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Torture is any act by which severe pain, whether physical or psychological, is intentionally inflicted on a person as a means of intimidation, a deterrent, revenge, a punishment, or as a method for the extraction of information or confessions (i.e. "third-degree methods" of interrogation). Torture is also used as a method of coercion or as a tool to control groups seen as a threat by governments. Throughout history, it has often been used as a method of effecting religious conversion or political "re-education". The severe pain and suffering of torture can cause long-term trauma in its victims.

Torture is almost universally considered to be an extreme violation of human rights, as stated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Signatories of the Third Geneva Convention and Fourth Geneva Convention agree not to torture protected persons (enemy civilians and POWs) in armed conflicts, and signatories of the UN Convention Against Torture agree not to intentionally inflict severe pain or suffering on anyone, to obtain information or a confession, to punish them, or to coerce them or a third person. These conventions and agreements notwithstanding, it is estimated by organizations such as Amnesty International that around two out of three countries do not consistently abide by the spirit of such treaties.


Current legal status of torture

On December 10, 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Article 5 states "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".

Since that time the use of torture has been regulated by a number of international treaties, of which the two major ones are the United Nations Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions.

United Nations Convention Against Torture

The "United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment"(UNCAT) came into force in June 1987. The most relevant articles are articles 1, 2, 3 and the first paragraph of article 16

Article 1
1. 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.
2. This article is without prejudice to any international instrument or national legislation which does or may contain provisions of wider application.
Article 2
1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.
2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
3. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.
Article 3
1. No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.
2. For the purpose of determining whether there are such grounds, the competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.
Article 16
1. Each State Party shall undertake to prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture as defined in article I, when such acts are committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. In particular, the obligations contained in articles 10, 11, 12 and 13 shall apply with the substitution for references to torture of references to other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

There are several points which should be noted:

  • Section 1: torture is defined as severe pain or suffering, which means there exist levels of pain and suffering which are not severe enough to be called torture. Discussions on this area of international law are influenced by a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights(ECHR). See the section Other conventions for more details on the ECHR ruling.
  • Section 2: If a state has signed the treaty without reservations, then there are no exceptional circumstances whatsoever where a state can use torture and not break its treaty obligations. However the worst sanction which can be applied to a powerful country is a public record that they have broken their treaty obligations. [1] In certain exceptional cases the authorities in those countries may consider that, with plausible deniability, this is an acceptable risk to take as the definition of severe is open to interpretation.
  • Section 16: contains the phrase territory under its jurisdiction other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, so if the government of a state authorises its personnel to use the "five techniques" on a detainee in territory not under its jurisdiction then it has not broken this treaty obligation.

At the moment this treaty has been signed by about half the countries in the world.

Geneva Conventions

The four Geneva Conventions provide protection for people who fall into enemy hands. They envisage war in its traditional form, whereby people in uniforms fight clearly defined enemies in uniform, within a clearly defined arena. It therefore divides people into two explicit groups: combatants and non-combatants (civilians). There is a third group whose existence is implied in legal discourse, but whose existence and treatment are not covered in treaties. These are unlawful combatants, such as spies, mercenaries and other combatants who have broken the laws of war, for example by firing on an enemy while flying a white flag. Whilst combatants and non-combatants are provided substantial protection, a lesser level of protection is afforded to unlawful combatants.

The third(GCIII) and fourth(GCIV) Geneva Conventions are the two most relevant for the treatment of the victims of conflicts. Both treaties state in their similarly worded article 3 that in a non-international armed conflict that "Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms... shall in all circumstances be treated humanely and that there must not be any "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture." or "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment".

Under GCIV most enemy civilians in an international armed conflict will be "Protected Persons" under the meaning of GCIV, (see exemptions section immediately after this for those who are not). Under article 32, protected persons have the right to protection from "murder, torture, corporal punishments, mutilation and medical or scientific experiments...but also to any other measures of brutality whether applied by non-combatant or military agents."

The treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) in an international armed conflict is covered by GCIII. In particular article 17 states that "No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.".

