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Captured Viet Cong soldier, blindfolded and tied in a stress position
Captured Viet Cong soldier, blindfolded and tied in a stress position

Torture is the act of deliberately inflicting severe physical or psychological suffering on someone by another as a punishment or in order to fulfill some desire of the torturer or force some action from the victim. Torture, by definition, is a knowing and intentional act; deeds which unknowingly or negligently inflict suffering or pain, without a specific intent to do so, are not typically considered torture.[1]

Torture has been carried out or sanctioned by individuals, groups, and states throughout history from ancient times to modern day, and forms of torture can vary greatly in duration from only a few minutes to several days or longer. Reasons for torture can include punishment, revenge, extortion, persuasion, political re-education, deterrence, coercion of the victim or a third party, interrogation to extract information or a confession irrespective of whether it is false, or simply the sadistic gratification of those carrying out or observing the torture.[2] Some individuals derive intense sexual pleasure from torturing others or being tortured themselves, either literally or in elaborate fantasies.[3] Alternatively, some forms of torture are designed to inflict psychological pain or leave as little physical injury or evidence as possible while achieving the same psychological devastation. The torturer may or may not kill or injure the victim, but torture may result in a deliberate death and serves as a form of capital punishment. Depending on the aim, even a form of torture that is intentionally fatal may be prolonged to allow the victim to suffer as long as possible (such as half-hanging). In other cases, the torturer may be indifferent to the condition of the victim.

Although torture is sanctioned by some states, it is prohibited under international law and the domestic laws of most countries. Although widely illegal and reviled, there is an ongoing debate as to what exactly is and is not legally defined as torture. It is a serious violation of human rights, and is declared to be unacceptable (but not illegal) by Article 5 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Signatories of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Additional Protocols I and II of 8 June 1977 officially agree not to torture captured persons in armed conflicts, whether international or internal. Torture is also prohibited for the signatories of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which has 163 state parties.[4]

National and international legal prohibitions on torture derive from a consensus that torture and similar ill-treatment are immoral, as well as impractical, and information obtained by torture is far less reliable than that obtained by other techniques.[5][6][7] Despite these findings and international conventions, organizations that monitor abuses of human rights (e.g., Amnesty International, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, Freedom from Torture, etc.) report widespread use condoned by states in many regions of the world.[8] Amnesty International estimates that at least 81 world governments currently practice torture, some of them openly.[9]


International level

UN Convention Against Torture

The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which is currently in force since 26 June 1987, provides a broad definition of torture. Article 1.1 of the UN Convention Against Torture reads:

For the purpose of this 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.[10]

This definition was restricted to apply only to nations and to government-sponsored torture and clearly limits the torture to that perpetrated, directly or indirectly, by those acting in an official capacity, such as government personnel, law enforcement personnel, medical personnel, military personnel, or politicians. It appears to exclude:

  1. torture perpetrated by gangs, hate groups, rebels, or terrorists who ignore national or international mandates;
  2. random violence during war; and
  3. punishment allowed by national laws, even if the punishment uses techniques similar to those used by torturers such as mutilation, whipping, or corporal punishment when practiced as lawful punishment. Some professionals in the torture rehabilitation field believe that this definition is too restrictive and that the definition of politically motivated torture should be broadened to include all acts of organized violence.[11]

Declaration of Tokyo

An even broader definition was used in the 1975 Declaration of Tokyo regarding the participation of medical professionals in acts of torture:[12]

For the purpose of this Declaration, torture is defined as the deliberate, systematic or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons acting alone or on the orders of any authority, to force another person to yield information, to make a confession, or for any other reason.

This definition includes torture as part of domestic violence or ritualistic abuse, as well as in criminal activities.

Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court

The Rome Statute is the treaty that set up the International Criminal Court (ICC). The treaty was adopted at a diplomatic conference in Rome on 17 July 1998 and went into effect on 1 July 2002. The Rome Statute provides the simplest definition of torture regarding the prosecution of war criminals by the International Criminal Court. Paragraph 1 under Article 7(e) of the Rome Statute provides that:

"Torture" means the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, upon a person in the custody or under the control of the accused; except that torture shall not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to, lawful sanctions;[13]

Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture

The Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture, which is in force since 28 February 1987, defines torture more expansively than the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Article 2 of the Inter-American Convention reads:

For the purposes of this Convention, torture shall be understood to be any act intentionally performed whereby physical or mental pain or suffering is inflicted on a person for purposes of a criminal investigation, as a means of intimidation, as personal punishment, as a preventive measure, as a penalty, or for any other purpose. Torture shall also be understood to be the use of methods upon a person intended to obliterate the personality of the victim or to diminish his physical or mental capacities, even if they do not cause physical pain or mental anguish. The concept of torture shall not include physical or mental pain or suffering that is inherent in or solely the consequence of lawful measures, provided that they do not include the performance of the acts or use of the methods referred to in this article.[14]

Amnesty International

Since 1973, Amnesty International has adopted the simplest, broadest definition of torture. It reads:[15]

Torture is the systematic and deliberate infliction of acute pain by one person on another, or on a third person, in order to accomplish the purpose of the former against the will of the latter.

European Court of Human Rights

The UN Convention Against Torture and Rome Statute and the definitions of torture include terms such as "severe pain or suffering". The international European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled on the difference between what is inhuman and degrading treatment and what is pain and suffering severe enough to be torture.

