Torture destroys a person’s dignity, body and mind. Its effects are lasting, often irreversible, and devastate individuals and their families.
Torture is the deliberate infliction of severe pain or suffering on another person, whether physical or mental, to obtain information or a confession, to punish, to intimidate, humiliate or coerce them. It may also be motivated by revenge, discrimination, deterrence or simple cruelty. Where such abuse is inflicted by a public official, the misuse of power adds to the severity of the offence.
It may or may not be the intent to kill or injure the victim, but even where physical injury is not inflicted, torture leaves a lasting psychological impact, often lifelong. Many victims suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), experiencing symptoms such as flashbacks, severe anxiety, insomnia, nightmares and depression. Victims of torture often feel guilt and shame, triggered by the humiliation they have endured.
Torture and ill-treatment tend to occur in isolated places, such as prisons and other detention centres, where those who practise torture can feel beyond the reach of the law and accountable to no one. The risk of torture is particularly high following arrest and during pre-trial detention, when, if there are few or no checks on their actions, law enforcement can be tempted to coerce a confession or a statement from a suspect or witness.
Using information obtained under torture makes a fair trial impossible. Desperation to make the torment stop makes statements or confessions utterly worthless, but in some jurisdictions such evidence is still accepted in court, sending innocent people to prison for crimes they did not commit and undermining both the rule of law and society’s confidence in it.
The international community recognises torture and ill-treatment as impermissible at all times and in all circumstances (alongside slavery and genocide). This prohibition is absolute and binding on all states whether or not they have ratified international treaties codifying the prohibition. There are no exceptional circumstances in which a state can invoke an exemption to justify torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.
International human rights law has come a long way to counter the practice of torture and ill-treatment. Detailed safeguards and specialised institutions have been developed to tackle the circumstances in which torture occurs and to establish independent public oversight of places of detention.
However, torture and ill-treatment are still widespread. The situation in individual countries may change, but globally there is no indication that the number of people tortured each year is declining. States must increase their efforts to eradicate torture and ill-treatment by:
- introducing effective safeguards to prevent abuse;
- countering impunity; and
- introducing effective independent monitoring mechanisms.
Attitudes and culture are also important. Changes in attitudes of law enforcement and society are a long-term goal. For example, law enforcement officials need to internalise that being a suspect does not necessarily mean being guilty. They also need to appreciate that a prison sentence is in itself a sanction and prisoners should not be subjected to ‘additional punishment’ in the form of ill-treatment and torture. It also means realising that the rehabilitation of offenders is more effective than a punitive approach, and that the aim of a criminal justice system is the security of the society, not retribution.