GCIII POW status has far fewer exemptions than "Protected Person" status under GCIV. If a person is an enemy combatant in an international armed conflict, then they will have the protection of GCIII and be entitled to be regarded as POWs under GCIII unless they are an unlawful combatant. If there is a question of whether the combatant is an unlawful combatant, they must be treated as POW's "until their status has been determined by a competent tribunal" (GCIII article 5). If the tribunal decides that they are an unlawful combatant, and they are a Protected Person under GCIV, they will still have the some protections under GCIV Article 5. They must be "treated with humanity and, in case of trial [for war crimes], shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed by the present Convention".

A person, who is found guilty of war crimes in an international armed conflict, or is not protected by GCIV because of some other exemption, is no longer protected by the Geneva Conventions.Template:Fact

Geneva Convention IV exemptions

GCIV provides an important exemption:

"Where in the territory of a Party to the conflict, the latter is satisfied that an individual protected person is definitely suspected of or engaged in activities hostile to the security of the State, such individual person shall not be entitled to claim such rights and privileges under the present Convention [ie GCIV] as would ... be prejudicial to the security of such State." (GCIV article 5)

In a conflict like the U.S. War on Terrorism many so-called "unlawful combatants" have controversially, and contrary to the analysis of International Human Rights organisations, been denied protection under the Geneva Conventions, because they are either excluded by their nationality (see below), or they are deemed to be so dangerous that Article 5 can be invoked, or because they allegedly do not fit the textual description of a lawful combatant (are not members of the armed forces of a Party, do not have uniforms, do not display a "fixed distinctive sign recognisable at a distance").

There are two further groups who are not protected by GCIV:

  1. Nationals of a State which is not bound by the Convention are not protected by it.
  2. Nationals of a neutral State in the territory of a combatant State, and nationals of a co-belligerent State, cannot claim the protection of GCIV if their home state has normal diplomatic representation in the State that holds them (article 4). Since nearly every state has diplomatic recognition of every other state, most citizens of neutral countries in a war zone are not able to claim any protection from GCIV.

Geneva Conventions' Additional Protocols

In addition, there are two additional protocols to the Geneva Convention: Protocol I (1977), relating to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts and Protocol II (1977), relating to the protection of victims of non-international armed conflicts. These clarify and extend the definitions in some areas, but to date many countries, including the United States, have either not signed them or have not ratified them.

Protocol I does not explicitly mention torture but it does clarify one or two points which effect the treatment of POWs and Protected Persons. The first is that it explicitly involves "the appointment of Protecting Powers and of their substitute" to monitor that the Conventions are being enforced by the Parties to the conflict. It also broadens the definition of a lawful combatant in occupied territory to include those who carry arms openly but are not wearing uniforms, so that they are now lawful combatants and protected by the Geneva Conventions. It also defines who is a mercenary, and implicitly an unlawful combatant, and not protected by the same conventions.

Protocol II "develops and supplements Article 3 [relating to the protection of victims of non-international armed conflicts] common to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 without modifying its existing conditions of application" . It states in Article 4.a "Violence to the life, health and physical or mental well-being of persons, in particular murder as well as cruel treatment such as torture, mutilation or any form of corporal punishment;", Article 4.b "Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault;" and Article 4.h "Threats to commit any of the foregoing acts". There are other clauses in other articles which entreat humane treatment of enemy personnel in an internal conflict, which have a bearing on the use of torture, but there are no other clauses which explicitly mentions torture.

Other conventions

During the Cold War, in Europe a treaty called European Convention on Human Rights was signed. The treaty was based on the UDHR. It included the provision for a court to interpret the treaty and Article 3 "Prohibition of torture" stated "No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".

In 1978 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the five techniques of "sensory deprivation" were not torture but were "inhuman or degrading treatment". See Accusations of use of torture by United Kingdom for details. This case was 9 years before the UNCAT came into force and had an influence on States thinking about what constitutes torture ever since.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also explicitly prohibts torture and "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".

The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states "corporal punishment, punishment by placing in a dark cell, and all cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments shall be completely prohibited as punishments for disciplinary offences."

Supervision of anti-torture treaties

Image:Iron Maiden of Nuremberg.jpg In times of armed conflict between a signatory of the Geneva conventions and another party, delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) monitor the compliance of signatory to the Geneva Conventions, which includes monitoring the use of torture.