In Ireland v. United Kingdom (1979–1980) the ECHR ruled that the five techniques developed by the United Kingdom (wall-standing, hooding, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep, and deprivation of food and drink), as used against fourteen detainees in Northern Ireland by the United Kingdom were "inhuman and degrading" and breached the European Convention on Human Rights, but did not amount to "torture".[16] In 2014, after new information was uncovered that showed the decision to use the five techniques in Northern Ireland in 1971–1972 had been taken by British ministers,[17] The Irish Government asked the ECHR to review its judgement. In 2018, by six votes to one, the Court declined.[18]

In Aksoy v. Turkey (1997) the Court found Turkey guilty of torture in 1996 in the case of a detainee who was suspended by his arms while his hands were tied behind his back.[19]

The Court's ruling that the five techniques did not amount to torture was later cited by the United States and Israel to justify their own interrogation methods,[20] which included the five techniques.[21]

The Court has ruled that every form of torture is strictly prohibited in all circumstances:[22]

Article 3 of the Convention enshrines one of the most fundamental values of democratic societies. Even in the most difficult of circumstances, such as the fight against terrorism or crime, the Convention prohibits in absolute terms torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 3 makes no provision for exceptions and no derogation from it is permissible under Article 15 § 2 even in the event of a public emergency threatening the life of the nation (...).

Municipal level

United States

U.S. Code § 2340

Title 18 of the United States Code contains the definition of torture in 18 U.S.C. § 2340, which is only applicable to persons committing or attempting to commit torture outside of the United States.[23] It reads:

As used in this chapter—

(1) "torture" means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
(2) "severe mental pain or suffering" means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—
(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
(C) the threat of imminent death; or
(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and
(3) "United States" means the several states of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.

In order for the United States to assume control over this jurisdiction, the alleged offender must be a U.S. national or the alleged offender must be present in the United States, irrespective of the nationality of the victim or alleged offender. Any person who conspires to commit an offense shall be subject to the same penalties (other than the penalty of death) as the penalties prescribed for an actual act or attempting to commit an act, the commission of which was the object of the conspiracy.[23]

Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991

The Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 provides remedies to individuals who are victims of torture by persons acting in an official capacity of any foreign nation. The definition is similar to the U.S. Code § 2340, which reads:

(b) TORTURE.—For the purposes of this Act—

(1) the term "torture" means any act, directed against an individual in the offender's custody or physical control, by which severe pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering arising only from or inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions), whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on that individual for such purposes as obtaining from that individual or third person information or a confession, punishing that individual for an act that individual or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, intimidating or coercing that individual or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind; and
2) mental pain or suffering refers to prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—
(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
(C) the threat of imminent death; or
(D) the threat that another individual will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality.[24]


In the study of the history of torture, some authorities rigidly divide the history of torture per se from the history of capital punishment, while noting that most forms of capital punishment are extremely painful. Torture grew into an ornate discipline, where calibrated violence served two functions: to investigate and produce confessions and to attack the body as a form of punishment. Entire populaces of towns would show up to witness an execution by torture in the public square. Those who had been "spared" torture were commonly locked barefooted into the stocks, where children took delight in rubbing feces into their hair and mouths.[25]

Deliberately painful methods of torture and execution for severe crimes were taken for granted as part of justice until the development of Humanism in 17th-century philosophy, and "cruel and unusual punishment" came to be denounced in the English Bill of Rights of 1689. The Age of Enlightenment in the Western world further developed the idea of universal human rights. The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 marks the recognition at least nominally of a general ban of torture by all UN member states.

Its effect in practice is limited, however, as the Declaration is not ratified officially and does not have a legally binding character in international law, but is rather considered part of customary international law. Several countries still practice torture today. Some countries have legally codified it, and others have claimed that it is not practiced while maintaining the use of torture in secret.[26]

Since the days when Roman law prevailed throughout Europe, torture has been regarded as subtending three classes or degrees of suffering.[27] First-degree torture typically took the forms of whipping and beating but did not mutilate the body. The most prevalent modern example is bastinado, a technique of beating or whipping the soles of the bare feet. Second-degree torture consisted almost entirely of crushing devices and procedures, including screw presses or "bone vises" that crushed thumbs, toes, knees, feet, even teeth and skulls in a wide variety of ways. A wide array of "boots"—-machines designed to slowly crush feet—-are representative. Finally, third-degree tortures savagely mutilated the body in numerous dreadful ways, incorporating spikes, blades, boiling oil, and controlled fire. The serrated iron tongue shredder; the red-hot copper basin for destroying eyesight (abacination, q.v.); and the stocks that forcibly held the prisoner's naked feet, glistening with lard, directly over red-hot coals (foot roasting, q.v.) until the skin and foot muscles were burnt black and the bones fell to ashes are examples of torture in the third degree.[citation needed]


Assyrians skinning or flaying their prisoners alive
Assyrians skinning or flaying their prisoners alive

Judicial torture was probably first applied in Persia, either by Medes or Achaemenid Empire. Prisoners of war had their tongues torn out and were flayed or burned alive. This served the tangential objective of persuading the next city to surrender without a struggle. Over time torture has been used as a means of reform, inducing public terror, interrogation, spectacle, and sadistic pleasure. The ancient Greeks and Romans used torture for interrogation. Until the 2nd century AD, torture was used only on slaves (with a few exceptions).[28] After this point it began to be extended to all members of the lower classes.[29] A slave's testimony was admissible only if extracted by torture, on the assumption that slaves could not be trusted to reveal the truth voluntarily. This torture occurred to break the bond between a master and his slave. Slaves were thought to be incapable of lying under torture.[30]

Middle Ages

Medieval torture rack
Medieval torture rack

Medieval and early modern European courts used torture, depending on the crime of the accused and his or her social status. Torture was deemed a legitimate means to extract confessions or to obtain the names of accomplices or other information about a crime, although many confessions were greatly invalid due to the victim being forced to confess under great agony and pressure. It was permitted by law only if there was already half-proof against the accused.[31] Torture was used in continental Europe to obtain corroborating evidence in the form of a confession when other evidence already existed.[32] 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 with a papal bull Ad Extirpanda and ended in 1816 when another papal bull forbade its use. Although the torture that was sanctioned by the bull was less severe than the torture that could be found in contemporary secular courts.

