What is torture?

Torture includes several forms of pain caused to an individual. It can be physical or psychological. It also encompasses inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and deportation or extradition, if there is a real risk that a person will face torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in the country concerned. 

What is inhuman or degrading treatment (IDT) or punishment?

The degree of suffering is the main difference between torture and inhuman treatment, but it also has to be deliberate, for example, to extract information or to intimidate. Inhuman treatment must reach a minimum level of severity, and cause either actual bodily harm or intense mental suffering. It does not have to be deliberate or inflicted for a purpose. Degrading treatment involves humiliation and debasement as opposed to physical and mental suffering. Like inhuman treatment, it does not have to be deliberate.

Are there any restrictions to this right?

This right is considered to be a universal right, meaning that authorities cannot interfere with it under no circumstances. That means neither the public interest, nor rights of others, nor the actions of the victim, however dangerous or criminal, can justify an interference with this right.

Who protects this right?

The State is the main guarantor of human rights. Its obligations are twofold: negative (obligations “not to do” something) and positive (obligations “to do” something).

The negative obligation requires the State to refrain from all forms of ill-treatment, i.e. not to torture and not to treat individuals in an inhumane and/or degrading manner. The positive obligations require the State to protect individuals from ill-treatment (by enacting relevant laws, providing necessary training, etc.) and to effectively investigate claims regarding ill-treatment.

International recognition of this right

The norms prohibiting torture and IDT were formulated after the end of the Second World War when the international community decided to set a common standard for protecting fundamental rights. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, which reads as follows in Article 5:

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The prohibition is also found in international and regional human rights conventions. In 1984, the United Nations adopted a separate legal document devoted entirely to the prohibition of torture and IDT – the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

In context

  • Arrest & Detention
  • Prisons
  • Abuse & Domestic violence
  • Deportation & Extradition
  • Involuntary placement & Mental health care


Human Rights Guide

A European platform for human rights education