The Istanbul Protocol, an official UN document, is the first set of international guidelines for documentation of torture and its consequences. It became a United Nations official document in 1999.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) "shall, by means of visits, examine the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty with a view to strengthening, if necessary, the protection of such persons from torture and from inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." as stipulated in Article 1 of the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or PunishmentTemplate:Ref

Human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, are actively involved in working to stop the use of torture throughout the world and publish reports on any activities they consider to be torture.

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Domestic and national law

Countries which have signed the "United Nations Convention Against Torture", have a treaty obligation to include the provisions into domestic law. The laws of many countries 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.

Torture was abolished in England about 1640 (except peine forte et dure which was only abolished in 1772), in Scotland in 1708, in Prussia in 1740, in Denmark around 1770, in Russia in 1801.Template:RefTemplate:Ref

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 person. Statute law explicitly makes torture a crime. In addition, statute law prohibits the police or justice from interrogating suspects under oath.

The United States includes this protection in the fifth amendment to its constitution, which in turn serves as the basis of the Miranda warning that is issued to individuals upon their arrest. Additionally, the US Constitution's eighth amendment expressly forbids the use of "cruel and unusual punishments", which is widely interpreted as a prohibition of the use of torture.

Use of torture

Recent times in the context of this article is from December 10, 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.

Torture in the past

Image:Homosexuality Spanish Inquisition.jpg Torture was used by many governments and countries in the past. In the Roman Republic, for example, a slave's testimony was admissible only if it was extracted by torture, on the assumption that slaves could not be trusted to reveal the truth voluntarily.

Ancient and medieval philosophers–notably, Aristotle and Francis Bacon–were staunch champions of the utility of carefully monitored torture to the justice system.

In much of Europe, medieval and early modern courts freely inflicted torture, depending on the accused's crime and the social status of the suspect. Torture was seen as a legitimate means for justice to extract confessions, or obtain the names of accomplices or other information about the crime. Often, defendants sentenced to death would be tortured prior to execution, so as to have a last chance that they disclose the names of their accomplices. Torture in the Medieval Inquisition was used starting in 1252 although its use in Catholic countries was putatively forbidden by papal bull in 1816. Within that time frame, men of considerable means delighted in building their own torture chambers, quite literally kidnapping innocent citizens of low birth off the streets and subjecting them to procedures of their own invention, taking careful notes as to what techniques were more or less effective, and which body parts more or less receptive thereto.

In the Middle Ages especially and up into the 18th century, torture was considered a legitimate way to obtain testimonies and confessions from suspects for use in judicial inquiries and trials. While, in some instances, the secular courts were known for rather more ferocious treatment than the religious, Will and Ariel Durant argued in The Age of Faith that many of the most vicious procedures were inflicted, not upon stubborn prisoners by governments, but upon pious heretics by even more pious friars. For example, the Dominicans gained a reputation as some of the most fearsomely creative torturers in medieval Spain. What is so unfortunate–indeed, ironic–is that the victims of the Spanish Inquisition didn't know (and certainly weren't informed) that, had they just confessed as required, they might have faced penalties no more severe than mild penance; confiscation of property; even, perhaps, a few strokes of the whip. They thus ended up exposing themselves to the most terrifying ordeals, frequently for naught. Many were perhaps clinging to "the principle of the thing", however noble (or foolhardy) that may be when faced with torture.

One of the most common forms of medieval inquisition torture was known as strappado. The hands were bound behind the back with a rope, and the accused was suspended this way, dislocating the joints painfully in both arms. Weights could be added to the legs dislocating those joints as well. Other torture methods could include the rack (stretching the victim’s joints to breaking point), the thumbscrew, the boot (some versions of which crushed the calf, ankle, and heel between vertically positioned boards, while others tortured the instep and toes between horizontally oriented plates), water (massive quantities of water forcibly ingested–or even mixed with urine, pepper, diarrhea, etc., for additional persuasiveness), and red-hot pincers (typically applied to fingers, toes, ears, noses and nipples, although one tubular version [the "crocodile shears"] was specially devised for application to the penis in cases of regicide), although it was technically against church policy to mutilate a person's body. If stronger methods were needed, or death, the person was handed over to the secular authorities who were not bound by any restrictions.

In 1613 Anton Praetorius described the situation of the prisoners in the dungeons in his book "Gründlicher Bericht über Zauberey und Zauberer" (Thorough Report about Sorcery and Sorcerers). He was one of the first to protest against all means of torture.

