Psychological torture

Psychological torture is a type of torture that relies primarily on psychological effects, and only secondarily on any physical harm inflicted. Although not all psychological torture involves the use of physical violence, there is a continuum between psychological torture and physical torture. The two are often used in conjunction with one another, and often overlap in practice, with the fear and pain induced by physical torture often resulting in long-term psychological effects, and many forms of psychological torture involving some form of pain or coercion.

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (commonly known as the United Nations Convention against Torture) is an international human rights treaty, under the review of the United Nations, that aims to prevent torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment around the world. The Convention requires states to take effective measures to prevent torture in any state under their jurisdiction, and forbids states to transport people to any country where there is reason to believe they will be tortured.[1]

The text of the Convention was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1984[2] and, following ratification by the 20th state party, it came into force on 26 June 1987. 26 June is now recognized as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, in honor of the Convention. As of May 2015, the Convention has 158 state parties.

The Convention gave for the first time in history a definition of psychological torture:

Torture is 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.[3]

The Optional Protocol to such Convention (OPCAT, 2006) is an important addition to the United Nations Convention. The Committee Against Torture (CAT) is a body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention by State parties. All State parties are obliged under the Convention to submit regular reports to the CAT on how the rights are being implemented. Upon ratifying the Convention, States must submit a report within one year, after which they are obliged to report every four years. The Committee examines each report and addresses its concerns and recommendations to the State party in the form of "concluding observations". Under certain circumstances, the CAT may consider complaints or communications from individuals claiming that their rights under the Convention have been violated. The CAT usually meets in May and November each year in Geneva.

Many forms of psychological torture methods attempt to destroy the subject's normal self-image by removing them from any kind of control over their environment, creating a state of learned helplessness, psychological regression and depersonalization. Other techniques include forced nudity and head shaving, sleep deprivation, hooding and other forms of sensory deprivation.

A strictly fear-inducing method is the mock execution. Various threats operate on the same fear-inducing principle.

Another method is indirect torture, in which a victim is forced to witness the torture of another person, often a loved one. This preys on the victim's affection for and loyalty to a partner, relative, friend, comrade-in-arms etc, whose real pain induces vicarious suffering in the targeted psychological victim, who is thus loaded with guilt but spared physical harm that might affect his or her ability to comply.

While psychological torture may not leave any lasting physical damage—indeed, this is often one of the motivations for using psychological rather than physical torture—it can result in similar levels of permanent mental damage to its victims.[4]

It has been alleged that some psychological torture methods may have been devised by, or in conjunction with, doctors and psychologists.[5]

The United States has been accused of making extensive use of psychological torture techniques at Guantanamo Bay and other sites subsequent to the 9/11 attacks.[6][7][8] Many other countries have been accused of using psychological torture, including Iran.[9] In 1976 the European Commission of Human Rights found the British government guilty of using psychological torture on IRA political detainees in Northern Ireland, while in 1978 the European Court of Human Rights found that the treatment of political internees constituted "inhuman and degrading treatment" rather than torture.[10]

See also


  1. "White Paper "The Rule of Law and Psychological Torture: Absence of a Legal Defininion, Prospects and Problem", in The World Rule of Law Movement and Russian Legal Reform", edited by Francis Neate and Holly Nielsen, Justitsinform, Moscow (2007).
  2. United Nations Treaty Collection: Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Retrieved on 13 September 2012.
  3. "Convention against Torture". United Nations Human Rights Council. 10 December 1984. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  4. Roxanne Khamsi (5 March 2007). "Psychological torture 'as bad as physical torture'". New Scientist.
  5. "Psychological torture: a CIA history". Mind Hacks. February 11, 2008.
  6. John Hickman. 2013. Selling Guantanamo: Exploding the Propaganda Surrounding America's Most Notorious Military Prison. University Press of Florida. ISBN 978-0813044552 pp. 180-181.
  7. Naomi Klein (23 February 2007). "The US psychological torture system is finally on trial". The Guardian.
  8. Alfred W. McCoy (June 11, 2009). "The CIA's secret history of psychological torture".
  9. "NCRI Women's Committee calls for release of Taraneh Mousavi". Women’s Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. 15 July 2009.
  10. "A Chronology of the Conflict". CAIN Web Service. 2013-03-21.
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