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UN rights expert defines ‘psychological torture’ in new report
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UN rights expert defines ‘psychological torture’ in new report

In a document released by the UN Human Rights Council on Monday, a Special Rapporteur analyzed the concept of “psychological torture” under human rights law.

Ever since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the report says, the international community has done impressive work addressing its prohibition on torture. But “at the same time,” notes the report’s introduction, “numerous States have invested significant resources towards developing methods of torture which can achieve purposes of coercion, intimidation, punishment, humiliation or discrimination without causing readily identifiable physical harm or traces.” The report concludes that states must make better efforts to understand what psychological torture is and to prevent its use. “In order to ensure the adequate implementation of the prohibition of torture,” the report says, “its interpretation should evolve in line with new challenges.”

The Special Rapporteur’s analysis outlines how psychological torture can contain the elements that are required to constitute physical torture: severe pain or suffering (which can be mental suffering that leads to physical problems); intentionality (whereby the torturer knows the pain will result); purposefulness (where the act is an attempt to coerce or otherwise manipulate the victim); and powerlessness, which can be felt, for example, via “serious and immediate threats” or a deprivation of legal rights and decision-making.

The report also addresses common methods of psychological torture. “Perhaps the most rudimentary method of psychological torture is the deliberate and purposeful infliction of fear,” the report states. “The fact that the infliction of fear itself can amount to torture has been widely recognized, not only by this mandate, but also by the Committee against Torture, the European Court of Human Rights, the Human Rights Committee, the Inter-American Court and other mechanisms.” The report also considers attacks on one’s ability to exercise control, on their dignity and identity, or on the orientation of their senses. “Sensory hyperstimulation below the threshold of physical pain, such as through constant bright light, loud music, bad odors, uncomfortable temperatures or intrusive ‘white’ noise, induces progressively severe mental stress and anxiety, inability to think clearly, followed by increasing irritability, outbursts of anger and, ultimately, total exhaustion and despair.”

Ultimately, the report outlines a framework for defining a separation between physical and psychological torture while at the same time making clear that both are violations of international human rights obligations. The Special Rapporteur’s mandate to combat the practice of torture, the report concludes, should have “full applicability … to methods, techniques and circumstances amounting to ‘psychological torture.'”