Torture is when somebody in an official capacity inflicts severe mental or physical pain or suffering on somebody else for a specific purpose. Sometimes authorities torture a person to extract a confession for a crime, or to get information from them. Sometimes torture is simply used as a punishment that spreads fear in society.

Torture methods vary. They can be of a physical nature, like beatings and electric shocks. It can be of a sexual nature, like rape or sexual humiliation. Or they can be of a psychological nature, like sleep deprivation or prolonged solitary confinement.

Under international law, torture and other forms of ill-treatment are always illegal. They have been outlawed internationally for decades. To take just a couple of examples, 172 countries have adhered to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits torture and other forms of ill-treatment, and 165 countries are parties to the UN Convention against Torture which Amnesty International campaigned hard to create.

But many states have failed to criminalize torture as a specific offence under their national laws, and governments around the world continue to defy international law by torturing people. Between January 2009 and May 2013, Amnesty International received reports of torture in 141 countries, from every region of the world.

Torture can never be justified. It is barbaric and inhumane, and replaces the rule of law with terror. No one is safe when governments allow its use. 

High-profile torture cases, such as the CIA secret detention programme around the world, have led to a common misconception that torture is generally confined to issues around national security and counterterrorism.

But Amnesty’s research shows that it could happen to anyone – petty criminals, people from ethnic minorities, protesters, student activists, and people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is most often poor and marginalized people who get beaten, humiliated or raped by police and other officials when there is no one to protect them or hear their cries for help.

Torture of protesters in Egypt

During the 2011 uprising in Egypt, the security forces used torture as a weapon against protesters. For a group of 18 detained women protesters, this took the form of strip searches and “virginity tests” which were forced upon them after army officers violently cleared Tahrir Square on 9 March 2011. Seventeen of the women were also beaten, prodded with electric shock batons and threatened with prostitution charges.

Amnesty believes that subjecting women to such degrading procedures as “virginity tests” is nothing less than torture.

In January 2014, Mahmoud Hussein, then 18 years old, was arrested for wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Nation Without Torture”. He went on to spend more than two years in jail.

The authorities passed a new counterterrorism legislation that has further eroded the few existing safeguards against torture and other ill-treatment, while the practice has remained endemic.

What is Amnesty doing to fight torture?

Torture often happens in secret – in police lock-ups, interrogation rooms or prisons. For more than 50 years Amnesty International has been documenting torture, exposing the perpetrators and helping victims get justice.

We make people aware of their rights and make sure that governments who torture can’t get away with it.

We are campaigning for the adoption and implementation of measures to protect people from torture and bring the perpetrators to justice. These include independent checks on detention centres, monitoring of interrogations, prompt access to lawyers and courts, visits and communication with family members, and thorough and effective investigations into torture allegations.

And we fight for justice for victims of torture.

Like Moses Akatugba, who spent 10 years on death row in Nigeria following his conviction for stealing three mobile phones. Police officers tortured Moses to force him to confess, using pliers to pull out his toenails and fingernails.

As part of Amnesty’s Stop Torture campaign, more than 800,000 people worldwide wrote to the Delta State Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan asking him to release Moses.

a portrait of Moses Akatugba. He wearing a red shirt and is holding his hands together.
Moses Akatugba

Moses had a message for everyone who took action on his behalf:

‘I didn’t know the campaigners before, I have not seen them before, but I cried for help and they responded massively to save me. I didn’t know that people still have such great love for their fellow human beings.” 

The tools of torture

Nobody should profit from pain

But from spike batons to electric shock vests, thumb cuffs and leg irons, the ‘tools of torture’ are still being trade3d around the world. Companies also continue to sell regular law enforcement equipment, such as simple handcuffs, truncheons and pepper spray, to security forces which misuse it in acts of torture. 

In 2006, years of campaigning by Amnesty International and the Omega Research Foundation led to the EU adopting the world’s first legally binding regulation for controlling the trade in the ‘tools of torture’.

We are now campaigning for similar international regulation to prohibit the manufacture and sale of abusive equipment and regulate the trade in goods that can be misused. It’s high time the international community took steps to control this shameful trade.

Case study: Saydnaya Prison

Syria’s Saydnaya Military Prison. Former detainees described being packed into filthy, overcrowded cells without access to fresh air, sunlight or ventilation, and being tortured from the moment of their arrest. Meagre scraps of food are thrown onto cell floors covered with blood from prisoners’ wounds. 

Many of the prisoners said they were raped or forced to rape other prisoners. Torture and other ill-treatment, including beatings, are used as a regular form of punishment and degradation, often leading to lifelong damage, disability or even death. They are also used to extract false confessions, which are then used as “evidence” to sentence people to death.

