Torture is a serious violation of human rights that undermines the very notion of civil and political freedoms. International law prohibits torture and other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment, which cannot be accepted under any circumstances. Nonetheless, torture continues to be practiced in a majority of countries around the world.
The Definition and Prohibition of Torture in International Law
Torture is repeatedly prohibited in international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948), the foundation stone of the human rights framework, forbids the use of torture in Article 5:
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 8 June 1977 contain a number of provisions that absolutely prohibit torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment and outrages upon individual dignity. This prohibition applies to both civilians and military combatants in times of war.
Torture is defined in Article 1 of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT, Torture Convention, 1987) as “… any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.”
There is no exhaustive list of prohibited acts, but the Torture Convention definition covers any act which
- Is cruel, inhumane, or degrading
- causes severe pain or suffering;
- is intentionally inflicted;
- is done to obtain information or a confession, as punishment for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or to intimidate or coerce him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind;
- is done at the instigation of, or with the consent or acquiescence of, a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.
International consensus is lacking as to whether some acts meet this definition or not. For example:
- judicial corporal punishment (e.g., amputation, branding, flogging or whipping)
- the death penalty
- extended solitary confinement
Every government that is a States Party to the Torture Convention is required to take action again acts of torture in its territory, whether by agents of the state (e.g., soldiers, police officers, prison guards) or private citizens. They also have a duty to prosecute torturers, although this is seldom met due to lack of political will and legal obstacles.
Related Human Rights Instruments:
- Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT, 1984)
- Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948)
 For a more detailed discussion of the prohibition of torture, see Understanding Human Rights: Manual on Human Rights Education, p. 71: http://www.etc-graz.at/typo3/fileadmin/user_upload/ETC-Hauptseite/manual/versionen/english_3rd_edition/Manual_2012_FINAL.pdf.