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A legal definition of torture

The legal definition of torture in human rights law differs quite significantly from the way the term is commonly used in the media or in general conversation.

Article 1 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is the internationally agreed legal definition of torture:

"Torture means 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."

This definition contains three cumulative elements:

Other international and regional treaties, as well as national laws, can contain broader definitions of torture, covering a wider range of situations.

APT and CEIJIL’s Torture in International Law - Jurisprudence Guide has detailed information on the definitions of torture in other international and regional instruments and in the jurisprudence of international criminal courts.

Gender-sensitive interpretation

International torture prevention mechanisms stress the importance of a gender-sensitive interpretation of torture and the need to pay particular attention to issues such as rape in detention, violence against pregnant women and denial of reproductive rights, which have long been recognised as falling under the Convention’s definition.

Lawful sanctions

The definition of torture in the Convention explicitly excludes “pain or suffering arising only from, inherent or incidental to lawful sanctions”. The lawfulness of a sanction should be determined by reference to both national and international standards, including the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

The issue of corporal punishment has been raised by some States under the “lawful sanctions” clause. However, it has been firmly established that corporal punishments are prohibited under international law, in general, and the Convention against Torture in particular.

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