A highly esteemed torture in the times of the Inquisition as a good means of interrogating "taciturn" heretics and wizards was the interrogation chair.[33]

Torture was usually conducted in secret, underground dungeons. By contrast, torturous executions were typically public, and woodcuts of English prisoners being hanged, drawn and quartered show large crowds of spectators, as do paintings of Spanish auto-da-fé executions, in which heretics were burned at the stake. Torture was also used during this period as a means of reform, spectacle, to induce fear into the public, and most popularly as a punishment for treason.

Medieval torture devices were varied. One old English chronicle from the Early Medieval period reads, "They hanged them by the thumbs, or by the head, and hung fires on their feet; they put knotted strings about their heads and writhed them so that it went to the brain ... Some they put in a chest that was short, and narrow, and shallow, and put sharp stones therein, and pressed the man therein so that they broke all his limbs ... I neither can nor may tell all the wounds or all the tortures which they inflicted on wretched men in this land."[34] Tortures later in the Middle Ages consisted of whipping; the crushing of thumbs, feet, legs, and heads in iron presses; burning the flesh; and tearing out teeth, fingernails, and toenails with red-hot iron forceps. Limb-smashing and drowning were also popular medieval tortures. Specific devices were also created and used during this time, including the rack, the Pear (also mentioned in Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) as "Choak [sic.] Pears," and described as being "formerly used in Holland"), thumbscrews, animals like rats, the iron chair, and the cat o nine tails.[35]

However, remains of an Anglo-Saxon ostracized girl aged between 15 and 18 years old, dated back to between 776 and 899 AD, were discovered in Basingstoke in the 1960s, which showed evidence of facial disfigurement, including a cut across her mouth that removed her lips, a cut that had her nose cut off, and another cut across her forehead; such punishments were also related to adulteresses and to slaves caught stealing.[36]

Early modern period

Lingchi – execution by slow slicing – in Beijing around 1904.
Lingchi – execution by slow slicing – in Beijing around 1904.

During the early modern period, the torture of witches took place. In 1613, Anton Praetorius described the situation of the prisoners in the dungeons in his book Gründlicher Bericht Von Zauberey und Zauberern (Thorough Report about Sorcery and Sorcerers). He was one of the first to protest against all means of torture.

While secular courts often treated suspects ferociously, Will and Ariel Durant argued in The Age of Faith that many of the most vicious procedures were inflicted upon pious heretics by even more pious friars. The Dominicans gained a reputation as some of the most fearsomely innovative torturers in medieval Spain.[37]

Torture was continued by Protestants during the Renaissance against teachers who they viewed as heretics. In 1547 John Calvin had Jacques Gruet arrested in Geneva, Switzerland. Under torture he confessed to several crimes including writing an anonymous letter left in the pulpit which threatened death to Calvin and his associates.[38] The Council of Geneva had him beheaded with Calvin's approval.[39][40][41][42] Suspected witches were also tortured and burnt by Protestant leaders, though more often they were banished from the city, as well as suspected spreaders of the plague, which was considered a more serious crime.[43]

In England the trial by jury developed considerable freedom in evaluating evidence and condemning on circumstantial evidence, making torture to extort confessions unnecessary. For this reason, in England, a regularized system of judicial torture never existed and its use was limited to political cases. Torture was in theory not permitted under English law, but in Tudor and early Stuart times, under certain conditions, torture was used in England. For example, the confession of Marc Smeaton at the trial of Anne Boleyn was presented in written form only, either to hide from the court that Smeaton had been tortured on the rack for four hours, or because Thomas Cromwell was worried that he would recant his confession if cross-examined. When Guy Fawkes was arrested for his role in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 he was tortured until he revealed all he knew about the plot. This was not so much to extract a confession, which was not needed to prove his guilt, but to extract from him the names of his fellow conspirators. By this time torture was not routine in England and a special warrant from King James I was needed before he could be tortured. The wording of the warrant shows some concerns for humanitarian considerations, specifying that the severity of the methods of interrogation were to be increased only gradually until the interrogators were sure that Fawkes had told all he knew.

The privy council attempted to have John Felton who stabbed George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham to death in 1628 questioned under torture on the rack, but the judges resisted, unanimously declaring its use to be contrary to the laws of England.[44] Torture was abolished in England around 1640 (except peine forte et dure, which was abolished in 1772).

In Colonial America, women were sentenced to the stocks with wooden clips on their tongues or subjected to the "dunking stool" for the gender-specific crime of talking too much.[45] Certain Native American peoples, especially in the area that later became the eastern half of the United States, engaged in the sacrificial torture of war captives.[46] And Spanish colonial officials in what is today the southwestern United States and northern Mexico often resorted to torture to extract confessions from rebellious Native Americans, as evidenced by the case of the Pima leader Joseph Romero 'Canito' in 1686.[47]

In the 17th century, the number of incidents of judicial torture decreased in many European regions. Johann Graefe in 1624 published Tribunal Reformation, a case against torture. Cesare Beccaria, an Italian lawyer, published in 1764 "An Essay on Crimes and Punishments", in which he argued that torture unjustly punished the innocent and should be unnecessary in proving guilt. Voltaire (1694–1778) also fiercely condemned torture in some of his essays.

