What is torture?

Torture is a deliberate and systematic dismantling of a person’s identity and humanity through physical or psychological pain and suffering. Torture’s purpose is to destroy a sense of community, eliminate leaders, create a climate of fear and produce a culture of apathy.

In the United States, the definition of torture is given in the Torture Victims Relief Act (TVRA), section 2340(1) of title 18, United States Code:

  1. “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
  2. “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from −
    1. the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
    2. the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
    3. the threat of imminent death; or
    4. the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality

As used in the TVRA, this definition also includes the use of rape and other forms of sexual violence by a person acting under the color of law, upon another person under his custody or physical control.

The United Nations definition of torture is contained in the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Torture is not an effective means of interrogation and does not yield useful or truthful information. It is, however, a highly effective means of controlling populations. Torture and war trauma also affect five basic human needs: the need to feel safe, the need to trust, the need to feel of value (self worth), the need to feel to close to others, and the need to feel some control over one's life.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a very interesting four-part philosophical essay on torture. From a philosophical perspective, it addresses the following questions: what is torture? what is wrong with torture? is torture ever morally justifiable? should torture ever be legalised or otherwise institutionalised? This essay does not necessarily reflect the views of HealTorture.org, CVT, or the Office of Refugee Resettlement, but it is an interesting read - worth reading all the way through.