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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.

Physicians for Human Rights Releases Expert Analysis of CIA Torture Report, Calls for Federal Commission to Hold Health Professionals Accountable (December 16, 2014)

Health professionals played an essential role at every stage of the CIA’s torture program, committing at least eight violations of ethics and law, PHR said today in an analysis of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report summary on CIA torture.

New Map Shows Government Forces Deliberately Attacking Syria’s Medical System (May 14, 2014)

Syrian forces have systematically attacked the health care system in opposition-held areas over the past three years, resulting in the death of more than 460 health professionals and widespread destruction to hospitals and clinics, PHR said today as it launched an interactive map tracking these violations.

Senate Report Confirms Ethical Breaches of Health Professionals in CIA Torture Program (April 11, 2014)

The leaked summary of the findings from the Senate Select Intelligence Committee's report confirm previous reporting by PHR: The CIA enlisted health professionals to use their skills to destroy the minds of prisoners, breaking with longstanding ethical and legal obligations of health professionals.

Maine Doctors Urge Senate to Release Torture Report (March 18, 2014)

In an effort to press Maine senators Susan Collins and Angus King to support the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture, medical professionals have launched a statewide campaign calling on them to vote in support of releasing this critical information.

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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.

The War on Health Care in Syria (May 19, 2014)

Dr. H has treated bombing casualties, chemical weapons survivors, and victims with bullet wounds – all standard cases in his field hospital in one of the opposition-controlled areas of Syria.

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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.

PHR Joins Letter Urging White House to Lead in Declassifying Torture Report (April 2014)

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) joins seven other organizations in calling on President Obama and the White House staff to lead the declassification process of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. The letter emphasizes that the United States must reckon with the past in order to prevent torture in the future. Releasing the committee’s report is a foundational step in that process.

Impunity in Honduras (February 2014)

PHR sent a team of forensic experts to Honduras to investigate cases of alleged torture and ill-treatment by the country’s security forces that had occurred in the aftermath of the 2009 coup d’état.

Letter to President Obama on Releasing SSCI Report (January 2014)

On the 5th anniversary of President Barack Obama’s signing of the executive order to close the detention facility at Guantánamo and to standardize use of the Army Field Manual for interrogations, PHR and partner organizations sent a letter to the president.

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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 »