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What is torture?

Torture is the intentional destruction of a human being by another. The methods by which severe pain and suffering are inflicted vary, but they all have the same objective: to break a person, erase them as an individual, deny they are human.

Most of the time, torture evokes physical suffering, such as beatings or electrical shocks, and sexual abuse, such as rape and sexual humiliation. Inhuman conditions in detention, including severe overcrowding and total lack of hygiene, or the denial of medical care, can also amount to torture or other ill-treatment. But it is important to stress that psychological torture can inflict equal levels of pain. This is the case for example with sleep deprivation, prolonged solitary confinement, or with the person being threatened that someone they love will be tortured or killed.

Breaking bodies ultimately aims at destroying minds. Torture victims suffer of course in their flesh. The humiliation and shame they feel as a result of what they endured also cause great damage and are difficult to heal. Torture obliterates trust in others and reconnecting that bond to society is critical to start rebuilding the survivor’s life and avoid trauma in future generations. When torture is widespread, the whole community can be profoundly affected.

Torture and other ill-treatment keep happening worldwide, to varying degrees – from rare to systematic, depending on the country, and are often left unpunished.

Because the effects of torture and other forms of ill-treatment are so utterly devastating, these practices are among a handful that have been universally banned. The prohibition of torture, just like the prohibition of slavery, is legally called ius cogens. This means that, even if a State is not a party to one of several treaties that specifically ban torture and other ill-treatment, it must not resort to it, and not tolerate that anyone carries it out on its territory. From a legal standpoint, acts of torture must be investigated, prosecuted and perpetrators must be punished. The victims have the right to benefit from remedies and reparation, including rehabilitation.

The reality is very different. Torture and other ill-treatment keep happening worldwide, to varying degrees – from rare to systematic, depending on the country, and are often left unpunished. Precise statistics are impossible to establish, because torture is overwhelmingly a crime of darkness, but very large numbers of people are victims every year.

For the past two decades, public perception has often equated torture with the fight against terrorism. The reality is that torture can happen to anyone. The victims are most often the poor, marginalized groups, members of ethnic or religious minorities, those without power or any form of social protection. Even children are tortured or otherwise ill-treated, particularly in settings of deprivation of liberty, which takes a particularly heavy toll on them. Officials, including the police, prey on all these people in secret and without fear of punishment. Torture is linked to corruption, to the reliance on forced confessions, and to authoritarian governments instilling fear to entrench their power.

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The 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment defines the perpetrators as people in an official capacity. Article 1 states:

For the purposes of this Convention, the 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.

Since then, the UN Committee Against Torture and regional human rights courts have interpreted this definition, by finding that a State is responsible for acts committed by individuals acting in a private capacity, if the State fails to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish such acts. This is for example the case when the authorities refuse to prosecute a private individual who has inflicted severe harm, including rape, on a woman. In such a situation, the State is complicit or otherwise responsible for consenting or acquiescing to the violence.

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