While in Egypt in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte wrote to Major-General Berthier regarding the validity of torture as an interrogation tool:[48]

The barbarous custom of whipping men suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this method of interrogation, by putting men to the torture, is useless. The wretches say whatever comes into their heads and whatever they think one wants to believe. Consequently, the Commander-in-Chief forbids the use of a method which is contrary to reason and humanity.

European states abolished torture from their statutory law in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. England abolished torture in about 1640 (except peine forte et dure, which England only abolished in 1772), Scotland in 1708, Prussia in 1740, Denmark around 1770, Russia in 1774, Austria and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1776, Italy in 1786, France in 1788, and Baden in 1831.[49][50][51] Sweden was the first to do so in 1722 and the Netherlands did the same in 1798. Bavaria abolished torture in 1806 and Württemberg in 1809. In Spain, the Napoleonic conquest put an end to torture in 1808. Norway abolished it in 1819 and Portugal in 1826. The last European jurisdictions to abolish legal torture were Portugal (1828) and the canton of Glarus in Switzerland (1851).[52]

Methods of torture

An effective torture, in addition to being agonizingly painful, must be both visually terrifying and bitterly cruel. The chevalet or Spanish donkey, which descended from the ancient Roman equuleus, saw the naked prisoner seated astride a sharp metal blade with heavy weights strung from his feet, forcing his coccyx downward and inflicting agony.[53] Sexual humiliation tortures included forced sitting on red-hot stools.[54]The gresillons, also called pennywinkis in Scotland, or pilliwinks, crushed the tips of the fingers and toes in a vise-like device.[55] The Spanish Boot, or Beinschraube, used mostly in Germany and Scotland, was a steel boot that was placed over the leg of the accused and was tightened. The pressure from the squeezing of the boot would break the shin bone in pieces. An anonymous Scotsman called it "The most severe and cruel pain in the world".[56] An ingenious variant of the Spanish boot was designed to slowly crush the foot between iron plates armed with terrifying spikes. Spikes were also sown generously across the surface of the gespickte Fussbrett, atop which the barefoot prisoner was forced to stand until the flesh of his feet were shredded and the bones were dislocated[57]. The echelle more commonly known as the "ladder" or "rack" was a long table that the accused would lie upon and be stretched violently. The torture was used so intensely that on many occasions the victim's limbs would be pulled out of the socket and, at times, the limbs would even be torn from the body entirely. On some special occasions a tortillon was used in conjunction with the ladder which would severely squeeze and mutilate the genitals at the same time as the stretching was occurring.[55] Similar to the ladder was the "lift". It too stretched the limbs of the accused; in this instance however the victim's feet were strapped to the ground and their arms were tied behind their back before a rope was tied to their hands and lifted upwards. This caused the arms to break before the portion of the stretching began.[56] Finally, the judicial system of King James favored the use of the turkas, an ingenious and savage iron instrument for destroying the nails of the fingers and toes. The sharp point of the instrument was first pushed under the nail to the root, splitting the nail down the center line. Pincers then grabbed either edge of the destroyed nail and slowly tore it away from the nail bed. A similar torture was applied to the Knights Templar and to suspected witches, wedges or skewers of wood, bone, or iron being slowly driven under the toenails[57]. Other common tortures included the strappado, a system of weights and pulleys with which the prisoner was trussed up and jerked in order to dislocate his limbs; the water torture, by which he was maintained at the very edge of drowning; and the so-called torture by fire, in which the soles of the feet, immobilized in iron stocks and smeared with lard, were slowly barbecued over red-hot coals, slivers of hot coal sometimes being slid between the toes to increase the cruelty of the torture[57].

Since 1948

Survivors of the Ohrdruf concentration camp demonstrate torture methods used in the camp
Survivors of the Ohrdruf concentration camp demonstrate torture methods used in the camp

Modern sensibilities have been shaped by a profound reaction to the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Axis Powers and Allied Powers in the Second World War, which have led to a sweeping international rejection of most if not all aspects of the practice.[58] Even as many states engage in torture, few wish to be described as doing so, either to their own citizens or to the international community. A variety of devices bridge this gap, including state denial, "secret police", "need to know", a denial that given treatments are torturous in nature, appeal to various laws (national or international), the use of jurisdictional argument and the claim of "overriding need". Throughout history and today, many states have engaged in torture, albeit unofficially. Torture ranges from physical, psychological, political, interrogations techniques, and also includes rape of anyone outside of law enforcement.[59]

According to scholar Ervand Abrahamian, although there were several decades of prohibition of torture that spread from Europe to most parts of the world, by the 1980s, the taboo against torture was broken and torture "returned with a vengeance," propelled in part by television and an opportunity to break political prisoners and broadcast the resulting public recantations of their political beliefs for "ideological warfare, political mobilization, and the need to win 'hearts and minds.'"[60]

