Ten facts to know about torture

Meeting new people outside IRCT or outside the circles of human rights work, we’ve found people have a number of questions about what the IRCT does and, more simply, about the issue of torture around the world. “Is there still torture?” they ask, often astounded that there is. For many, the term ‘torture’ invokes ideas of medieval torture chambers and the rack or the Iron Maiden.

Ten of the most common questions we get are the following:

1. Is there still torture today?

Sadly, yes, torture continues as a phenomenon today. In fact, torture takes place in the majority of countries in the world – as many as 90% of countries, estimates former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak. Furthermore, Nowak estimates that in as many as half of those countries, torture is a rampant and systematic problem.

2. Where does torture occur?

Torture most often takes place in places of detention – whether in the initial police lock-up, interrogation rooms, prison systems or other places where people are deprived of their liberty. This allows torture to remain a “secret” or “hidden” problem in the world [PDF]; places of detention are often well outside the realm of the public view and therefore escape public condemnation.

3. What exactly is torture?

The United Nations defines torture in the UN Convention Against Torture, and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment as:

“… ‘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.”

4. How are people tortured today?

While such techniques from the Middle Ages are no longer used on a large scale, the techniques of torture are still just as cruel, inhuman and painful to the victim. Furthermore, modern torture techniques are often designed to leave as few marks as possible to avoid possible future prosecution for the crimes. The Istanbul Protocol, the international guidelines for documenting torture, discusses torture methods under the following categories: beatings and other blunt traumas, beating of the feet (falanga), suspension, other positional tortures (such as being detained in a small cage or box, being forced to stand while arms are stretched high), electrical shocks, tooth torture, asphyxiation, rape and sexual torture. Other practices, such as hooding, humiliation, being stripped naked, threats to oneself or family, mock executions, simulated drowning (waterboarding) and sleep deprivation are also common torture methods that leave no external marks behind.

5. Why do people torture?

“The main aim of torture is to destroy the self-esteem of the person. The torturer tries to destroy the personal integrity by methods that cause maximum physical and mental pain and ensure gravest humiliation.”

While this is the main aim of torture, as described in Atlas of Torture, the goal of such pain and humiliation may vary. Police may torture a person to extract a confession for a crime or implicate others in a crime, as is a common practice in many countries, such as the Philippines; people may be tortured for information, as was the excuse used by the U.S. for the CIA torture programme in the so-called ‘war against terror’; armed forces may use rape and sexual torture to destroy the social fabric of communities. Or, state officials may employ torture as punishment for acts that person or a third person is believed to have committed.

6. Who commits torture?

For a case to be described as torture, the crime must be committed by a public official or a person acting in an official capacity, such as a state authority like police officers, soldiers, armed militia, among others. This also may include teachers, healthcare workers, paramilitary groups or prison guards.

7. Who are the victims of torture?

The victims of torture can be anyone – any person simply in the wrong place at the wrong time can become a victim of torture. However, there is no doubt that some groups are at particular risk of torture, for example, the poor. As the IRCT stated in The London Declaration on Poverty and Torture, poverty is one of the major factors that keep people particularly vulnerable to torture and other ill-treatment. “Most of the victims and survivors of torture belong to the poorest and most disadvantaged sectors of society,” Nowak said in the 2011 Global Reading for 26 June.

This is, generally speaking, because poverty makes people vulnerable to abuses and leaves them without the ways and means of defending their rights. Other factors can marginalise people, leaving them vulnerable to torture; this includes groups such as women, children, the elderly, religious, ethnic or sexual minorities and political opposition groups, among others.

8. What are the effects of torture?

There has been a growing body of scientific research on the physical, emotional, and mental effects of torture. The physical effects of torture depend greatly on the method of torture used. Certain types of torture are related to specific symptoms and signs. For example, for survivors of falanga, a type of torture where the soles of the feat are beaten, effects may include smashed and broken heels, later causing slow and painful walking for only limited distances.

The psychological consequences are frequently persistent and invalidating. The prevailing manifestations include anxiety, depression, irritability, emotional instability, cognitive memory and attention problems, personality changes, behavioural disturbances, neurovegetative symptoms such as lack of energy, insomnia, nightmares, sexual dysfunction, and “survivor’s guilt”.

In other words, torture represents an extreme life stressor and exposure to torture increases the risk of developing psychiatric symptoms and subsequent dysfunction, social problems, marginalisation and poverty. We know that not everyone exposed develops psychiatric manifestations but that a number of genetic factors, including vulnerability to stress, proneness to anxiety, developmental deficits, previous psychiatric history, incapacitating physical consequences, quality of social environment and individual coping efforts, all play important roles. Furthermore, the more prolonged, repeated, and unpredictable the experience of torture is, the more traumatic it is and more serious the psychiatric consequences are likely to be.

9. What is rehabilitation?

We believe that all torture survivors and their families have a right to rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is simply ameliorating the effects of torture – it is to empower the torture victim to resume as full a life as possible.

Torture rehabilitation can take a variety of forms. In approaching it through a holistic approach, rehabilitation can include medical treatment for physical ailments resulting from torture; psychosocial counselling or trauma therapy; legal aid to pursue justice for the crimes; or programmes and activities to encourage economic viability, among others.

10. What can I do to help?

There are many ways in which supporters can help. The first and most direct help is of course donations to the IRCT for our work.

Another way in which supporters can help is to simply share the stories of torture survivors or human rights defenders. International support from the World Without Torture community can create unending pressure on authorities to live up to their human rights obligations, such as stopping torture, ending harassment of human rights defenders, or bringing perpetrators to justice, among others. Your tweets, Facebook updates, letters to state leaders: these are all ways in which we can together create unceasing pressure on authorities to stop torture.


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  1. #1 by Joana Isabel on 09/11/2012 - 14:03

    Unfortunately, I cannot make any more donations. I am a memeber of Amnesty International and
    give a monthly donation. What I like is reading your stories . I think this is also a way of supporting
    your work as this makes me feel aware and sympathetic with people who are worse.Having a job is
    a great thing to feel them useful and for a while they can forget they are tortured people but people like others (with a dignity) As a disabled lady I Know so much about this . as i have a work
    I feel better than ever.

  2. #2 by cherylsconfections on 06/02/2014 - 20:59

    Reblogged this on asexual feminist and commented:
    A human rights issue we should all make ourselves familiar with.

  1. Cross-Post: Poverty impairs rehabilitation efforts for torture survivors « World Without Torture

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