Torture in recent times


Torture remains a frequent method of repression in totalitarian regimes, terrorist organizations and organized crime. In authoritarian regimes, torture is often used to extract confessions from political dissenters, so that they admit to being spies or conspirators, probably manipulated by some foreign country. Most notably, such a dynamic of forced confessions marked the justice system of the Soviet Union (thoroughly described in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago).

Some Western democratic governments have on occasions resorted to torture, or acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, of people thought to possess information perceived to be vital for national security which can not be obtained quickly by other methods. A recent example is Guantanamo Bay detainment camp of the US government were detainees are under extreme cohercive methods (that include sensory deprivation, sexual and religious humiliation etc.). U.S. interrogation practices at Guantanamo have been identified as "torture" by the International Committee of the Red Cross (2004), the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (2006), and by nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Many countries find it expedient from time to time to use techniques of a kind used in torture; at the same time few wish to be described as doing so, either to their own citizens or international bodies. So a variety of devices are used to bridge this gap, including state denial, "secret police", "need to know", denial that given treatments are torturous in nature, appeal to various laws (national or international), use of jurisdictional argument, claim of "overriding need", and so on. Torture has been a tool of many states throughout history and for many states it remains so (unofficially and when expedient and desired) today.

Despite worldwide condemnation and the existence of treaty provisions that forbid it, torture is still practiced in two thirds of the world's nations. Template:Ref.

Images of the body of Muzafar Avazov, an Uzbekistan man apparently killed by torture in 2002, as an example of the effect of torture on a human body, can be found in that article. (Warning: graphic content)

Perhaps not surprisingly, some medieval techniques of torture remain in wide use today. For example, tearing out the nails of the fingers and toes with pliers——sometimes after first driving sharp needles into the extremely tender flesh underneath——remains a favorite tool of the twenty-first century torturer's arsenal. Although slowly roasting the soles of the bare feet over hot coals is, perhaps, a bit low-tech, the Russian KGB was certainly not above achieving the same purpose by using the flat, red-hot surface of an everyday clothes iron. Bizarre methods of confinement that take advantage of modern medical knowledge are also quite common, if rather low-tech. The prisoner——suitably bound to deter the expected range of reactive motion——may be connected to an electrical apparatus, where wires are wound around his fingers and toes and an electric probe is used to deliver current to his genitals. A signal generator and attached voltmeter precisely control the intensity of the pain so inflicted. Modern torturers also avail themselves of pharmacological techniques that were, of course, utterly unavailable in ages past: an example is the injection of drugs that heighten the human brain's perception of, and reaction to, pain before any physical torture is actually employed.

Torture by proxy

In 2003, Britain's Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, made accusations that information was being extracted under extreme torture from dissidents in that country, and that the information was subsequently being used by Western, democratic countries which officially disapproved of torture Template:Ref.

The accusations did not lead to any investigation by his employer, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and he resigned after disciplinary action was taken against him in 2004. No misconduct by him was proven. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office itself is being investigated by the National Audit Office because of accusations of victimisation, bullying and intimidating its own staff Template:Ref.

Murray later stated that he felt that he had unwittingly stumbled upon what has elsewhere been called "torture by proxy"Template:Ref and with the euphemism of "extraordinary rendition". He thought that Western countries moved people to regimes and nations where it was known that information would be extracted by torture, and made available to them. This he alleged was a circumvention and violation of any agreement to abide by international treaties against torture. If it was true that a country was doing this and it had signed the UN Convention Against Torture then that country would be in specific breach of Article 3 of that convention.

In 2002, a Canadian citizen, Maher Ahar, was transiting through JFK Airport from Tunisia when he was intercepted by US Immigration officials, and promptly sent to his native Syria, to be interrogated under torture for a duration of one year.

Aspects of torture

The use of torture has been criticized not only on humanitarian and moral grounds, but on the grounds that evidence extracted by torture tends to be extremely unreliable and that the use of torture corrupts institutions which tolerate it.

The purpose of torture is often as much to force acquiescence on an enemy, or destroy a person psychologically from within, as it is to gain information, and its effects endure long after the torture itself has ended. In this sense torture is often described by survivors as "never ending". See Psychology of torture to study the psychological effects associated with torture.