In the years 2004 and 2005, over 16 countries were documented using torture.[61] In an attempt to bring global awareness, Human Rights Watch has created an internet site to alert people to news and multimedia publications about torture occurring worldwide.[61] The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims [IRCT] made a global analysis of torture based on [Amnesty International, 2001], [Human Rights Watch, 2003], [United Nations, 2002], [U.S. Department of State, 2002] yearly human rights reports. These reports showed that torture and ill-treatment are consistently report based on all four sources in 32 countries. At least two reports the use of torture and ill-treatment in at least 80 countries. These reports confirm the assumption that torture occurs in a quarter of the world's countries on a regular basis. This global prevalence of torture is estimated on the magnitude of particular high-risk groups and the amount of torture used by these groups. "Such groups comprise refugees and persons who are or have been under torture."[59] According to professor Darius Rejali, although dictatorships may have used tortured "more, and more indiscriminately", it was modern democracies, "the United States, Britain, and France" who "pioneered and exported techniques that have become the lingua franca of modern torture: methods that leave no marks."[62] The practice of torture used as the oppression against political opponents or could be a part of a criminal investigation or interrogation techniques in order to obtain the desired information and keep law enforcement empowered over everyday citizens.[59]

The modern concept of torture methods that leave no physical evidence is noted in 1995 by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV within the changing definition of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD. This revised definition included psychological torture stating: "Expresses concern that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders definition of posttraumatic stress disorder does not include those forms of psychological torture in which the physical integrity of a person is not threatened. It is suggested that any diagnostic criterion that characterizes the traumatic stressors leading to PTSD should be expressed in such a way that psychological forms of torture are included."[63] After 1995, the sweeping definition of changes from 'any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether mental or physical, is intentionally inflicted on a person' to including the terms psychological torture and including examples such as, interrogation techniques range from sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, fear, and humiliation to severe sexual and cultural humiliation and use of threats and phobias to induce fear of death or injury.[64]

This image of a prisoner, Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, being tortured by US forces at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq has become internationally famous, eventually making it onto the cover of The Economist.
This image of a prisoner, Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, being tortured by US forces at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq has become internationally famous, eventually making it onto the cover of The Economist.

Torture still occurs in a small number[citation needed] of liberal democracies despite several international treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Convention Against Torture making torture illegal. Despite such international conventions, torture cases continue to arise such as the 2004 Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal committed by personnel of the United States Army. The U.S. Constitution and U.S. law prohibits the use of torture, yet such human rights violations occurred during the War on Terror under the euphemism Enhanced interrogation. The United States revised the previous torture policy in 2009 under the Obama Administration. This revision revokes Executive Order 13440 of 20 July 2007, under which the incident at Abu Ghraib and prisoner abuse occurred. Executive Order 13491 of 22 January 2009 further defines United States policy on torture and interrogation techniques in an attempt to further prevent another torture incident.[65] Yet apparently the practice continues, albeit outsourced.[66]

According to the findings of Dr. Christian Davenport of the University of Notre Dame, Professor William Moore of Florida State University, and David Armstrong of Oxford University during their torture research, evidence suggests that non-governmental organizations have played the most determinant factor for stopping torture once it gets started.[67] Preliminary research suggests that it is civil society, not government institutions, that can stop torture once it has begun. This inability to control abuse and torture in society creates an imperfect Democracy non-compliant with internationally agreed-upon standards for civil and political rights.[59] Many organizations serve to expose widespread human rights violations and hold individuals accountable to the international community.

Torture has been a constant cause of human rights abuse in the Middle East, where prisoners, human rights activists, dissidents have been subjected to arbitrary detention and torture. Bahrain has also been one of the monarchies that have been reported to have followed a similar principle. However, on 5 February 2021, it was reported that the British University of Huddersfield also played an accomplice in the torture practices of the Kingdom of Bahrain. As a result, forty MPs across parties urged the University to close one of the master’s courses that it ran at Bahrain’s Royal Academy of Policing after it was alleged to be torturing political activists in the academy’s premises.[68]

Torture tools in Prague Castle; note spiked ladder rack, shrew's fiddle, and, at center left rear, a spiked wooden screw press applicable to elbows, knees, or feet
Torture tools in Prague Castle; note spiked ladder rack, shrew's fiddle, and, at center left rear, a spiked wooden screw press applicable to elbows, knees, or feet
Torture in the 16th century
Torture in the 16th century

Historical methods of execution and capital punishment

For most of recorded history, capital punishments were often cruel and inhumane. Severe historical penalties include breaking wheel, boiling to death, flaying, slow slicing, disembowelment, crucifixion, impalement, crushing, stoning, execution by burning, dismemberment, sawing, decapitation, scaphism, or necklacing.[69]

Lingchi, also known as Slow slicing or death by/of a thousand cuts, was a form of execution used in China from roughly 900 AD to its abolition in 1905. According to apocryphal lore, lingchi began when the torturer, wielding an extremely sharp knife, began by putting out the eyes, rendering the condemned incapable of seeing the remainder of the torture and, presumably, adding considerably to the psychological terror of the procedure. Successive rather minor cuts chopped off ears, nose, tongue, fingers, toes, and such before proceeding to grosser cuts that removed large collops of flesh from more sizable parts, e.g., thighs and shoulders. The entire process was said to last three days, and to total 3,600 cuts. The heavily carved bodies of the deceased were then put on a parade for a show in the public. More typical was to bribe the executioner to administer hasty death to the victim after a small number of dramatic slices inflicted for showmanship.[70][better source needed][71][page needed]

Impalement was a method of torture and execution whereby a person is pierced with a long stake. The penetration can be through the sides, from the rectum, or through the mouth or vagina. This method would lead to slow, painful, death. Often, the victim was hoisted into the air after partial impalement. Gravity and the victim's own struggles would cause him to slide down the pole. Death could take many days. Impalement was frequently practiced in Asia and Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Vlad III Dracula and Ivan the Terrible have passed into legend as major users of the method.[72]

