Acts of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are entirely prohibited under international law.
Absolute Prohibition of Torture
Treaties prohibiting acts of torture include the Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court and all regional human rights treaties.
The prohibition against torture is now accepted as a peremptory norm (jus cogens) or, in other words, a norm that is accepted and recognised by the international community of states as a whole and from which no derogation is permitted (see Vienna Convention).
Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The most important legal instrument to prohibit torture is the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). It was adopted by the United Nations in 1984 and came into force on 26 June 1987.
The Convention sets out obligations on state parties regarding:
- Definition of torture under international law
- Prevention of torture
- Punishment of perpetrators
- Redress for victims of torture
Committee against Torture (CAT) | This committee is is the body of 10 independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment by its State parties.
Additional information on the Committee against Torture can be found here
Definition of Torture under International Law
Although many people will instinctively describe many abuses as unacceptable or, even, torture, it is important to be able to define what constitutes an act of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under international law.
In Article 1 of the CAT:
“[T]he 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.”
(Explanation of the definition of torture.)
Prevention of torture
States are required to take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in all territory under their jurisdiction (Article 2.1).
Effective measures include:
- Adequate training and rules for all persons who may be involved in the custody, interrogation or treatment of any individual subjected to any form of arrest, detention or imprisonment (Article 10).
- Relevant rules and practices must also be kept under systematic review to ensure they are effective (Article 11). (Link to information on interrogation practice.)
- Ensuring that evidence obtained through torture is excluded in order to remove an incentive to torture (Article 15)
- Independent external monitoring of all places of detention. (OPCAT) – Optional Protocol to the CAT
Evidence of torture
Article 15 excludes the use of evidence that has been obtained through torture.
See here for a discussion of Exclusion of Evidence (APT)
The Istanbul Protocol sets out a guideline for the documentation of torture and its consequences. It contains internationally recognised standards and procedures on how to recognise and document symptoms of torture so the documentation may serve as valid evidence in court.
Non refoulement (Article 3)
Ensuring acts of torture are offences under criminal law. The law should include complicity and participation in torture (Article 4).
No statement that has been made as a result of torture should be invoked as evidence in criminal proceedings (Article 15).
- Fruit of the poisoned tree
- APT guidance
Punishment of Perpetrators
State parties to the Committee against Torture (CAT) are required to investigate whenever there are reasonable grounds to believe that an act of torture has been committed (Article 12).
The crime of torture should be punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their “grave nature” (Article 4.2).
The crime of torture can be subject to universal jurisdiction. State parties are expected to assist in investigating, detaining, extraditing or prosecuting persons alleged to have committed acts of torture (Articles 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9).
Redress for victims of torture
Anyone who alleges that they have been subjected to torture has the right to complain to and have their case examined by the competent authorities (Article 13).
Victims of torture should also have an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation. This also includes a right for victims of torture to full rehabilitation, including treatment for the physical and psychological impact of torture (Article 14).
Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – In its resolution 1985/33, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights decided to appoint a special rapporteur to review issues relating to torture. This link highlights the key responsibilities and the methods of work of the special rapporteur.
CAT: Exclusion of evidence obtained by torture – This document is a collection of relevant materials on Article 15, the exclusionary rule, of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Essex Handbook on Reporting Torture – This handbook was produced as a guide to help smaller/less experienced NGOs in the process of reporting torture. It seeks to enable such NGOs to produce high-quality information on both individual incidents and patterns of torture, with a view to maximising the utility of the information to the international bodies, as well as assisting those NGOs to select the most appropriate procedures to which to address the information. The focus of the handbook is torture, but much of what is said here would be equally relevant in the context of other human rights violations.
Self-Help Manual for Former Prisoners (Guantánamo Bay) – This booklet is designed as a self-help manual for former prisoners of Guantánamo Bay. However this information is also relevant for people who have survived different sorts of traumatic experiences. This manual focusses on ways of helping victims to cope with the effects of their mistreatment.