ill-treatment. Like torture, ill-treatment is perpetrated by or with the consent or acquiescence of the state authorities.

  3. Answer: C

    Amnesty International documented cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in 81 countries in 2007.

  4. Answer: B

    Torture has been practiced throughout history, but universal prohibition against torture was codified in international law only in the aftermath of WWII in 1948. The UN Convention on Torture Against Torture was adopted by the UN General Assembly considerably later in 1984.

  5. Answer: E

    Torture commonly serves the purpose of suppressing and punishing political opponents and alleged criminals and to achieve social control by inducing a sense of terror in a population, but it is also frequently used in interrogations to force confessions. Moreover, torture can occur where there is no obvious purpose.

  6. Answer: D

    The prohibition of torture and ill-treatment is absolute; such acts cannot be justified under any circumstances including, national security, states of emergency, the need to counter terrorism, or following orders from one’s superiors.

  7. Answer: B

    Non-refoulment in the Convention against Torture refers to the forcible return or extradition of a person to another country where he or she is at risk of torture.

  8. Answer: True

    States are responsible for safeguarding the rights of everyone within their jurisdiction and may under some circumstances be held accountable for acts carried out by private individuals if it supports or tolerates them, or fails in other ways to provide effective protection in law and in practice against them.

  9. Answer: True

    Torture and ill treatment are often perpetrated in the process of criminal investigations in order to obtain false confessions to alleged crimes and in the context of claims of national security.

  10. Answer: False

    The prohibition of torture is not limited to a negative obligation to refrain from causing suffering, but also contains wider obligations: including the obligation to investigate allegations, even if there has not been a formal complaint about it, and to bring the perpetrators to justice. The UN Convention Against Torture states clearly in article 12: “Each State Party shall ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.”

  11. Answer: D

    The ICRC’s findings are communicated and discussed on a confidential basis with the concerned authorities and are not made available to the public. The ICRC undertakes visits under nonnegotiable modalities which include: access to all places of detention and all people detained and to make a register of all those who wish to have their details recorded; the possibility to select individual detainees to talk with in private, and the possibility to repeat the visits as often as is deemed necessary. During visits, the ICRC takes the humane treatment of detainees to encompass not only freedom from torture and other ill-treatment, but also general conditions of detention that maintain both the physical and mental integrity of the individuals.

  12. Answer: False

    The prohibition of torture is the concern not only of those countries which have ratified particular treaties, but is also a rule of general or customary international law, which binds all states even in the absence of treaty ratification. In fact, the prohibition of torture is generally regarded as having the special status of a ‘peremptory norm’ of international law, and states cannot choose to disregard or derogate from it.

  13. Answer: True

    The Convention Against Torture (Article 14) indicates that victims of torture have a right to redress and adequate compensation.

  14. Answer: E

    People are particularly at risk when they are deprived of their liberty, held in pre-trial detention or subject to interrogation. The greatest risk is in the first phase of arrest and detention, before the person has access to a lawyer or court. People being held in incommunicado detention – without access to anyone in the outside world – are particularly vulnerable.

  15. Answer: True

    Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture established a complementary dual system of regular visits by independent international and national bodies to places of detention in order to prevent torture and ill-treatment.

  16. Answer: E

    The Human Rights Committee has stated that the protection of detainees requires that each person detained be afforded prompt and regular access to doctors. The Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment state that ‘a proper medical examination shall be offered to a detained or imprisoned person as promptly as possible after his admission to the place of detention or imprisonment, and thereafter medical care and treatment shall be provided whenever necessary. This care and treatment shall be provided free of charge. Detainees have the right to request a second medical opinion by a doctor of their choice, and to have access to their medical records.

  17. Answer: True

    Rule 22(2) of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states that detainees or prisoners needing special treatment must be transferred to specialised institutions or civil hospitals for that treatment.

  18. Answer: E

    All of the measures listed above are important in the prevention of torture and ill treatment. Additional prevention measures include non-refoulement or no transfer to a country where torture is likely, providing detainees access to family members and friends, and the training of state officials, including medical personnel, on torture prohibition.

  19. Answer: A, C, D

    Effective investigation of alleged torture and ill treatment and criminal prosecution of alleged perpetrators are essential for accountability. Adequate victim and witness protection is a critical component of such prosecutions. Allowing torture to be prosecuted as a lesser crime such as “abuse of police duty” would likely have a permissive effect on torture and ill treatment practices.

  20. Answer: False

    All detained people have the right to equal treatment without discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Particular allowances should, however, be made for the rights and needs of special categories of detainees including women, juveniles, elderly people, foreigners, ethnic minorities, people with different sexual orientation, people who are sick, people with mental health problems or learning disabilities, and other groups or individuals who may be particularly vulnerable during detention.

Answer: A, B, D Torture as defined by CAT, involves the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering, by or with the consent or acquiescence of the state authorities, for a specific purpose, such as gaining information, … Continue reading

Notifying people of their rights

Everyone deprived of liberty has the right to be given a reason for the arrest and detention. Article 9(1) of the ICCPR states that: ‘Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedures as are established by law.’

