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The United Nation's Response to Torture

Just as the world conflicts changed after the Cold War, so did the exposure of torture to non-military individuals. Torture was no longer found just with prisoners of war. Torture was becoming the norm for some states to use against those they wished to control or eliminate. It was also finding an expansion of its definition from physical to emotional as the studies of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) revealed how damaging events can be when the mind absorbs it. As the increase and perfection of genocide also rose, so did the methods and definition of torture. The United Nations (UN) was finding torture to be another developed issue they were going to have to face in the post-Cold War world.

It might be surprising to many to find that most problems encountered when it comes to torture is the definition itself. One lone word can change whether or not an event is taken as torture or just plain acts of violence. What had once been acceptable as a definition began to be challenged in the new world order and was done so with a vengeance. It all began with the development and increased use of torture that had been created and conceived over the last few hundred years since the Middle Ages.

With the advancement of technology, torture has also advanced and developed. Physical torture has included “beating…, electric shocks, difficult postures, sleep and water deprivation…, malnutrition, hot/cold alternation, the ‘submarine’, burnings, nail…and teeth extraction, castration, rape, inserting various objects into wounds, sand or snow burials, etc.” Saddam Hussein was known for his attacks against the Kurds and his intent to annihilate them.
His torturers preferred to use “electric shocks, the falaqa [foot whipping], cigarette burning or hot-iron branding, nail pulling, sprinkling salt onto the victim’s eyes, ear, nose and eye maiming, and castration” as well as forcing the victims to attack each other.” This was hard on the victim’s body as well as their mind which would tend to have much more long-lasting effects if the victim lived through it.

As doctors and other professionals have begun to recognize the effects of torture on the mind, how the UN handles PTSD has been challenged. It has been said by some within the UN that “only long-term mental suffering” is included under the definition of torture. When taken alone, mental suffering might not be defined as torture, but more and more of those implementing genocide are using it more and more as it helps to break the subject. Most mental, or psychological, forms of torture used in the last few decades has been “isolation…verbal abuse, mock executions, ceaseless interrogation, denuding victims in front of their torturers, rape threats or menacing victims…, making victims consume their own urine and feces, and…brainwashing.”

After the increase in the number of conflicts began to expose the use of torture and the profound effects of it, the United Nations called for a Convention Against Torture in 1984. During that time, a more concrete definition of torture was created saying that torture could be defined as any
act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

The fact that the United Nations looked at the non-physical side of torture was a big step for them as in the past torture was confined mainly to the physical aspect. After the Cold War, torturers began to see how much more effective torture could be through psychological methods. One could argue that all torture including physical has an underlying psychological foundation as it breaks the mind and the will down. It is known as “dehumanizing torture” as its entire purpose is in “breaking the victim, the unconditional dispossession of his agency and power of bodily self-determination.” In the end, it did not matter why torture was being applied. Physical and psychological methods produced the same results.

The results of torture were no different than it had been under the Spanish Inquisition. The torturer either was punishing the victim or was using the methods to extract information or initiate action. Torture was used as a means to get a desired result, even it was sick pleasure. The world had seen it during conflicts, but many conflicts were now becoming torture sessions just to focus on special groups or factions. It was becoming more of an intra-state issue but one that cried out for help and for the protection of human rights. The United Nations was again seeing changes in how they handled conflict and the composition of the conflict. Torture had to be redefined and addressed. The Convention Against Torture brought the organization up to date with the world and the actions those that broke the law against mankind.


Bernstein, J.M. "Torture." Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon. http://www.politicalconcepts.org/issue1/torture/. Accessed May 17, 2013.
Cesereanu, Ruxandra. "An Overview of Political Torture in the Twentieth Century." JSRI. No. 14, Summer 2006, http://jsri.ro/ojs/index.php/jsri/article/view/364. Accessed May 17, 2013.
“Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” United Nations. 1984. http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/39/a39r046.htm. Accessed June 20, 2013.

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