Thousands of people have died in Saydnaya Military Prison. Many were hanged in secret mass executions; others have died of disease or starvation or been tortured to death. Amnesty’s research helped shine a light on the horrors that take place behind Saydnaya’s secretive walls.Explore Saydnaya

Torture methods

When we think of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, we often think of things like stress positions, electric shocks and waterboarding, and these barbaric practices do happen routinely in many countries.

But such abuses can also include things like inhumane prison conditions, solitary confinement, and denial of medical treatment. 

Case study: Australia’s torture of refugees and asylum seekers

Since 2015, the Australian government has been forcibly transferring refugees and asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat to camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

In these remote locations, refugees and asylum seekers live in punitive conditions with no opportunity to seek freedom and protection. Hostility from the local population sometimes leads to violent physical or sexual assaults, and refugees are denied access to adequate healthcare. Refugees and asylum seekers suffer high rates of mental illness and self harm with the ongoing uncertainty being a major contributing factor. There have been 12 deaths on Manus and Nauru since the inception of these cruel policies.

Australia’s “offshore processing system” amounts to torture and other ill-treatment because of the severe mental and physical harm experienced, and because it is intentionally designed to harm people in order to deter others from coming to Australia.

Why do governments torture?

Governments often use national security as a pretext for torturing people. In Cameroon for example, Amnesty has documented how the security forces have set up secret torture chambers for people accused, often with zero evidence, of being members of the armed group Boko Haram.

Fatima (not her real name) told Amnesty International how she was held incommunicado at a military base for nine months. She was beaten with various objects, including wooden sticks and the flat part of a machete.

“At the base in Kousseri, I was held in a cell with two women,” she said. “[The soldiers] beat me for three days all over my body, especially on the soles of my feet, with all sorts of objects, in order to make me admit things I knew nothing about. By the end of the third day, my soles were going to explode.”

Torture and the “war on terror”

Guantánamo Bay was established by the United States in January 2002 and has since become emblematic of the gross human rights abuses perpetrated by the US government in the name of fighting terrorism. Hundreds of people were held there for years without charge and subjected to torture (or what the US calls “enhanced interrogation techniques”).

Former detainees have described being waterboarded, deprived of sleep, subjected to constant blasting music and freezing temperatures, or forced into stress positions. Amnesty International has been campaigning for all Guantanamo detainees to be either immediately released or charged with a recognizable criminal offence. Forty prisoners are still in Guantánamo.

The CIA is also known to have run secret detention facilities or “black sites” in numerous locations around the world. A report from the US Senate Intelligence Committee described how one prisoner was handcuffed to an overhead bar which would not allow him to lower his arms for 22 hours each day for two consecutive days. He was also forced to wear a diaper.

Amnesty International has worked tirelessly to expose the complicity of a number of countries in the US secret detention and rendition programme. In the past decade, it has intervened in cases brought by two Guantánamo detainees,

Why abolish torture?

The use of torture destroys people, corrodes the rule of law, undermines the criminal justice system and erodes public trust in public institutions and the state they represent.

It causes severe pain and suffering to victims which continues long after the acts of torture stop.

And it doesn’t work.

Why torture doesn’t work

A common myth about torture is that sometimes it is the only way to get information that could save lives. 

States have a huge variety of ways to collect information on crimes – both past and planned – without losing their humanity. Torture is a primitive and blunt instrument for obtaining information.

Around the world torture is routinely used to extract confessions. Information obtained in this way is not reliable because people will say anything under torture just to make the pain stop. They will say what they think their torturers want to hear.

In August 2012, Mexican marines broke into Claudia Medina’s home and took her to the local navy base where she was given electric shocks, wrapped in plastic and beaten, and forced to inhale chilli.

She was forced to sign a confession she had not even read. “If they had not tortured me, I would not have signed the statement,” Claudia said.

Under international law, confessions given under torture do not count as evidence.

In legal terms, the absolute prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment is “non-derogable” – that means it cannot be relaxed even in times of emergency.  

Redress for victims of torture

Torture victims face a range of devastating long-term consequences. The physical and psychological pain inflicted on them can lead to chronic pain and disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. This is why it is so important that people who have been tortured have access to redress, and that their torturers are brought to justice.

Redress can include medical care, counselling, monetary compensation, rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

Amnesty International has for years helped torture survivors to get justice. People like Ángel Colón, who was released in October 2014, nearly six years after he was tortured and wrongly imprisoned in Mexico. More than 20,000 Amnesty supporters demanded his release. Ángel told us: “My message to all those who are showing me their solidarity, and are against torture and discrimination, is ‘don’t drop your guard. A new horizon is dawning’.”