The breaking wheel was a torturous capital punishment device used in the Middle Ages and early modern times for public execution by cudgeling to death, especially in France and Germany. In France the condemned were placed on a cart-wheel with their limbs stretched out along the spokes over two sturdy wooden beams. The wheel was made to slowly revolve. Through the openings between the spokes, the executioner hit the victim with an iron hammer that could easily break the victim's bones. This process was repeated several times per limb. Once his bones were broken, he was left on the wheel to die. It could take hours, even days, before shock and dehydration caused death. The punishment was abolished in Germany as late as 1827.[73]

Laws against torture

Map of the world with parties to the United Nations Convention Against Torture shaded dark green, states that have signed but not ratified the treaty in light green, and non-parties in gray
Map of the world with parties to the United Nations Convention Against Torture shaded dark green, states that have signed but not ratified the treaty in light green, and non-parties in gray

The prohibition of torture is a peremptory norm in public international law—meaning that it is forbidden under all circumstances.[74] On 10 December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 5 states, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."[75] Since that time, a number of other international treaties have been adopted to prevent the use of torture. The most notable treaties relating to torture are the United Nations Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols I and II of 8 June 1977.[76]

Municipal law

States that ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture have a treaty obligation to include the provisions into municipal law. The laws of many states therefore formally prohibit torture. However, such de jure legal provisions are by no means a proof that, de facto, the signatory country does not use torture. To prevent torture, many legal systems have a right against self-incrimination or explicitly prohibit undue force when dealing with suspects.

The French 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, of constitutional value, prohibits submitting suspects to any hardship not necessary to secure his or her person.

The U.S. Constitution and U.S. law prohibits the use of unwarranted force or coercion against any person who is subject to interrogation, detention, or arrest. The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution includes protection against self-incrimination, which states that "[n]o person...shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself". This serves as the basis of the Miranda warning, which U.S. law enforcement personnel issue to individuals upon their arrest. Additionally, the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment forbids the use of "cruel and unusual punishments," which is widely interpreted as prohibiting torture. Finally, 18 U.S.C. § 2340[77] et seq. define and forbid torture committed by U.S. nationals outside the United States or non-U.S. nationals who are present in the United States. As the United States recognizes customary international law, or the law of nations, the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act also provides legal remedies for victims of torture outside of the United States. Specifically, the status of torturers under the law of the United States, as determined by a famous legal decision in 1980, Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, 630 F.2d 876 (2d Cir. 1980), is that, "the torturer has become, like the pirate and the slave trader before him, hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind."[78]


Ethical arguments

Falun Gong practitioner, tortured by guards in a labor camp in the Boluo Area of China (PRC)
Falun Gong practitioner, tortured by guards in a labor camp in the Boluo Area of China (PRC)

Ethical justifications for torture (ex: ticking time bomb scenario) devolve to "the ends justify the means". This presupposes that torture produces "the ends" (information necessary to prevent harm to others), in order to "justify the means" (harm to the torture subject). But there is no evidence that information extracted by torture is reliable, so there is no logical and no ethical justification for torture.

Torture has been criticized on humanitarian and moral grounds, on the grounds that evidence extracted by torture is unreliable, and because torture corrupts institutions that tolerate it.[79] Besides degrading the victim, torture debases the torturer: American advisors alarmed at torture by their South Vietnamese allies early in the Vietnam War concluded that "if a commander allowed his officers and men to fall into these vices [they] would pursue them for their own sake, for the perverse pleasure they drew from them."[80] The consequent degeneracy destroyed discipline and morale: "[a] soldier had to learn that he existed to uphold law and order, not to undermine it."[80]

Organizations like Amnesty International argue that the universal legal prohibition is based on a universal philosophical consensus that torture and ill-treatment are repugnant, abhorrent, and immoral.[81] But since shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks there has been a debate in the United States about whether torture is justified in some circumstances. Some people, such as Alan M. Dershowitz and Mirko Bagaric, have argued the need for information outweighs the moral and ethical arguments against torture.[82][83] However, after coercive practices were banned, interrogators in Iraq saw an increase of 50 percent more high-value intelligence. Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, the American commander in charge of detentions and interrogations, stated "a rapport-based interrogation that recognizes respect and dignity, and having very well-trained interrogators, is the basis by which you develop intelligence rapidly and increase the validity of that intelligence."[6] Others including Robert Mueller, FBI Director since 5 July 2001, have pointed out that despite former Bush Administration claims that waterboarding has "disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks", they do not believe that evidence gained by the U.S. government through what supporters of the techniques call "enhanced interrogation" has disrupted a single attack and no one has come up with a documented example of lives saved thanks to these techniques.[84][7] On 19 June 2009, the US government announced that it was delaying the scheduled release of declassified portions of a report by the CIA Inspector General that reportedly cast doubt on the effectiveness of the "enhanced interrogation" techniques employed by CIA interrogators, according to references to the report contained in several Bush-era Justice Department memos declassified in the Spring of 2009 by the US Justice Department.[85][86][87]

Religious views

The prevalent view among jurists of sharia law is that torture is not permitted under any circumstances.[88][89] The Catholic Church carried out torture between the twelfth century and 1834, when it was banned.[90]

Public opinion

The ticking time bomb scenario, a thought experiment, asks what to do to a captured terrorist who has placed a nuclear bomb in a populated area. If the terrorist is tortured, he may explain how to defuse the bomb. The scenario asks if it is ethical to torture the terrorist. A 2006 BBC poll held in 25 nations gauged support for each of the following positions:[91]

  • Terrorists pose such an extreme threat that governments should be allowed to use some degree of torture if it may gain information that saves innocent lives.
  • Clear rules against torture should be maintained because any use of torture is immoral and will weaken international human rights.

