The long fight to ban torture worldwide

The story of the men and women whose unimaginable pain and courage led to a global ban on torture

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Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,  Argentina ©Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

Millions have had the most unimaginable pain inflicted on them by those meant to protect them: their government representatives.

Yet their suffering and courage has inspired all kinds of people around the world to come together to stand up against torture. 

We celebrate those who have worked towards this seemingly impossible dream - to wipe out torture - and are making it a gradual reality. 

We celebrate those who have set up rehabilitation centres for victims. Those who made sure prisons could be visited in countries where torture is suspected to prevent torture from happening. Those who've developed guidelines on how to document signs of torture. Those who've worked to expand the definition of torture to include crimes such as rape. And those who have stood up to face their torturers and tell the truth about what happened. 

So much has been achieved in the long struggle to stop torture.

Téofila Ochoa, who survived a government massacre in Peru
The Pinochet regime’s notorious torture and interrogation chamber at “Villa Grimaldi.” Chile, 1998 © Patrick Zachmann/Magnum Photos

Those who survived to tell the tale

In the latter half of the last century, countless military dictatorships were using torture to control and suppress people. In Chile, Mario Irarrázabal was working in his art studio on 11 September 1973 when he watched Augusto Pinochet storm to power in a coup d’état. A few days later, around 3am, Pinochet’s secret police knocked on Mario’s door. They had come for him.

One waited an eternity with the others in a room, blindfolded. Suddenly they would call someone...and they would return in pieces, emotionally.
Mario Irarrázabal

Mario was blindfolded, starved, and forced to lie on his back. By day 3 he started hallucinating. He tried to pick out any detail from beneath his blindfold -- a bit of floor, a wall decoration, anything that would help him figure out where he was. But the worst was still to come.

© Mikkel Ostergaard/Panos
Anonymous, Rwandan refugee
I was standing at my front door unable to stop the brutal killing of my children as they lay asleep in their beds.
Mrs. Moustalkli, a dentist, giving evidence at the 1975 torture trials, where she explained how her husband had disappeared and been tortured. © New Greece

After Nuremberg, state torturers face their victims

In 1975, 20 ringleaders of the 1967 coup in Greece were convicted of torture – the first international trials to convict security service officials since Nuremberg.

George Alexandros Mangakis testified. “I’ve seen the torturer’s face at close quarters. It was in a worse condition than my own bleeding, livid face... It is not an easy thing to torture people. It requires inner participation."

I turned out to be the lucky one. I was humiliated. I did not humiliate others.
George Alexandros Mangakis

"The men who humiliate you must first humiliate the notion of humanity within themselves. I was simply a man who moaned because he was in great pain. I prefer that. At this moment I am deprived of the joy of seeing children going to school or playing in the park. Whereas they have to look their own children in the face.”

©Donna DeCesare 1989
Torture survivor, S. B. Singh, Manipur, India
At times I felt I should become one of the perpetrators to control the lives of others. But then I thought of my family.
Manuel Conclaves, holding a photograph of his parents who were disappeared in Argentina, 2008 © Alessandra Sanguinetti/Magnum Photos
A traumatized woman, who allegedly was raped multiple times by Interahamwe. DRC, 2014. © Michael Christopher Brown / Magnum Photos

Leaving the scars behind and looking forward

Slowly torture is being eradicated in countries around the world. With over 80 states around the world opening their detention facilities to UN officials and independent bodies, people are becoming safer.

Torture always happens in secret. But those who could attempt torture now know that at any time, someone can come for an unexpected visit – even at night.
Boubou Diouf Tall, former Judge, Senegal

Meanwhile, those who’ve survived the horrors of torture are finding a world better equipped to offer them support. As this anonymous Rwandan refugee said, “I thank God for allowing me to participate in counselling. I feel supported by my comrades in the group, some of whom have had similar experiences. I know that I am not the only one who has suffered. My life has changed and become normal again, little by little, as sessions have advanced."

All content on this page is based on the exhibition ‘Torture – the International Outlaw’ produced jointly by Amnesty International, the Association for the Prevention of Torture, and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims.

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