Incrimination of innocent people

One well documented effect of torture is that with rare exceptions people will say or do anything to escape the situation, including untrue "confessions" and implication of others without genuine knowledge, who may well then be tortured in turn. There are rare exceptions, such as Admiral James Stockdale, Medal of Honor winner, and F. F. E. Yeo-Thomas, G.C., who refused to provide information under torture.


Depending on the culture, torture has at times been carried on in silence (official denial), semi-silence (known but not spoken about) or openly acknowledged in public (in order to instill fear and obedience).

Since torture is in general not accepted in modern times, professional torturers in some countries tend to use 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. Evidence of torture also comes from the testimony of witnesses.

Motivation to torture

It was long thought that "good" people would not torture and only "bad" ones would, under normal circumstances. Research over the past 50 years suggests a disquieting alternative view, that under the right circumstances and with the appropriate encouragement and setting, most people can be encouraged to actively torture others. Stages of torture mentality include:

  • Reluctant or peripheral participation
  • Official encouragement: As the Stanford prison experiment and Milgram experiment show, many people will follow the direction of an authority figure (such as a superior officer) in an official setting (especially if presented as a compulsory obligation), even if they have personal uncertainty. The main motivations for this appear to be fear of loss of status or respect, and the desire to be seen as a "good citizen" or "good subordinate".
  • Peer encouragement: to accept torture as necessary, acceptable or deserved, or to comply from a wish to not reject peer group beliefs. At worst this leads to torture gangs roaming the streets seeking dominant torture status.
  • Dehumanization: seeing victims as objects of curiosity and experimentation, where pain becomes just another test to see how it affects the victim.
  • Disinhibition: socio-cultural and situational pressures may cause torturers to undergo a lessening of moral inhibitions and as a result act in ways not normally countenanced by law, custom and conscience.
  • Organisationally, like many other procedures, once torture becomes established as part of internally acceptable norms under certain circumstances, its use often becomes institutionalised and self-perpetuating over time, as what was once used exceptionally for perceived necessity finds more reasons claimed to justify wider use.

One of the apparent ringleaders of the Abu Ghraib prison torture incident, Charles Graner Jr., exemplified some of these when he was reported to have said, "The Christian in me says it's wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, 'I love to make a grown man piss himself.'"

Medical torture

Main article: Medical torture

At times, medicine and medical practitioners have been drawn into the ranks of torturers, either to judge what victims can endure, to apply treatments which will enhance torture, or as torturers in their own right. An infamous example of the latter is Dr. Josef Mengele, known then by inmates of Auschwitz as the "Angel of Death".

Torture murder

Main article: Torture murder

Torture murder is a term given to the commission of torture by an individual or small group, as part of a sadistic or murderous agenda. Such murderers are often serial killers, who kill their victims by slowly torturing them to death over a prolonged period of time, and is usually preceded by a kidnapping where the killer will take the victim hostage, and take him/her to a secluded or isolated location.

Finally, torture is practiced by individuals who enjoy the sadistic pleasure of causing and observing agony. One thinks immediately of Sigismondo Malatesta, a medieval Italian nobleman--noted in Joseph McCabe's American Atheist monograph, Thumbscrew and Rack--who kidnapped commoners off the streets and tortured them very creatively in his own private dungeon, thereby considerably advancing the technology.

Subjugation of civilian populations

Although information gathered by torture is often worthless, torture has been used to terrorize and subdue populations to enforce state control. This was a central theme of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. cf: Gulag

Effects of torture

Organizations like the Medical Foundation for Care of 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 and/or to prosecute the perpetrators.

Torture is often difficult to prove, particularly when some time has passed between the event and a medical examination. 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 autopsy as being due to "natural causes" <ref>{]</ref> like heart attack, inflammation or embolism due to extreme stress.

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.

Mental health problems are equally wide-ranging; common are post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety disorder.

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.

Main article, see Psychology of torture for psychological impact, and aftermath, of torture.

Torture devices and methods

It is plainly evident that, since the earliest times, tremendous ingenuity has been devoted to devising ever more effective and mechanically simpler instruments and techniques of torture. That those capable of applying such genius to the science of pain could in future employ their capabilities in other directions was not lost on the authorities: for example, after Perillos of Athens demonstrated his newly invented brazen bull to Phalaris, Tyrant of Agrigentum, Perillos himself was immediately put inside to test it, but he was removed before he died.

