International Day in Support of Victims of Torture (26 June)

A quarter of a century ago on 26 June, the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment (Convention Against Torture) came into force. Places of pre-trial detention are high-risk for torture.

Torture and other ill-treatment are prohibited under the Convention against Torture. This right is non-derogable; no one may be subjected to torture and other ill-treatment under any circumstance, including during times of war or public emergency.

The prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment is also a rule of international customary law: it is regarded as so absolute and universally accepted that even states which have not ratified any of the international treaties that explicitly prohibit torture and other ill-treatment may not use torture. The African Charter for Human and Peoples’ Rights prohibits torture in Article 5 of the Charter.

It is believed that the vast majority of torture and other ill-treatment that occurs around the world takes place in pre-trial detention.

Torture is defined in Article 1 of the Convention against Torture 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".

Despite the absolute ban on torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international law, forms of physical torture such as beatings, electroshock, asphyxiation, stress positions, and psychological forms of torture continue to be practiced throughout Africa and the world.

Pre-trial detainees are at risk of torture because the incentives and opportunities for torture are most prevalent during the investigation stage of the criminal justice process.

Pretrial detainees are entirely in the power of detaining authorities, who often perceive torture and other forms of ill-treatment as the  easiest and fastest way to obtain information or extract a confession.

The practice of torture during pretrial detention is supported by systemic factors, such as:

  • arbitrary arrests
  • the popularisation of a “tough on crime” approach to
    criminal justice.
  • prosecutions which rely on confessions for success
  • poorly trained and paid law enforcement officials
  • criminal justice systems undermined by bribery and corruption
  • lack of access to legal assistance for detainees
  • lack of oversight mechanisms over places of detention
  • patterns of minority discrimination within countries
  • political conflict
  • notions of "revenge".

Examples of these systemic factors abound across Africa. In Libya, supporters of the former regime are being held in detention and are frequently tortured as a form of revenge. In Zimbabwe, political opposition are frequently held on spurious charges and subject to torture. In Ghana, as yet unpublished evidence suggests a link between torture and bribery among pre-trial detainees. In Mauritania, torture is the only means of investigation. In Guinea, illegal detention and associated maltreatment is widespread.

Measure to prevent and address torture include:




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