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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.

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.

PHR Calls on Honduran Government to Address Impunity for Ill-Treatment and Torture (February 12, 2014)

PHR issued a report today, finding that the Honduran authorities failed to ensure justice in cases involving torture and/or ill-treatment following the 2009 coup d’état, and called on the Honduran government to ensure that these cases are prosecuted and the judicial system is restored.

PHR Submits Statement on Syria’s Refugee Crisis to Senate Committee (January 7, 2014)

The United States should immediately convene a humanitarian summit with Russia and other nations in order to improve humanitarian aid in Syria; take steps to allow more Syrian refugees to resettle in the United States; and provide funding to address their health and other needs.

More Global Torture News »

Physician Accounts from the Front Lines of the Syrian Conflict (April 8, 2014)

My recent experiences in training Syrian physicians in a border community opened my eyes to levels of courage and commitment I have never seen in my 30 years of practice and international work.

The Need for Transparency in U.S. Detention and Interrogation Practices (April 1, 2014)

This week, a group of senators will have the ability to move forward and acknowledge the U.S. government’s use of torture and prevent future abuse.

Sometimes Laughter is the Only Medicine (March 26, 2014)

The resilient spirit of the Syrian people is nowhere more evident than in the group of doctors and lawyers I recently spent an evening with in the Middle East. Their capacity to find joy in life, even during this horrific conflict, is remarkable.

I Stand #WithSyria (March 14, 2014)

As the Middle East and North Africa program assistant at Physicians for Human Rights, I have the opportunity to work with Syrian doctors practicing medicine and documenting human rights violations both inside and outside of Syria.

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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.

Statement on the Syrian Refugee Crisis (January 2014)

PHR submitted a statement on the Syrian Refugee Crisis to a Hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights.

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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 18 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, Mexico, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Thailand, Turkey, the United States, and Zimbabwe. Read More »