Torture does not require complex equipment. Several methods need little or no equipment and can even be improvised from innocuous household or kitchen equipment. Methods such as consumption by wild animals (antiquity), impalement (Middle Ages) or confinement in iron boxes in the tropical sun (World War II Asia), are examples of other methods which required little more than readily available items.

Types of torture

  • Physical torture uses physical pain to inflict torment and is the most well known form of torture.
  • Psychological torture uses psychological pain to inflict torment and is less well known because its effects are often invisible to others. It uses non-physical methods to induce pain in the subject's mental, emotional, and psychological states. Since there is no international political consensus on what constitutes psychological torture, it is often overlooked, denied and called other things. Despite this, some of its most prominent victims such as United States Senator John McCain have stated that it is the ultimate form of torture.
  • Psychiatric torture uses psychiatric diagnoses and their associated psychiatric treatments to torture sane people for political, religious, or familial reasons. It was a common form of torture against political prisoners in the former Soviet Union. Mild forms of psychiatric torture have been used in the United States military against otherwise sane dissenting officers. Some religious groups who shun dissenting members, a form of psychological torture, also attempt to use psychiatric torture to falsely diagnosis mental disorders so that ongoing shaming is possible. Psychiatric torture also occurs in parental alienation and in divorce cases where false allegations or diagnoses of mental illness are solicited and used to torture and/or control the other parent/spouse within the legal system.
  • Pharmacological torture uses psychotropic and/or other chemicals to induce pain and cause compliance with torturer's goals.

Psychological torture methods

  • Mock execution
  • Extended solitary confinement
  • Blackmail
  • Being forced to witness atrocities including torture
  • Being forced to commit atrocities including torture
  • Being forced to watch acts of sexual abuse
  • Being urinated on, or covered with other faecal matter
  • Being held incommunicado
  • Exploitation of phobias, e.g. leaving arachnophobes in a room full of spiders
  • Being kept in confined spaces
  • Extended sleep deprivation
  • Being forced to sleep on hard surfaces
  • Total sensory deprivation
  • Being coerced into denying one's religion under duress, or being forced to take part in blasphemy
  • Racial abuse
  • Conditions of detention
  • Headshaving (especially women)
  • Shunning
  • Forced labour, coercion into doing excessive physical activity
  • Covert (non-contact) Incest
  • Threats to family members (spoken or carried out)
  • Shaming and public humiliation, being stripped naked, forced participation in or witnessing of sexual activity, public condemnation.
  • Constant shouting, verbal abuse and taunting
  • Alterations to room temperature
  • Ball and chain, shackling

Torture using chemicals

Torture victims may be forced to ingest (or be injected with) chemicals or other products (such as broken glass, heated water, or soaps) that cause pain and internal damage.

Irritating chemicals or products may be inserted into the rectum or vagina, or applied on the external genitalia. Cases of women being punished for adultery by having hot peppers inserted into their vaginas were reported in India. Similar means were used in many instances in African strife.

Pharmacological torture methods

  • Forced ingestion or injection of psychotropic drugs
  • Forced ingestion or injection of nerve stimulants (histamines, aminazine, triflouro perazine-stelazine.)

Electrical torture

A modern method of torture or interrogation is to apply electrical shocks to the body. For added effects, torturers may apply the shocks to sensitive areas such as the nipples or genitalia, or insert the electrode into the mouth, rectum or vagina. Devices used in electrical torture include the picana, the parrila, exposed live wires, medical clamps and hand-cranked generators such as the Tucker telephone.

Physical torture methods

Though it may seem peculiar, perhaps even fetishistic, that so very many torture devices are intended for application to the foot, this is actually quite a logical development. One of the key characteristics of a successful torture is that it can be prolonged almost indefinitely without endangering life, and this can best be achieved by directing the pain as far as physically possible from the brain and vital organs. The only part of the body that satisfies these twin criteria is the foot.

Torture devices

Note that the line between "torture method" and "torture device" is often blurred, particularly when a specifically-named implement is but one component of a method.

