accessibility & help


Hands clasped through prison bars© Info

There are no exceptions. Torture is illegal. But what exactly is meant by torture? If it is so universally condemned, why does it exist? This briefing for teachers sets out the key background to the law and explores the current debates.

What is torture?

Torture occurs when severe suffering or pain is intentionally inflicted on a prisoner or detainee for a specific purpose. The purpose is often to obtain information. Torture may also be used as punishment. It can be used to deter people from some action, for instance, giving evidence at a trial. Or the intention might be to intimidate people – forcing ethnic groups to move out of an area, for example.

Other forms of ill treatment are illegal under international humanitarian law but not regarded as torture. Inflicting suffering or pain which is significant but not severe might be "cruel or inhuman treatment". Acts which inflict humiliation or degradation are termed "outrages upon personal dignity". These different categories can be clearly set out in theory. In practice, the dividing line between them can be blurred.

Ill treatment does not have to be actual physical harm. Depriving people of sleep, making them believe they are going to be killed or subjecting them to other psychological distress, can be just as damaging as physical injury, and cause long-lasting problems for victims.

The UK Ministry of Defence has admitted that soldiers carried out acts of abuse on Iraqi captives, one of whom, Baha Musa, died in British custody in Basra. Acts of abuse and humiliation of detainees have been seen around the world in the famous photographs, involving United States personnel, taken inside Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

Why is torture widely condemned?

From a practical point of view, no one wants their own captured soldiers or civilians to be ill-treated. Torturing prisoners is a pretty sure way of inviting the opposing side to do likewise – either for revenge or as part of the brutality of war. So it makes sense for purely practical purposes to agree a total ban.

What does torture do to people?

The physical and mental damage caused by torture is difficult to describe and almost impossible to imagine. At its extreme, torture can kill. Its victims can be left severely physically disabled or with serious emotional or mental health problems. Some may take years to recover, suffering disorientation, flashbacks and traumas.

The victims of torture suffer most. But they are not the only ones affected by it.

What else is affected by torture?

In a way, all society. Torture is brutalising and inhumane. It dehumanises interrogators and, more broadly, the organisations and societies they come from.

Torture affects the running of justice systems. Evidence obtained by torture should not be used in court – justice cannot depend on illegal acts. That could mean that someone suspected of serious crimes is never brought to trial because the evidence against them was obtained illegally.

It is an important principle of international law that no one, whether an asylum seeker or a suspected criminal, can be returned or extradited to a country where there is a real risk that that person will face torture. Again, that interferes with the smooth-running of justice. It may mean some crimes are never properly pursued.

Can torture be justified if it saves lives?

The argument is usually presented along the following lines. Imagine you discover a plot that will result in the death and injury of hundreds, even thousands, of civilians. A prisoner has information that you could use to foil the plot. The prisoner is refusing to speak. Do you simply accept that? Or do you do everything you can, including inflicting pain, to force the prisoner to talk – and so save lives?

Accepting it as given, many people are understandably drawn to wondering whether the morally correct answer is to inflict a certain amount of pain, temporarily, and only as much as necessary. Hurting one person is admittedly a bad thing. But it seems the lesser of two evils. It would be worse to do nothing, and morally unacceptable to allow hurt and suffering to be inflicted on many innocent people.

Looked at that way it seems that torture, under certain extreme circumstances, can be justified on humanitarian grounds, because it saves lives and reduces suffering.

It is an interesting theoretical discussion, and useful exploration of moral philosophy.

Back in reality, the dilemma is much less troublesome. The scenario sounds like a storyline from a tense, highly dramatic movie. Outside Hollywood, no one is ever in the position described. Such certainties just don't happen.

A more realistic scenario is that the authorities fear an attack, and have some limited intelligence about it. They may have a number of suspects, some of whom may have some potentially useful information. In some cases, they will have rounded up people who fit the description of potential attackers. Torturing them will be a long way, morally, from the dilemma outlined. Yet if torture was not banned, without exception, authorities would be tempted to use the "Hollywood justification", and consider torturing them all, on the possibility that some potentially useful information will be revealed.

A further complication to the apparent dilemma is that torturing people to gain information can be counterproductive.

How can torture be counterproductive?

Sophisticated torture techniques can quickly break down a person's resistance. When that happens, they will say or do anything. Being told what the interrogator wants to hear is not the same as getting good accurate information. Even if useful information is divulged, it may be mixed in with unreliable intelligence or pure fantasy. Most experienced interrogators will tell you that torture doesn’t work.

Who makes sure the torture laws are upheld?

Transparency and openness are the best way of ensuring that detainees are held in humanitarian conditions and that interrogations take place lawfully. Secret arrests, secret prisons and secret movement of detainees are suspicious and make it difficult for independent observers to assess how prisoners are being held.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has a special responsibility for visiting prisoners of war and civilian internees in time of war. It has the right to speak to prisoners privately, and can hear their accounts of how they are being treated.”

Video cameras are used in many countries justice systems during interviews or interrogations, to show that nothing improper is taking place.

Allowing detainees to receive visits from family or friends can also help with transparency.

All countries must take steps to ensure torture never happens, and prosecute those responsible if it does. Prosecution may be before a national court, whether military or civilian. Because torture is an international crime, it may also be prosecuted before the courts of other countries. If none of these options is appropriate or possible for some reason, it may be possible to try the case before an international tribunal or at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

All countries have their own domestic laws against ill treating prisoners. Torture during armed conflict, whether between nations or a civil war, is outlawed in the Geneva Conventions 1949, which are part of international humanitarian law.

In addition, most countries have signed and ratified the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture and the Committee Against Torture meets twice a year to examine the "torture record" of states that are party to it.

Activities and discussion

Note: Discussion of torture will not be appropriate for all groups of students. Some may only focus on the gruesome details, resulting in insensitive conversations that do not move beyond the macabre. Other students, perhaps because of their emotional make-up or past experience, may be profoundly distressed. Bear this in mind when considering the following ideas for further exploration.

  • One of Britain's most famous torture victims, known even to young children, is Guy Fawkes. Discuss the barbarous punishments inflicted on him and others. Talk about why modern laws forbid such punishment. Many children are engrossed by torture chambers and dungeons, seeing them as belonging to remote history. Invite students to explore why this is. How does it change things when you realise that torture is part of the present?
  • Ask students to think of television or newspaper images of torture they can recall – whether of kidnap victims, or the familiar pictures at Abu Ghraib. Such pictures have a dramatic impact. It is often said they cause shock waves in communities round the world. Explore why. In war, other horrors and brutality are frequently seen but do not seem to have such impact. Invite students to identify the elements that make torture so shocking.
  • Students who have an understanding of the legal definition of torture can be asked to identify the elements of torture in actual legal cases. Try for example reading through the charges drawn up against Radovan Karadzic, who was president of Republika Srpska, formed from the former Yugoslavia, between 1992 and 1996. Which charges would be described as relating to acts of torture? Read the official indictment  prepared by prosecutors at the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.



This briefing was written by PJ White and produced in August 2008.

This resource and other free educational materials are available at