The most widely accepted definition of torture internationally is that set out by Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT):
“... '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.”
From this definition, it can be said that torture is the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering by or with the consent of the state authorities for a specific purpose.
Torture is often used to punish, to obtain information or a confession, to take revenge on a person or persons or create terror and fear within a population.
Some of the most common methods of physical torture include beating, electric shocks, stretching, submersion, suffocation, burns, rape and sexual assault.
Psychological forms of torture and ill-treatment, which very often have the most long-lasting consequences for victims, commonly include: isolation, threats, humiliation, mock executions, mock amputations, and witnessing the torture of others.
Ratification of the Convention obligates governments to assert responsibility for the prevention of torture and the redress for victims of torture. While the global fight requires the active support of all people, the government of a given territory is ultimately responsible for any torture that occurs within its boundaries. Individual governments, therefore, must take it upon themselves to take part in the struggle against torture. Ratification of the Convention is often a necessary first step in this process.
For this reason, the IRCT places a great emphasis on collective action aimed at the universal ratification of the Convention. Persons who reside in countries that have not ratified it have a very important role in lobbying within their own society. Persons who live in countries that have already ratified the Convention may also contribute to the cause through education and awareness raising activities promoting the cause of universal ratification of the Convention.
Who are the victims?
Anyone can be a victim of torture - children as well as adults, young as well as old, religious as well as atheists, intellectuals and the uneducated alike.
Nobody should be considered immune, although being a member of a particular political, religious, ethnic group or minority can very often set individuals aside as targets for government endorsed violence. Frequent victims include politicians, union leaders, journalists, health professionals, human rights defenders, people in detention or prison, members of ethnic minorities, and student leaders.
Victims of torture do not suffer alone. Victims' families and friends are also greatly affected. Local society is damaged both through the trauma inflicted on its members but also through an instilled awareness that basic human rights are neither guaranteed nor respected. Freedom is not respected. People are not respected. The use of torture sends a strong warning to those within a political, social, or religious opposition, but also to normal citizens who cannot rightly claim to live in a free or safe society.
Who are the perpetrators?
By definition, torture 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 .Those most likely to be involved in torture include persons such as:
- prison officers/detention staff
- the police
- the military
- paramilitary forces
- state-controlled contra-guerilla forces
But perpetrators may also include:
- health professionals
- legal professionals
- co-detainees acting with the approval or on the orders of public officials
- death squads
In the context of armed conflicts, torture and other forms of ill-treatment could also be inflicted by:
- opposition forces
- the general population (in a civil war situation)