An average of 59% of people worldwide rejected torture. However, there was a clear divide between those countries with strong rejection of torture (such as Italy, where only 14% supported torture) and nations where rejection was less strong. Often this lessened rejection is found in countries severely and frequently threatened by terrorist attacks. E.g., Israel, despite its Supreme Court outlawing torture in 1999, showed 43% supporting torture, but 48% opposing, India showed 37% supporting torture and only 23% opposing.[92]

Within nations, there is a clear divide between the positions of members of different ethnic groups, religions, and political affiliations, sometimes reflecting distinctions between groups considering themselves threatened or victimized by terror acts and those from the alleged perpetrator groups. For example, the study found that among Jews in Israel 53% favored some degree of torture and only 39% wanted strong rules against torture while Muslims in Israel were overwhelmingly against any use of torture, unlike Muslims polled elsewhere. Differences in general political views also can matter. In one 2006 survey by the Scripps Center at Ohio University, 66% of Americans who identified themselves as strongly Republican supported torture, compared to 24% of those who identified themselves as strongly Democratic.[93] In a 2005 U.S. survey 72% of American Catholics supported the use of torture in some circumstances compared to 51% of American secularists.[94] A Pew survey in 2009 similarly found that the religiously unaffiliated are the least likely (40 percent) to support torture, and that the more a person claims to attend church, the more likely he or she is to condone torture; among racial/religious groups, white evangelical Protestants were far and away the most likely (62 percent) to support inflicting pain as a tool of interrogation.[95]

Demonstration of waterboarding at a street protest during a visit by Condoleezza Rice to Iceland, May 2008
Demonstration of waterboarding at a street protest during a visit by Condoleezza Rice to Iceland, May 2008

A Today/Gallup poll "found that sizable majorities of Americans disagree with tactics ranging from leaving prisoners naked and chained in uncomfortable positions for hours, to trying to make a prisoner think he was being drowned".[96]

There are also different attitudes as to what constitutes torture, as revealed in an ABC News/Washington Post poll, where more than half of the Americans polled thought that techniques such as sleep deprivation were not torture.[97]


There is a strong utilitarian argument against torture; namely, that it is ineffective.[98]

Information supporting the ineffectiveness of torture goes back centuries. For example, during witch trials torture was routinely used to try to force subjects to admit their guilt and to identify other witches. It was found that subjects would make up stories if it meant the torture would cease.

There is no scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness.[99]

The lack of scientific basis for the effectiveness of torture as an interrogation techniques is summarized in a 2006 Intelligence Science Board report titled "EDUCING INFORMATION, Interrogation: Science and Art, Foundations for the Future".[100]

On the other hand, some have pointed to some specific cases where torture has elicited true information.[101]


A famous example of rejection of the use of torture was cited by the Argentine National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons in whose report, Italian general Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa was reputed to have said in connection with the investigation of the disappearance of prime minister Aldo Moro, "Italy can survive the loss of Aldo Moro. It would not survive the introduction of torture."[102]


Before the emergence of modern policing, torture was an important aspect of policing and the use of it was openly sanctioned and acknowledged by the authority. The Economist magazine proposed that one of the reasons torture endures is that torture does indeed work in some instances to extract information/confession if those who are being tortured are indeed guilty.[103] Depending on the culture, torture has at times been carried on in silence (official silence),[104] semi-silence (known but not spoken about), or openly acknowledged in public (to instill fear and obedience).

In the 21st century, even when states sanction their interrogation methods, torturers often work outside the law. For this reason, some prefer methods that, while unpleasant, leave victims alive and unmarked. A victim with no visible damage may lack credibility when telling tales of torture, whereas a person missing fingernails or eyes can easily prove claims of torture. Mental torture, however, can leave scars just as deep and long-lasting as physical torture.[105] Professional torturers in some countries have used techniques such as electrical shock, asphyxiation, heat, cold, noise, and sleep deprivation, which leave little evidence, although in other contexts torture frequently results in horrific mutilation or death. However, the most common and prevalent form of torture worldwide in both developed and under-developed countries is beating.[106]

Methods and devices

The contrast shown between Guy Fawkes' signatures: the one above (a faint, shaky 'Guido') was done immediately after torture; the one below eight days later.[107]
The contrast shown between Guy Fawkes' signatures: the one above (a faint, shaky 'Guido') was done immediately after torture; the one below eight days later.[107]

Psychological torture uses non-physical methods that cause psychological suffering. Its effects are not immediately apparent unless they alter the behavior of the tortured person. Since there is no international political consensus on what constitutes psychological torture, it is often overlooked, denied, and referred to by different names.[108]

Psychological torture is less well known than physical torture and tends to be subtle and much easier to conceal. In practice, the distinctions between physical and psychological torture are often blurred.[109] Physical torture is the inflicting of severe pain or suffering on a person. In contrast, psychological torture is directed at the psyche with calculated violations of psychological needs, along with deep damage to psychological structures and the breakage of beliefs underpinning normal sanity. Torturers often inflict both types of torture in combination to compound the associated effects.[citation needed]