Everyone deprived of liberty has the right to be given a reason for the arrest and detention. Article 9(1) of the ICCPR states that: ‘Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to … Continue reading

The UN Committee against Torture

The Committee against Torture is a body of ten independent experts established under the Convention against Torture. It considers reports submitted by States Parties regarding their implementation of the provisions of the Convention and issues concluding observations. It may examine communications from individuals, if the state concerned has agreed to this procedure by making a declaration under Article 22 of the Convention. There is also a procedure, under Article 20, by which the Committee may initiate an investigation if it considers there to be ‘well-founded indications that torture is being systematically practised in the territory of a State Party’.

A new Optional Protocol was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2002. This established a complementary dual system of regular visits to places of detention in order to prevent torture and ill-treatment. The first of these is an international visiting mechanism, or a ‘Sub-Committee’ of ten independent experts who will conduct periodic visits to places of detention. The second involves an obligation on states parties to set up, designate or maintain one or several national visiting mechanisms, which can conduct more regular visits. The international and national mechanisms will make recommendations to the authorities concerned for the purposes of improving the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty and the conditions of their detention.

The Committee against Torture is a body of ten independent experts established under the Convention against Torture. It considers reports submitted by States Parties regarding their implementation of the provisions of the Convention and issues concluding observations. It may examine … Continue reading

Use of officially recognized places of detention and the maintenance of effective custody records

The Human Rights Committee has stated that ‘to guarantee the effective protection of detained persons, provisions should be made for detainees to be held in places officially recognised as places of detention and for their names and places of detention, as well as for the names of persons responsible for their detention, to be kept in registers readily available and accessible to those concerned, including relatives and friends.’[1] The European Court of Human Rights has stated that the unacknowledged detention of an individual is a ‘complete negation’ of the guarantees contained in the European Convention against arbitrary deprivations of the right to liberty and security of the person.[2]

The CPT recommends that there should be a complete custody record for each detainee which should record “all aspects of custody and action taken regarding them (when deprived of liberty and reasons for that measure; when told of rights; signs of injuries, mental illness, etc; when next of kin/consulate and lawyer contacted and when visited by them; when offered food; when interrogated; when transferred or released, etc). Further, the detainee’s lawyers should have access to such a custody record.”[3]

The UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment state that the authorities must keep and maintain up-to-date official registers of all detainees, both at each place of detention and centrally.[4] The information in such registers must be made available to courts and other competent authorities, the detainee, or his or her family.[5] Further to this, these principles state that “in order to supervise the strict observance of relevant laws and regulations, places of detention shall be visited regularly by qualified and experienced persons appointed by, and responsible to, a competent authority distinct from the authority directly in charge of the administration of the place of detention or imprisonment. A detained or imprisoned person shall have the right to communicate freely and in full confidentiality with the persons who visit the places of detention or imprisonment . . . subject to reasonable conditions to ensure security and good order in such places.”[6]


[1] Human Rights Committee, General Comment 20, Article 7 (Forty-fourth session, 1992), Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations Adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies, U.N. Doc. HRI/GEN/1/Rev.1. at 30 (1994), para. 11.

[2] Çakici v Turkey, ECtHR, Judgment 8 July 1999, para. 104.

[3] CPT/Inf/E (2002) 1, p.7, para. 40

[4] Principle 12.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Principle 29.

The Human Rights Committee has stated that ‘to guarantee the effective protection of detained persons, provisions should be made for detainees to be held in places officially recognised as places of detention and for their names and places of detention, … Continue reading

Prevention and Accountability

Preventing torture and other forms of ill-treatment is primarily an act of political or professional will and the responsibility to combat it extends to all those in authority in society. Judges and prosecutors, given their role in upholding the rule of law, have a particular responsibility to help prevent acts of torture and ill-treatment by promptly and effectively investigating such acts, prosecuting and punishing those responsible and providing redress to the victims. Preventing and investigating alleged acts of torture poses particular problems for judges and prosecutors, and for the administration of justice, because the crime is usually committed by the same public officials who are generally responsible for upholding and enforcing the law. This makes it more difficult to deal with than other forms of criminality. Nevertheless, judges and prosecutors have a legal duty to ensure that the integrity of their profession and the justice they uphold are not compromised by the continued tolerance of torture, or other forms of ill-treatment.

Health professionals should understand that medical documentation of torture and ill-treatment is one of many critical prevention and accountability measures. The following obligations on governments to ensure protection against torture as recognised in international treaties and customary international law[1] illustrates the context within which medical documenation occurs. These prevention and accountability measures also demonstrate a range of advocacy activities in which health professionals can and should consider for the prevention of torture and ill-treatment.


[1] In particular the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Articles 7 and 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Article 5 Of the American Convention on Human Rights and the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture. Torture is also prohibited under international humanitarian law, in particular common Article 3 to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, and constitutes an international crime, both in its own right and as an element of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. See on the obligations of states parties under the Convention against Torture, REDRESS, Bringing the International Prohibition of Torture Home: National Implementation Guide for the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, January 2006.

