Torture is a serious violation of human rights and is strictly prohibited by international law. As the use of torture strikes at the very heart of civil and political freedoms, it was one of the first issues dealt with by the United Nations (UN) in its development of human rights standards. One of its earliest measures was to abolitish corporal punishment in colonial territories in 1949. International law prohibits torture and other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment, which cannot be accepted under any circumstances.
Despite being stringently outlawed, torture continues to be practiced in a majority of countries round the world. A 2001 report by Amnesty International highlighted the use of torture by 140 states between 1997 and 2001, and found that every year thousands of perpetrators beat, rape and electrocute other human beings.
What is torture?
In the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment torture is defined as
"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 acquiesance of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity". (Article 1)
Definitions of torture vary slightly between different international treaties but generally cover any act which:
- causes severe pain or suffering;
- is intentionally inflicted on a person;
- is done to obtain informatikon or a confession, punishment for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or to intimidate or coerce him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind; and
- is done at the instigation of, or with the consent or acquiescence of, a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.
The term "torture" encompasses a variety of methods including severe beatings, electric shock, sexual abuse and rape, prolonged solitary confinement, hard labour, near drowning, near suffocation, mutilation, and hanging for prolonged periods.
Although there is no exhaustive list of prohibited acts, international law has made it clear that torture is "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment." In addition to the types of severe pain and suffering mentioned above, torture thus also includes being forced to stand spread eagled against the wall for hours; being subjected to bright lights or blindfolding; being subjected to continuous loud noise; being deprived of sleep, food or drink; being subjected to forced constant standing or crouching; or violent shaking.
Moreover, torture is not limited to acts causing physical pain or injury. It includes acts that cause mental suffering, such as through threats against family or loved ones.
And, regarding human scientific experimentation conducted by governments without the knowledgeable consent of victims, the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment does not contain this provision, although the earlier prohibition against torture in article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that "no one shall be subject without his free consent to medical or scientific experimentation." The human experiments conducted by the Nazis during World War II would fall under this category.
Whether the definition of torture encompasses judicial corporal punishment (e.g. amputation, branding and various forms of flogging, including whipping and caning) or the death penalty, is a contested issue. Article 1 of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, often refered to as the UN Convention against Torture, excludes "pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions". Some states have used this provision to argue that legally authorized criminal penalties resulting in physical harm do not constitute torture. Moreover, they claim that this wording by its very existence legitimizes the use of the death penalty or corporal punishment. Opponents disagree saying these provisions are without prejudice to other international treaties which safeguard the right to life and the security of a person. In fact, in some cases, international and regional institutions have found that certain forms of corporal punishment do amount to torture or inhuman and degrading treatment.