Torture is prohibited by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Torture is also listed as one of the crimes that constitute a “grave breach” of the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the treatment of victims of war. Like slavery, fundamental freedoms, and many due process concerns, torture was readily identified as a human rights problem that belonged in the basic human rights standards developed after World War II.
Human rights groups, thus, did not put torture on the human rights policy map, either conceptually or legally. Their concern and outrage at its continuing practice, however, did help develop and expand the legal and policy framework about torture.
Amnesty International’s efforts to secure the release of “prisoners of conscience” first alerted the organization to the prevalence of torture, frequently directed toward political prisoners. That concern led Amnesty to launch a Campaign Against Torture in 1972 and to lobby UN members to issue a declaration against torture. As recounted by Nigel Rodley, the government of Sweden was keen to take that work one step further, sponsoring a treaty that would have full status of international law. The International Commission of Jurists and Amnesty International were both instrumental in bringing that project to fruition. In 1984 a Convention Against Torture was negotiated under UN auspices, among other things providing an international legal definition of torture:
For the purpose 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 for 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 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. (Article 1)
By 1987 the Convention Against Torture had garnered the twenty requisite signatures to enter into force. Today more than 150 countries have ratified the Convention, leading some authorities to consider it has become part of customary law and a jus cogens principle of law.
That is hardly to say that torture is no longer practiced. To the contrary, human rights observers in all parts of the world continue to document state-sanctioned torture, and several clinics have been set up to treat its survivors. Arguably, the greatest blow to the developing normative consensus around the prohibition on torture was dealt by the US reliance on “enhanced interrogation” in the prosecution of its so-called War On Terror. Yet even in the infamous “torture memos,” lawyers for the Bush Administration acknowledged the absolute nature of the international legal prohibition against torture. Rather than contesting that prohibition, Administration spokespersons tried to define their way around it.
Countries that have ratified the Convention Against Torture are obligated to submit periodic reports about their implementation of the treaty to the Committee Against Torture (CAT). The US appeared before the CAT committee in 2000, 2006 and 2011.
For more information:
In this narrative, Nigel Rodley, Professor of Law and Chair of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex explains how Amnesty International came to work on the issue of Torture. Rodley was the first Legal Advisor of the International Secretariat of Amnesty International.
International Standards — Treaties and Human Rights Instruments
- United Nations. “Commentary on the Convention Against Torture.”
- UN Treaty Collection. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1984 (entered into force 1987).
- UN Treaty Collection. Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 2002.
- International Committee of the Red Cross. The Geneva Conventions of 1949. (Note: Article 3, common to all four of the Geneva Conventions, prohibits torture.)
Mechanisms for Implementation of Legal Standards and International Policy
- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Information page on the Committee Against Torture, charged to monitor implementation of the Convention Against Torture
- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Information page on the Sub-Committee on Prevention of Torture, which has an advisory function to states party and operational authority to visit places of detention
Reports and Analysis by NGOs, IGOs, Policy Centers and Governments
- US Department of State. “Second Periodic Report to the Committee Against Torture.” 6 May 2005.
- American Civil Liberties Union. The Torture Report, 2012.
- The Constitution Project. The Report of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, 2013
- Amnesty International. Torture in the Eighties, 1984.
On standard-setting work by advocacy groups:
- Clark, Ann Marie. Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms. “Chapter 3: Torture.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
- Cook, Helena. “Amnesty International at the United Nations.” In The Conscience of the World: The Influence of Non-Governmental Organizations in the UN System, edited by Peter Willetts, pp. 181-213. Brookings Institution, 1996.
- Huckerby, Jayne and Rodley, Sir Nigel. “Outlawing Torture: The Story of Amnesty International’s Efforts to Shape the U.N. Convention Against Torture” In Human Rights Advocacy Stories, edited by Deena Hurwitz, Margaret Satterthwaite, and Douglas Ford. NY: Foundation Press, 2008.
On the issue of torture:
- Greenberg, Karen J., ed. The Torture Debate in America. Cambridge Univ Press, 2006.
- Mayer, Jane. The Dark Side: the Inside Story of How the War on Terror became a War on American Ideals. Anchor Press, 2009.
- McCoy, Alfred. A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Holt Paperbacks, 2006.
- Rejali, Darius. Torture and Democracy. Princeton University Press, 2007.
- Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford University Press, 1985.
Advocacy Groups and Training Tools
- National Religious Campaign against Torture
- The Center for Victims of Torture
- World Organisation Against Torture
- Amnesty International, Stop Torture
- Human Rights Watch, Torture
- Istanbul Protocol: Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment prepared by a coalition of some 35 non-governmental organizations and research institutes and published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as a training manual, 2004.
Case Studies and Examples
- Archdiocese of São Paulo. “Torture in Brazil: A Shocking Report on the Pervasive Use of Torture by Brazilian Military Governments, 1964-1979.” Institute of Latin American Studies; University of Texas, 1986.
- Danner, Mark. “The Red Cross Torture Report: What It Means.” The New York Review of Books, April 2009. Includes text of the 2007 ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody.
- The New York Times. “A Guide to the Memos on Torture.” New York Times, 2005.
- Cohen, Andrew. “The Torture Memos: Ten Years Later.” The Atlantic, February 2012.
Multimedia Sources, including Films
- Salon. Torture. 2013.
- Death and the Maiden. DVD. Directed by Roman Polanski. Fine Line, 1995.
- Taxi to the Dark Side. Directed by Alex Gibney. United States: THINKFilms, 2007.
- Rendition. Directed by Gavin Hood. United States: Discovery Films, 2007.
- Zero Dark Thirty. Directed by Kathyrn Bigelow. 2012; Burbank, CA: Columbia Pictures, 2013.