Methods of execution and capital punishment

Any method of execution which involves, or has the potential to involve, a great deal of pain or mutilation is considered to be torture and unacceptable to many who support capital punishment. Some of these, if halted soon enough, may not have fatal effects.


Philip Limborch, a preacher and able annotator, quotes in his History of the Inquisition, a writer of the name of Julius Clarus, whom it would appear formed a very forcible idea of the powers of imagination, since he allows them four parts in five of the torments decreed by that satanic tribunal. Limborch represents Clarus as saying, "Know that there are five degrees of torture, videlicit, first, the torture of being threatened to be tortured; secondly, the torture of being conveyed to the place of torture; thirdly, the torture of being, and bound for torture; fourthly, the torture of being hoisted on the torturing rack; and fifthly, and lastly, the torture of squassation."


Horror fiction often includes torture.

The horror movie Hostel shows a criminal organization running a torture center. The victims are kidnapped. "Customers" pay to torture them to death, using the facilities of the torture center.

In A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess examines the ethics of the state to use psychological "re-education" to remove the tendency to violence from members of society, and poses the question even if this were possible would it be desirable?

Other meanings of the word

Especially in countries where citizens can expect to be spared routine exposure to real torture, the word "torture" is used loosely (and to some people, inappropriately) for ordinary, even accidental discomforts. For example, "I was stuck in a traffic jam for three hours today, it was torture!"

Rather paradoxically the term is also commonly used in BDSM, where similar methods to inflict pain and/or humiliation are used, though generally in mitigated form, as games, i.e. for the inverse purpose of giving the 'players' sexual and/or fetish pleasure from inflicting and/or enduring the 'torturous' discipline. This is even true for techniques such as genitorture, which can only be used in a virtual parody since the real thing implies unacceptable medical risks.

The root word of torture is 'to twist'. It means to apply torque, to turn abnormally, to distort, or to strain.


The word came from Latin tortura for *torqu-tura, originally meaning "act of twisting". Compare tort and torque.

See also

Further reading

  • Glasser, William, WARNING: Psychiatry Can be Dangerous to Your Health, (?), 2004.
  • Millet, Kate, The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay onf the Literature of Political Imprisonment, W.W. Norton, 1994.
  • Peters, Edward, Torture, Basil Blackwell, 1985.
  • Stover, Eric, and Nightingale, Elena, The Breaking of Bodies and Minds: Torture, Psychiatric Abuse, and the Health Professions, W. H. Freeman, 1985.
  • William Sampson, Confessions of an Innocent Man: Torture and Survival in a Saudi Prison, McClelland and Stewart Ltd (2005), hardcover, 419 pages, ISBN 0771079036

External links


  1. Template:Note European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT)
  2. Template:Note History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073. Chapter VI. Morals And Religion: Page 80:The Torture by Schaff, Philip (1819-1893)
  3. Template:Note Hutchinson's Encyclopaedia: Torture
  4. Template:NoteOrganizations, Local Governments, Veterans, and the Public Urge End to US Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment November 4 2005. On the "Common Dreams a NewsWire" a "Progressive Community NewsWire".
  5. Template:NoteCheney Seeks CIA Exemption to Torture Ban by David Espo and Liz Sidoti for The Associated Press in the Washington Post November 5 2005
  6. Template:NoteNew York Times, Sunday, May 23, 2004 This link needs fixing. See the references in this link. This could be one of two articles.
    • Susan Sontag, "Regarding the Torture of Others: Notes on what has been done – and why – to prisoners, by Americans," New York Times Magazine, Sunday, May 23, 2004, 24-29, 42.alternative source
    • Adam Hochschild, "What’s in a Word? Torture" New York Times, Sunday, May 23, 2004, Week in Review. May 23 may go down as the day on which a number of commentators finally faced up to the practice of torture – on 60 Minutes the same evening, Andy Rooney echoed both Sontag and Hochschild. alternative source
  7. Template:Note The envoy silenced after telling undiplomatic truths, The Daily Telegraph 23 October 2004
  8. Template:Note "Foreign Office faces probe into 'manipulation'" by Robert Winnett, The Sunday Times 20 March 2005
  9. Template:Note Q & A: Torture by Proxy Jane Mayer answers question asked by Amy Davidson The New Yorker on 14 February 2005

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