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14 +. Morally, most would agree that torture is an unthinkable and unforgivable inhuman act of violence for which the perpetrator should be held responsible and punished. But what really is torture? What qualifies as torture and who tortures who and how? What laws actually prohibit torture and is it being carried out right under our noses by our own governments? There are so many questions aimed at the subject of torture and many of them are part of the large ongoing debate about torture today. Before we even begin to consider whether torture is right or wrong, and most will say wrong, let’s understand a bit more about what torture actually is.
Torture can be broadly defined as ‘the officially sanctioned infliction of intense suffering, aimed at forcing someone to do or say something against his or her will.’ (Rodley, 2000: 7). What makes the topic of torture so ambiguous is that you cannot simply take this definition and use it as a tool to measure what is and what isn’t considered to be torture, as torture is an ever-developing phenomenon and some of the most innovative techniques may not qualify for the traditional definition of torture. The concept is carefully outlined in the UN Convention against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Article 1.1 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’. Torture is also defined and prohibited in several other vital international documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 5) and Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The act of torture, labelled differently in various documents, is prohibited under international law as ‘jus cogens’, which means no breach or manipulation of the law is ever permitted.
The origins of torture date way back to the Ancient world when in 530 AD it was used by the Romans to gain truth from the suspected criminals. The Ancient Greek legal orator Demosthenes believed that ‘no statements made as a result of torture have ever been proved untrue’. Torture has been used throughout history for to gain confessions and punish the culprits by causing bodily pain. The act of torture was widely accepted as a form of justice until the 17th century when ideas of humanism started to circulate. In 1689 the Bill of Rights labelled torture as a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ and the Age of Enlightenment brought about the idea of protecting human rights. The UN Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 and nominally urges states to ban torture, and although it is not a binding international law it does form a form of customary law as an international moral compass and guideline for protecting human rights against the constantly worrying threat of torture.