Frequently Asked Questions
What is torture?
As defined in the UN Convention against Torture, Article 1, the term "torture" refers to any act by which
1. severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person
2. 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,
3. 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.
Is the use of torture ever allowed?
No, torture is not allowed under any circumstances. The prohibition of torture is recognised under customary and international treaty law, as well as in many countries’ national legislation. Neither exceptional circumstances of any kind (whether armed conflict, internal political instability or any other public emergency) nor an order from a superior officer or a public authority may be invoked as a justification of torture.
Why is it important to document torture?
One of the obstacles in the struggle against torture is insufficient evidence in cases against alleged perpetrators. Most cases do not lead to justice for the torture survivor because the scars on his/her body and mind have not been appropriately documented by doctors or used by lawyers in legal proceedings. Effective investigation and documentation of alleged torture is decisive in proving that torture has taken place, bringing perpetrators to court and ensuring reparation and redress for survivors and their families. Official recognition that torture has taken place serves to restore individual lives and public morale and sends a strong signal to torturers and those authorising the use of torture that this is never acceptable.
Is it possible after many years to detect signs proving the use of physical and mental torture?
Yes, often, but it requires special skills and expertise. Torture methods are typically selected for maximum psychological and physical impact and victims are often detained by the authorities until the majority of the injuries have healed. There exist scientific methods, such as magnetic resonance imaging and bone scintigraphy, which can provide medical evidence of certain forms of physical torture. Furthermore, a thorough examination by an experienced psychiatrist, acquainted with torture and its methods, will often be able to diagnose psychological scars even long after the torture has taken place – however, the result will of course also depend on the individual case in question.
Are perpetrators punished?
They should be. All States are legally obliged to ensure that complaints and reports of torture or ill-treatment are promptly and effectively investigated, and that perpetrators are punished. In relation to torture, there is universal jurisdiction, which means that if an alleged torturer comes to a country which has ratified the Convention (142 countries out of 192 have done so), the State must “take him/her into custody or take other legal measures to ensure his/her presence” (Article 6.2 in the Convention against Torture) and if the State “does not extradite him/her, [it must] submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution” (Article 7 in the Convention against Torture). This is valid not only for the torturer him/herself but also for the person who gives the order. In practice, however, this does, unfortunately, not always happen. Many States do not know their legal obligations, and many victims do not know about their right to reparation. Therefore, awareness raising activities like the ones implemented through the Prevention through Documentation Project are crucial.
What is the Istanbul Protocol?
The Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, in short the Istanbul Protocol, contains the first internationally recognised standards and procedures on how to recognise and document symptoms of torture in such a way that the findings can be used as evidence in court cases.
As such, the Istanbul Protocol provides guidance for health and legal professionals who want to investigate whether or not a person has been tortured and report the findings to the relevant authorities.
Initiated and coordinated by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT) and Physicians for Human Rights USA (PHR USA), the Istanbul Protocol was developed by 75 experts from more than 40 organisations, including the IRCT. The Protocol was submitted to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the 9th of August 1999 and has subsequently been endorsed in resolutions of the former UN Human Rights Commission and the UN General Assembly.
What can I as a medical doctor do if I meet a client who has been subjected to torture?
It very much depends on where you practice, but you can always do something to help. The mere respectful recognition of the victim and his/her situation can help ease the suffering and guilt.
- If you are a General Practitioner in a country where a rehabilitation centre for torture victims exists, you can refer the patient to the centre closest to the patient (all centres and programmes within the IRCT network can be found in the global directory on www.irct.org). Normally, the rehabilitation centre can provide interdisciplinary rehabilitation (physical, psychological, family care, social) as well as legal aid.
- If you are a General Practitioner in a country where no rehabilitation centre exists, the IRCT can help facilitate contact with a rehabilitation centre in the region, which may provide assistance.
- If you are a prison doctor and meet a victim of torture in a prison, the first thing you must do is to obtain informed consent from the patient. Often the victim will be reluctant to provide this out of fear of subsequently being tortured. In such cases, you will need to contact the Prison Governor and inform him of your suspicion of torture in the prison - of course without breaching confidentiality. If, on the other hand, informed consent is granted by the patient, you can initiate treatment and – depending on the laws of the country – refer to specialists for further treatment outside the prison system if such specialist treatment is needed.
As a lawyer, how do I secure evidence of torture?
It depends on when you meet the client. If the victim of torture arrives shortly after the torture has occurred, your main task is to preserve any evidence that can be used to prove that torture did occur. In this situation, you should ensure that a medical report is produced and that it contains a full examination, both physical and psychological. All physical evidence available must be preserved, such as broken clothes, relevant objects, etc. depending on the specific incident. A signed statement must be obtained from the victim, together with a complete statement of the facts, identification of possible witnesses, and any possible identification of the location in which the torture took place and of the perpetrator.
If you meet the client after more than a year since the torture incidents occurred, it is more difficult to secure evidence. Your main task here is to locate the evidence that exists despite the time gap. This includes identification of any possible medical reports from the time of the incident. Also, you should ask for a medical examination, which looks for long lasting sequelae, to be carried out as soon as possible. Securing conclusive evidence can be extremely difficult due to the lack of technology, or where the necessary technology exists, due to the lack of access to it for the specific victim or group of victims. If possible, torture patterns should be established through the accumulation of other similar cases in the country.
The legal report should include
- identity of the victim
- identity of the perpetrator (including chain of command)
- description of arrest, abduction
- where the victim was held (details)
- description of conditions
- description of the forms of ill-treatment
- official response to the ill-treatment