Psychological torture also includes deliberate use of extreme stressors and situations such as mock execution, shunning, violation of deep-seated social or sexual norms and taboos, or extended solitary confinement. Because psychological torture needs no physical violence to be effective, it is possible to induce severe psychological pain, suffering, and trauma with no externally visible effects.[citation needed]

Rape and other forms of sexual abuse are often used as methods of torture for interrogative or punitive purposes.[110]

In medical torture, medical practitioners use torture to judge what victims can endure, to apply treatments that enhance torture, or act as torturers in their own right. Josef Mengele and Shirō Ishii were infamous during and after World War II for their involvement in medical torture and murder. In recent years, however, there has been a push to end medical complicity in torture through both international and state-based legal strategies, as well as litigations against individual physicians.[111]

Pharmacological torture is the use of drugs to produce psychological or physical pain or discomfort. Tickle torture is an unusual form of torture which nevertheless has been documented, and can be both physically and psychologically painful.[112][113][114][115]

Widely used in the modern era, prison torture has also become a way of oppression, particularly in the Middle East. Egypt, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have operated detention centers in which the inmates were physically and psychologically tortured using electric shocks, isolation, beatings, threats of rape, and other techniques.[116] [117] [118] The UAE has also operated secret prisons in Yemen, where it was involved in a proxy war. Abuse and torture in these prisons were normal. Detainees were tied to a spit and roasted in a circle of fire.[119] From 18 of these clandestine lockups, the Al Munawara Central Prison in Mukalla City kept at least 27 individuals in detention, even when 13 of them had been granted acquittals and 11 had completed their full sentences.[120]


See Psychology of torture for psychological impact, and aftermath, of torture.

The consequences of torture reach far beyond immediate pain. Many victims suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which includes symptoms such as flashbacks (or intrusive thoughts), severe anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, depression and memory lapses. Torture victims often feel guilt and shame, triggered by the humiliation they have endured. Many feel that they have betrayed themselves or their friends and family. All such symptoms are normal human responses to abnormal and inhuman treatment.[121]

Organizations like Freedom from Torture and the Center for Victims of Torture try to help survivors of torture obtain medical treatment and to gain forensic medical evidence to obtain political asylum in a safe country or to prosecute the perpetrators.

Torture is often difficult to prove, particularly when some time has passed between the event and a medical examination, or when the torturers are immune from prosecution. Many torturers around the world use methods designed to have a maximum psychological impact while leaving only minimal physical traces. Medical and Human Rights Organizations worldwide have collaborated to produce the Istanbul Protocol, a document designed to outline common torture methods, consequences of torture, and medico-legal examination techniques. Typically deaths due to torture are shown in an autopsy as being due to "natural causes" like heart attack, inflammation, or embolism due to extreme stress.[122]

For survivors, torture often leads to lasting mental and physical health problems.

Physical problems can be wide-ranging, e.g. sexually transmitted diseases, musculo-skeletal problems, brain injury, post-traumatic epilepsy and dementia or chronic pain syndromes.

On 19 August 2007, the American Psychology Association (APA) voted to bar participation, to intervene to stop, and to report involvement in a wide variety of interrogation techniques as torture, including "using mock executions, simulated drowning, sexual and religious humiliation, stress positions or sleep deprivation", as well as "the exploitation of prisoners' phobias, the use of mind-altering drugs, hooding, forced nakedness, the use of dogs to frighten detainees, exposing prisoners to extreme heat and cold, physical assault and threatening the use of such techniques against a prisoner or a prisoner's family."[123]

However, the APA rejected a stronger resolution that sought to prohibit "all psychologist involvement, either direct or indirect, in any interrogations at U.S. detention centers for foreign detainees or citizens detained outside normal legal channels." That resolution would have placed the APA alongside the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association in limiting professional involvement in such settings to direct patient care. The APA echoed the Bush administration by condemning isolation, sleep deprivation, and sensory deprivation or over-stimulation only when they are likely to cause lasting harm.

Psychiatric treatment of torture-related medical problems might require a wide range of expertise and often specialized experience. Common treatments are psychotropic medication, e.g. SSRI antidepressants, counseling, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, family systems therapy and physiotherapy.


Survivors of torture, their families, and others in the community may require long-term material, medical, psychological and social support.[124] Anti torture groups recommend a coordinated effort that covers both physical and psychological aspects, including the patients' needs, problems, expectations, views, and cultural references.[124]

Rehabilitation centres around the world, notably the members of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, commonly offer multi-disciplinary support and counselling, including:

  • medical attention / psychotherapeutic treatment
  • psychosocial support/trauma treatment
  • legal services and redress
  • social reintegration.

In the case of asylum seekers and refugees, the services may also include assisting in the documentation of torture for the asylum decision, language classes and help in finding somewhere to live and work.[124]

Rehabilitation of secondary survivors

In the worst case, torture can affect several generations. The physical and mental after-effects of torture often place great strain on the entire family and society. Children are particularly vulnerable. They often suffer from feelings of guilt or personal responsibility for what has happened. Therefore, other members of the survivor's family – in particular the spouse and children – are also offered treatment and counselling.[124]

Broken societies

In some instances, whole societies can be more or less traumatized where torture has been used in a systematic and widespread manner. In general, after years of repression, conflict and war, regular support networks and structures have often been broken or destroyed.[124]

Providing psychosocial support and redress to survivors of torture and trauma can help reconstruct broken societies.[125] "Rehabilitation centres therefore play a key role in promoting democracy, co-existence and respect for human rights. They provide support and hope, and act as a symbol of triumph over the manmade terror of torture which can hold back the development of democracy of entire societies."[124]


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Further reading



External links

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