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A Critical Introduction to Torture

Torture is commonplace. Amnesty International estimates that torture is inflicted by over three quarters of the worlds governments. Tortures ascendancy has recently been illustrated in the treatment of those detained under war on terror auspices in Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, and elsewhere. The initial graphic depictions of violated detainees at Abu Ghraib even brought international attention and a military tribunal. This was an unusual response as, despite being one of the most serious state crimes, torture does not often result in acknowledgement, redress or accountability.

To be defined as torture under the UN Convention, acts must: (i) cause severe physical or mental pain / suffering; (ii) be inflicted by a public official or person of official standing, or undertaken with their consent or acquiesence; (iii) be purposively or intentionally inflicted, such as to obtain a confession or information, or to punish a person; and, (iv) not arise from, or be an incidental or inherent feature of, any lawful sanction. In practice, how torture is defined remains contentious and subject to vigorous debate for instance, does a tortured person have to be detained? Can rape be a form of torture? And, where does psychological pressure or degrading treatment end and torture begin?

Nonetheless, when one views the websites of Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Redress or IRCT, it soon becomes apparent that torture represents shocking forms of violence, including: beatings; stretchings; whippings; burnings; electro-shocks; genital mutilation, rape and other forms of sexual assault; hangings and crucifixions; teeth or fingernail extraction; attacks by animals; forced submersion into water, urine, vomit, blood, faeces or other matter; injections or the use of chemica ls to cause, for example, blindness; asphyxiation; deprivation of food, water, sleep or sanitary conditions; sensory deprivation or overload; and, psychological pressures. Many victims die from torture and survivors can endure chronic long-term pain and psychological disturbances. Given these realities, freedom from torture is one of the few legal rights that is applied universally and cannot be justified or derogated from.

Torture and inhumane acts do not revolve around aberrational individuals rather they emerge within societies and, more particularly, institutions that are sustained by discourses of fear, security and control. Historically, those who have been deemed torturable have been represented as threatening or poisonous to ruling powers. These underpinnings have been sustained across time those cast as dangerous offenders or terrorists can be vilified and monstered, so much so that torturous or inhumane conditions are cast as an appropriate or justifiable response to them. Torture is a brutal method of social and political control which relies on complex networks of trade, technology, training, facilitators and perpetrators. It demands hierarchical structures located within enclaves of barbarism in order to achieve its aim of inducing mass fear and silence in a population much wider than that of the tortured victim. Once these enclaves exist torture knows no bounds (Green and Ward 2009; Green and Ward 2004).

While we might imagine that torture is an event solely linked to conflict and political prisoners, it is most often perpetrated against common criminals. Torturous experiences are incorporated into the everyday nature of many domestic criminal justice practices. Most modern states have built burgeoning detention facilities (prisons, immigration detention centres, police cells or mental health institutions) that engage in inhuman or degrading treatment as a matter of course. For instance, overcrowding, poor infrastructure, unsanitary conditions, untrained staff, and the use of solitary confinement or strip-searching all contribute to regimes in which torture is likely to flourish (Cassese, 1996).

Moreover, the torture at Wormwood Scrubs prison in the United Kingdom, the Behaviour Management Regime in New Zealand prisons or the treatment of asylum seekers at Woomera in Australia not to mention the regimes at Supermax prisons in the United States could not occur without the complicity of numerous workers (including politicians, policy makers, legal personnel, guards or medical staff). Through such incorporation of personnel, the violation of individual detainees is subsumed within a legitimised, often lawful, institutional agenda.

The ready incorporation of modern control technologies within detention facilities has also provided new ways for acceptable torture and ill-treatment to emerge. Trades in stun devices, leg shackles, electroshock weapons or chemical gases have blossomed in many jurisdictions. While not vital for torture to occur in that torturers will often just use their bodies or everyday objects for violence these technologies have added to the arsenal of stealth methods in interrogation, discipline and punishment.

Stealth techniques such as forced standing; electric shocks; torture by water, ice, heat or cold; or psychological pressures are employed to hide evidence and to break or isolate detainees (Rejali, 2007). The popularity of such methods rests on the fact that they leave few, if any, physical marks. By ensuring that victims are less able to provide physical evidence of their violations, these techniques are useful additions for states that wish to counter monitoring, or want to appear compliant to human rights norms and laws.

Even the dramatic exposure of torture practices does not automatically raise support for victims. Many audiences disbelieve or distance themselves from testimonies of ill-treatment and do not want to associate with victims, perhaps because they view their abject status as being contagious or transferable (Davis, 2005). These harms are most likely to be experienced by poorer sections of societies the dominant population within detention facilities however they will also be differentially experienced by those made most vulnerable by detention. Further, the demonisation of those subject to torture or degrading treatment invokes beliefs that victims are complicit in, or deserving of, their violation. It is fairly common for victims to be met with societal suspicion or threats (consider the effigies of men in orange jumpsuits hung from British lampposts following the release of Guantanamo Bay detainees or the familiar refrain that abused prisoners in domestic prisons get what they deserve).

Still, torture continues to evoke solidarity and resistance. Already, criminologists have begun to engage with the issue on a number of levels, by: analysing the historical context in which torture has emerged (Rejali, 1994); illustrating the conditions in which torture operates across all kinds of political states (Huggins, 2010); demonstrating how torture is silenced or neutralized at personal or institutional levels (Haritos-Fatouros, 2002; Stanley, 2004); and, considering how torture victims are treated in the wake of their violation (Stanley, 2009). Further, steps have been made by human rights campaigners in shaming torturing states, and by international lawyers in bringing torturers to courtrooms. The long-term issue, however, is one of prevention. The recent Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture which will increase international monitoring of detention sites is a good step forward. Yet, there is much more to be done (from changing how we think and talk about detainees, to human rights training for detention officers, to support for thorough and unrestricted inspections) to improve our institutions and to ensure that those detained are treated with dignity and respect. In this respect, criminologists can add a great deal.


Cassese A (1996) Inhuman States: Imprisonment, Detention and Torture in Europe Today Cambridge: Polity Press

Davis A Y (2005) Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture New York: Seven Stories Press

Green P and Ward T (2009) Torture and the Paradox of State Violence in Clucas B, Johnstone G and Ward T (eds) Torture: Moral Absolutes and Ambiguities Baden-Baden: Nomos, pp 161-174

Green P and Ward T (2004) State Crime: Governments, Violence and Corruption London: Pluto Press

Haritos-Fatouros M (2002) The Psychological Origins of Institutionalized Torture London: Routledge

Huggins M K (2010) Modern Institutionalized Torture as State-Organized Crime in Chambliss W, Michalowski R and Kramer R (eds) State Crime in the Global Age Cullompton: Willan

Rejali D (2007) Torture and Democracy Princeton: Princeton University Press

Rejali D (1994) Torture and Modernity: Self, Society and State in Modern Iran Boulder: Westview

Stanley E (2004) Torture, Silence and Recognition, Current Issues in Criminal Justice, Vol 16, No 1, pp 5-25

Stanley E (2009) Torture, Truth and Justice: The Case of Timor-Leste London: Routledge

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