Preventing torture and other forms of ill-treatment is primarily an act of political or professional will and the responsibility to combat it extends to all those in authority in society. Judges and prosecutors, given their role in upholding the rule … Continue reading

Accountability

(i) To effectively investigate allegations of torture by:

  • Putting into place an effective complaints procedure, such as providing adequate victim and witness protection;
  • Ensuring that the relevant authorities undertake a prompt and impartial investigation whenever there are reasonable grounds to believe that torture has been committed;
  • Guaranteeing that all allegations of torture are effectively investigated.

(ii) To ensure that alleged perpetrators are subject to criminal procedings by:

  • Criminalizing acts of torture, including complicity or participation, and excluding the defenses of necessity or superior orders;
  • Ensuring that the alleged perpetrators are subject to criminal proceedings if an investigation establishes that an act of torture appears to have been committed;
  • Imposing punishments that reflect the seriousness of the crime;
  • Enshrining the principle of universal jurisdiction, enabling the investigation and prosecution of torturers irrespective of the place where the torture was committed and the nationality of either the victim or the perpetrator; and
  • Making torture and extraditable offense and providing assistance to another national governments seeking to investigate and/or prosecute persons accused of torture.

(i) To effectively investigate allegations of torture by: Putting into place an effective complaints procedure, such as providing adequate victim and witness protection; Ensuring that the relevant authorities undertake a prompt and impartial investigation whenever there are reasonable grounds to … Continue reading

Purpose of Torture

There are several purposes which torture can serve but the broad objectives include the maintenance of social control, the defence of ruling regimes and the suppression and punishment of political opponents and suspected criminals. In practice this means that torture is frequently used in interrogations to force confessions. In some police and security forces, torutre is a short-cut to “effective” policing through which officers can quickly gain convictions via confessions. However, torture is also used for other purposes: to disable political or social activists by intimidation or the infliction of serious trauma, to ensure compliance and collaboration from people so that they will infiltrate and/or testify agtainst suspected “enemies” of the government. Torture and other forms of violence can be perpetrated to assist ethnic cleansing, the expulsion of one or more ethnic groups from the territory claimed by another. The social views or political stance or ideology of people who have thus been brutally tortured are immaterial to those perpetrating the torture. More generally, torture can be used to induce in a population a sense of terror. And of course, wher toture has become institutionalized or where police can act with complete impunity, the threshold at which torture is seen as an appropriate tool can decrease. Moreover, torture can occur where there is no obvious purpose. There have been numerous examples recorded of individuals being arrested and tortured solely because they were, by chance, present in a location where alleged criminals or political targets of the authorities were present. No amount of torture would make them reveal information they do not have (though of course they could be induced to confess to some illegal activity in which they have not participated).

The power of torture to evoke confessions as well as to induce fear in the person under threat of torture has led some law enforcement officials to use it for their own ends. In some countries, police or prison officers have extorted money from detainees by the threat of, or actual, infliction of torture. And prison guards threatened with having their already low wages furhter cut if a prisoner escapes, may not histitate to use violent forms of repression against prisoners.

The targets of torture are a mix of those who have long been recognized as potential victims–foremost, political or military opponents of the ruling power–as well as others who are under-recognized as targets of torture: alleged criminals, the poor and marginalized, and ethnic minorities (both in their country or origin and as asylum-seekers). Some victim groups do not fit into traditional understandings of political torture: sexual minorities, religious groups, women and children (particularly vulnerable when used as a weapon against male family members), civilians caught in civil wars or in conflicts across borders and “accidental” victims–those who are arrested because they have the misfortune to be in a place where security agents are carrying out arrests.

There are several purposes which torture can serve but the broad objectives include the maintenance of social control, the defence of ruling regimes and the suppression and punishment of political opponents and suspected criminals. In practice this means that torture … Continue reading

History of Torture

Torture has been practiced throughout history. The Romans, Jews, Egyptians and many other cultures in history included torture as part of their justice system. Romans had crucifixion, Jews had stoning and Egyptians had desert sun death. All these acts of torture were considered necessary (as to deter others) or good (as to punish the immoral).

Medieval and early modern European courts used torture, depending on the accused’s crime and social status. Torture was deemed a legitimate meens to extract confessions or to obtain the names of accomplices or other information abbout a crime. Often, defendants already sentenced to death would be tortured to force them to disclose the names of accomplices. Torture in the Medieval Inquisition began in 1252 and ended in 1816 when a papal bull (formal statement by the Pope) forbade its use.

Universal prohibition against torture was realized only in the aftermath of WWII in 1948 and the UN Convention on Torture against Torture was adopted by the UN General Assembly considerably later in 1984.

Torture has been practiced throughout history. The Romans, Jews, Egyptians and many other cultures in history included torture as part of their justice system. Romans had crucifixion, Jews had stoning and Egyptians had desert sun death. All these acts of … Continue reading