Screening for Torture

A Narrative Checklist Comparing Legal Definitions in a Torture Treatment Clinic


Torture has been defined most precisely in legal contexts. Practitioners who work with torture survivors and researchers who study torture have frequently cited legal definitions, particularly those in the United States’ Torture Victims Relief Act, the United Nations Convention against Torture, or the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Tokyo. Few practitioners have operationalized these definitions and applied them in their practice. We describe how a New York City torture treatment clinic used a coding checklist that operationalizes the definitions, and present results. We found that in practice these definitions were nested; that using guidelines for applying the definitions in practice altered the number of cases meeting criteria for these definitions; and that the severity of psychological symptoms did not differ between those who were tortured and those who were not under any definition. We propose theoretical and practical implications of these findings.

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