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Stopping Torture Around the World: Building Capacity to Document and Prosecute

Torture destroys people’s bodies and minds, rips apart communities, and undermines democratic institutions and the rule of law.

Despite the absolute prohibition of torture in international law, it continues to be practiced in more than 100 countries, from totalitarian regimes to democracies. Countries frequently justify the use of torture as a necessary means to extract confessions, identify terrorists, and obtain intelligence critical to preventing future violence. Convictions are difficult to achieve because torturers have become adept at inflicting suffering through methods that leave few physical marks.

Although the scale of torture varies among states, a systemic culture of impunity in which perpetrators are rarely punished and justice for victims is elusive is common to all. Perpetrators tend to be powerful state actors including police, military, and security personnel. Leaders fail to condemn these horrific crimes. Judges and police lack the capacity—or the will—to pursue torturers. Victims are isolated and have no trusted, safe place to report torture. And those who pursue justice, accountability, and redress often face the threat of reprisals.

This cycle of impunity cannot be broken until torture crimes are brought to light and perpetrators are prosecuted. Successful prosecutions are hard to achieve when torture victims lack hard evidence to prove their claims of abuse, but specially trained health professionals can identify and interpret the scars left on victims’ bodies and minds. And when health professionals document their findings in medical-legal affidavits, victims and prosecutors have a critical and incontrovertible source of evidence to chip away at the wall of impunity.

One of the most effective tools for ending impunity related to torture is the Istanbul Protocol. This UN document spells out the international standards for how to conduct effective legal and medical investigations into allegations of torture and ill treatment. It also calls on states to implement effective measures to protect people from torture and ill treatment.

U.S. Justice Department Must Investigate American Psychological Association’s Role in U.S. Torture Program (July 10, 2015)

PHR called for a federal criminal probe into the American Psychological Association’s (APA) role in the U.S. torture program following the release of a damning new report that confirms the APA colluded with the Bush administration to enable psychologists to design, implement, and defend a program of torture.

Physicians for Human Rights Denounces Israel’s Proposed Force-Feeding Law (June 16, 2015)

PHR urged Israel’s parliament to reject a proposed bill that would legalize the force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners, in violation of medical ethics and international law.

Human Rights Groups Applaud Legislation Reaffirming U.S. Prohibition on Torture (June 9, 2015)

On Tuesday, June 9, 2015, Senators McCain, Feinstein, Reed, and Collins introduced legislation to make the U.S. Army Field Manual on Interrogations the standard for all U.S. government interrogations to make sure that the United States never uses torture again.

U.S. Military Document Says Force-Feeding Violates Medical Ethics and International Law (January 30, 2015)

PHR says that a newly public U.S. military document acknowledging that force-feeding violates medical ethics shows unlawfulness of hunger strike practices at Guantánamo.

More Global Torture News »

Closing Guantánamo Is Imperative, But Not Enough (January 23, 2015)

During President Obama’s State of the Union address, he reaffirmed his commitment to closing the notorious prison at Guantánamo: Since I’ve been president, we’ve worked responsibly to cut the population of Gitmo in half. Now it is time to finish the job, and I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It is not who we are. It’s time to close Gitmo.

Psychologists Must Stand by their Ethical Obligations (August 11, 2014)

American psychologists designed and oversaw the brutal regime of interrogation used on detainees in U.S. military custody at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and elsewhere during the U.S. war on terror; but the profession has yet to punish any psychologist who participated in torture or to fully distance itself from this legacy.

Honoring Victims of Torture Means Repairing Trust in Healers (June 26, 2014)

Today, UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, marks 27 years since the UN Convention against Torture came into effect.

Justice at Guantánamo Requires Charge or Release of Detainees (May 23, 2014)

Today’s Global Day of Action to Close Guantánamo marks another 365 days of detention that have passed since President Barack Obama renewed his promise to close the notorious prison.

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Open Letter to the Government of Bahrain (March 2015)

Physicians for Human Rights, partner organizations, and human rights activists call on the government on Bahrain to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience in the country in the aftermath of the 2011 popular uprising.

The Crisis in Syria Turns Four (March 2015)

Ahead of the four-year anniversary of the crisis in Syria, Physicians for Human Rights and partner organizations call on permanent members of the UN Security Council to refrain from using their veto power when confronted with a crisis in which civilians are at impending risk of atrocity crimes.

Letter to President Obama on Rejecting Request to Return CIA Torture Report (January 2015)

The new chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Richard Burr, requested that the executive branch return all copies of the CIA torture report to the committee. PHR and partner organizations sent this letter to President Obama urging him to reject Senator Burr’s request.

Doing Harm: Health Professionals’ Central Role in the CIA Torture Program (December 2014)

This analysis by PHR of the SSCI report’s executive summary builds on years of investigation and research documenting the systematic use of torture by the United States.

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Our Work

Effective Training Tool: The Istanbul Protocol

The Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, commonly known as the Istanbul Protocol, outlines international legal standards and sets out specific guidelines on how to conduct effective legal and medical investigations into allegations of torture and ill treatment. Read More »

Featured Expert

Vincent Iacopino, MD

Vincent Iacopino, MD, PhD

During his 22 years with PHR, Dr. Vincent Iacopino has conducted medical fact-finding investigations and documented a wide range of human rights violations all over the world, including in Afghanistan, Botswana, Burma, Chad, Chechyna, Iraq, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, the United States, and Zimbabwe. Read More »