Psychological torture

COPCAT Shorts – Psychological Torture Discussed at Human Rights Council

The high-level Interactive Dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on torture took place at the Human Rights Council in Geneva just a few days ago. During the two-segment exchange on 28 February 2020 Professor Nils Melzer presented, among other important matters, his new thematic report on psychological torture under international law.

Nils Melzer by Prachatai (July 2019)

On the prevalence of psychological torture, the UN Special Rapporteur stated the following in his new thematic report:

Psychological torture occurs in a wide variety of contexts, including ordinary criminal investigations; police detention; “stop-and-search” operations; intelligence gathering; medical, psychiatric and social care; immigration, administrative and coercive detention; as well as in social contexts such as domestic violence, mobbing, cyberbullying and political or discriminatory persecution.” [§78]

The new report presents a raft of related recommendations in relation to the application of the practice.

As a case in point, the UN Special Rapporteur has recommended with regard to the notion of psychological torture that states adopt, incorporate, and implement the definitions, interpretations and understandings, as advanced in the said report, throughout their national normative, institutional and policy frameworks. These components should be included in the training and instruction of medical, judicial, administrative, military and law enforcement personnel.

Thomas Hawk (2005)

In the report Professor Melzer offers a working definition of psychological torture, comprising various constitutive elements. These aspects include mental severity, suffering, powerlessness, intentionality, purposefulness, as well as resort to lawful sanctions. The UN expert also highlights other closely related issues such as the predominant methods of the practice, torturous environments, and the challenges presented by new technologies. In this latter regard Professor Melzer has observed:

“More generally, in order to ensure the adequate implementation of the prohibition of torture and related legal obligations in present and future circumstances, its interpretation should evolve in line with new challenges and capabilities arising in relation to emerging technologies not only in cyber-space, but also in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics, nano- and neurotechnology, or pharmaceutical and biomedical sciences including so-called “human enhancement”. [§76]

The report undeniably brings to the table some cutting-edge reflection by the UN anti-torture expert.

Readers may wish to directly consult the report for more detailed information and/or watch the Interactive Dialogue which took place before the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 28 February 2020.


Watch the Interactive Dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on torture – part 1 and part 2.

Read the UN Special Rapporteur on torture’s new thematic report on psychological torture under international law.

Read Professor Melzer’s 2019 thematic report on domestic violence titled Relevance of the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment to the context of domestic violence.

Learn more about the UN Special Rapporteur on torture’s fears on the risk of backsliding on torture.

Posted by mp in Human Rights Council, Psychological torture, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture