Psychological evaluations can provide critical evidence of abuse among torture victims. It has a central role in the medical investigation and documentation of torture allegations. All medical investigations and documentation of torture should include a detailed psychological evaluation because:
- One of the main aims of torture is to destroy the psychological, social integrity and functioning of the victim.
Perpetrators often attempt to justify their acts of torture and ill-treatment by the need to gather information. Such conceptualisations obscure the purpose of torture and its intended consequences. One of the central aims of torture is to reduce an individual to a position of extreme helplessness and distress that can lead to a deterioration of cognitive, emotional and behavioural functions. Torture is a means of attacking the individual’s fundamental modes of psychological and social functioning. The torturer strives not only to incapacitate a victim physically, but also to disintegrate the individual’s personality: The torturer attempts to destroy a victim’s sense of being grounded in a family and society as a human being with dreams, hopes and aspirations for the future.— (IP, §235)
Internationally accepted definitions of torture acknowledge that provoking mental suffering is often the intention of the torturer.
- All kinds of torture inevitably comprise psychological processes.
- Torture often causes psychological/psychiatric symptoms at various levels.
- Torture methods are often designed not to leave physical lesions, and physical methods of torture may result in physical findings that either disappear quickly or lack specificity.
The improvement in the methods of detecting and providing evidence of physical torture has paradoxically led to more sophisticated methods of torture that do not to leave visible evidence on the victim’s body. Most physical symptoms and signs of torture, if there are any, rapidly disappear.
It is important to realise that torturers may attempt to conceal their acts. To avoid physical evidence of torture, precautions are taken with the intention of producing maximal pain and suffering with minimal evidence. Especially under conditions of raised awareness in society, torture applied with these precautions and sophisticated methods may leave almost no physical signs.
Torturers know that by not leaving permanent physical scars, they help their cause and make the work of their counterparts in the human rights arena more difficult. For this reason, in the Istanbul Protocol it is underscored that, “the absence of such physical evidence should not be construed to suggest that torture did not occur.”
- Psychological symptoms are often more prevalent and long-lasting than physical symptoms.
Contrary to the physical effects of torture, the psychological consequences of torture are often more persistent and troublesome than physical disability. Several aspects of psychological functioning may continue to be impaired long-term. If not treated, victims may still suffer from the psychological consequences of torture even months or years following the event, sometimes for life, with varying degrees of severity.