Global crime: The horror of child torture

A Google search on “child torture” today, the 31st of January 2012 yields headlines like these: Children tortured, killed during Syrian regime’s crackdown: UN; UN: ‘Numerous’ reports of child torture by Syria; UN: Syrian forces killed, tortured 256 children.

Torture of children is not a “new” thing, but a thing that rarely surfaces in such a clear form as in the news on Syria. The situation in Syria has attracted the attention of high-level segments in the international community – with good reason. Syria is in the hot spot, so hot that headlines have (finally) placed the words “children and torture” in the same sentence. In the world of international politics and policies, this connection is not a common sight – especially in headlines.

One of the aims of the IRCT’s ongoing project on children is to bring more attention to the fact that children are being tortured, and headlines like those on Syria make one want to grasp the opportunity to raise the issue: torture of children is not only happening in Syria but in many places of the world. Everyday. It needs to be said loud and clear and more and more. If not, I worry that we will not be able to address it for what it is.

This is not to say that no-one is saying anything about children being tortured – data on the torture of children exists (all PDFs). However, it is often drowned in a wider discourse on violence against children in which distinctions between child abuse and child torture are blurred. All violence against children is inexcusable and horrific, no doubt about that, but we need to call it what it is in order to better fight it. Violence against children in detention, care and justice institutions, and police lock-ups amounts to torture because these institutions are run by public authorities.

The controversy of placing the words children and torture in the same sentence makes the issue a delicate and difficult one to address – this also makes it difficult to fundraise for. It is alarming to say that children are being tortured. The uneven balance of power that exists between a torturer and the tortured becomes incomprehensible when imagining that the tortured is a child.

Children are in a developmental stage of their lives and have yet to develop the coping skills of adults. The threshold of pain and suffering in particular makes this horrific act, when committed against a child, all the more chilling. It is commonly held that the special vulnerability of children renders them more susceptible to the physical and psychological effects of torture. Younger children, in particular, have a lower threshold of pain; and physical or mental abuse may have a much more profound impact on the body and mind of a developing child than on an adult.

The deployment of a Special Representative on Violence Against Children in 2009 has generated new and needed attention to the scope of violence committed against children in the world of today. This said, a review of NGO reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded that the availability of information from NGOs on violence against children is “uneven“. There is need to improve the reporting of this crime. And it needs to happen now.

Children are also fighters and survivors – and children who have been tortured can overcome the horrors, if they receive proper and timely treatment. The main objectives of IRCT’s project on children and torture is to raise awareness of the fact we need to improve documentation on cases of child torture and to develop child-appropriate rehabilitation for child survivors of torture. Not least we need to prevent it from happening. In order to do this, we first need to recognize the awful truth: that it exists and is widespread.

  Line, a sociologist specialising in human rights, implements the research project on children and torture in Asia.


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  1. New treaty would empower child survivors of torture « World Without Torture

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