During our work, we often encounter various questions regarding the issue of torture and its use, outcomes and long-term effects. In order to provide people with comprehensive and basic information, we have compiled the most common questions - and their answers.
Q: What is torture?
A: The United Nations defines torture in the UN Convention Against Torture, and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment as:
“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."
Q: Where does torture exist today?
A: Sadly, torture still happens today. In its 2015/2016 Annual Report, Amnesty International found that out of 160 countries surveyed, "122 or more tortured or otherwise ill-treated people." Human Rights Watch also devotes an entire thematic division to researching, documenting and exposing torture throughout the world. In many of the countries that engage in the practice, it is a rampant and systematic problem. Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, says that in recent years, torture has actually increased and portrays it as a “necessary evil” in the battle against terrorism. Amnesty writes: "Three decades on from the Convention - and more than 65 years after the Universal Declaration - torture is not just alive and well. It is flourishing."
Q: Where does torture occur?
A: Torture most often takes place in detention sites – whether in a police lock-up, interrogation rooms, prison systems or other places where people are deprived of their liberty. This allows torture to remain a “secret” or “hidden” problem in the world. Detention sites are often well outside the realm of the public view and therefore escape public condemnation. While torture is often practiced behind closed doors, it can also be conducted in public spaces to instill fear, intimidate and silence members of the community.
Q: Why is Torture used?
A: Torture is used for a variety of purposes. Amnesty states that torture is the "favored tool of the forces of repression." It is used to break down the personalities of individuals viewed as threats to authoritarian regimes, or to terrorize and/or destroy entire communities, including ethnic, religious, and political groups. However, contrary to what many governments claim, torture is not an effective way to obtain valuable information. During extreme physical and psychological stress, a person might confess anything to make the torture stop. These confessions are not legal and do not contribute to honest investigative efforts. Rather, they might lead to wrongful convictions and inefficient law enforcement.
Q: What are some methods of torture?
A: Although torture is practiced in diverse areas of the world, the methods and techniques employed are remarkably similar:
- Asphyxiation: submerging the head in water (waterboarding), in contaminated water or liquid containing feces and other waste; strapping the head into a plastic bag filled with chemicals that the victim is forced to inhale
- Burning: Using cigarettes, cigars or red–hot iron bars
- Electric Shock: Using cattle prods or multiple electrodes which shock various parts of the body (i.e. genitals, tongue, teeth, ears, and the head)
- Prolonged beatings on the soles of the feet
- Sexual torture: Rape and/or electric shocks to the genitals, forced pregnancy
- Forced witness and/or participation in the torture, rape, and/or execution of others
- Mock execution
- Sensory deprivation: Long-term interrogation, sleep, water, and food deprivation
- Stress positions: Standing for long periods of time, hanging the person by the arms or legs from a hook or a rope from the ceiling
- Solitary confinement
- Threats against family members and close acquaintances
- Use of hallucinogenic drugs
- Dog attacks
Q: What are some of the long-term physical effects of torture?
A: The consequences of torture are multidimensional and interconnected. No part of the survivor’s life is untouched. While the effects of the physical pain that was suffered may diminish over time, lasting physical impairments resulting from torture, such as amputation, hearing loss, blindness, muscle impairment, inability to bear children, sexual dysfunction, sexually transmitted diseases, scars, and poorly healed fractures are permanent reminders of the trauma suffered.
Q: Who are the perpetrators of torture?
A: Torturers may include the police, the military, paramilitary forces, state controlled counter-guerrilla forces, prison officers, members of death squads, health professionals, opposition forces or any government official. It is TASSC’s belief that those who torture, those who give the orders to torture, and those who manufacture the implements of torture are all torturers since they are part of the torture process. While some torturers derive satisfaction from inflicting pain, it is more likely that they are “just doing a job,”– a job that many have received training to do effectively. Those who order torture are among the most powerful and often the most prominent leaders in the society. Regardless of their high status, they are still torturers.
Q: Who is tortured?
A: The tortured are both politicized and apolitical individuals. Prisoners of war and civilians alike suffer torture. They can include children, the physically disabled, farmers, leaders of ethnic minorities, student leaders, journalists, religious workers, teachers, lawyers, doctors and nurses. No ethnicity, gender, age, class, profession, religion, sexual orientation, or political belief guarantees exemption from torture. Any person simply in the wrong place at the wrong time can be targeted.
Q: How many torture survivors are there in the world?
A: It is estimated that nearly half a million torture survivors live in the United States alone. The total number of torture survivors worldwide is difficult to assess, for survivors often remain silent about their past, some out of fear or continued persecution and others because of unwarranted feelings of shame or a belief that no one would understand if they did speak about what had been done.
Q: Does one ever “get over” having been tortured?
A: The tortured Austrian philosopher, Jean Amery said it well: “Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured. Anyone who has suffered torture never again will be at ease in the world…faith in humanity, already cracked by the first slap in the face, then demolished by torture is never acquired again.” Survivors are profoundly marked by their experiences. The psychological effects often include but are not limited to the following:
- Recurrent and intrusive nightmares
- Intense fear of sleep and the dark
- Chronic anxiety
- Feelings of betrayal
- Survivor’s guilt
- Difficulty in trusting others
- Fear of people in uniform (e.g. police officers, physicians, etc.)
- Suicidal thoughts
- Sense of powerlessness and lack of control in one’s life
- Problems with concentration and memory
Q: How can I support torture survivors?
A: Many torture survivors were told by their torturers: “If you survive to tell others what happened to you, no one will believe you. No one will care.” That is not true. TASSC is here to support survivors in any way they need and we hope that you will join us in our endeavors. As Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez emphasizes, the "long-term physical and psychological trauma [of torture] requires concerted efforts by States, civil society and other actors to address the need for justice and rehabilitation” – so everyone of us is needed in the struggle to end torture.
You can help by:
- Donating: TASSC runs on a very small annual budget and we are always in need of additional financial support. Your financial gift is fully tax-deductible and will go directly to helping survivors of torture.
- Volunteering or Interning: Donate your medical or professional services. See our Internships and Fellowships page for more information.
- Activism: Visit our website regularly and watch for petitions, events and other campaign activities.
- Education: Inform yourself and others about torture and/or invite a Truth Speaker (a survivor of torture) to come to your school, community center or place of worship to help educate your community. Click here to request a Truth Speaker.