What is the definition of torture and ill treatment?

International humanitarian law prohibits torture and other forms of ill treatment at all times and demands that detainees be treated according to the rules and principles of IHL and other international standards.

The 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture (Article 1) provides a definition of torture that is considered customary.

International humanitarian law (IHL) differs somewhat from this definition in not requiring the involvement of a person acting in an official capacity as a condition for an act intended to inflict severe pain or suffering to be defined as torture.

The ICRC uses the broad term " ill-treatment " to cover both torture and other methods of abuse prohibited by international law, including inhuman, cruel, humiliating, and degrading treatment, outrages upon personal dignity and physical or moral coercion.

The legal difference between torture and other forms of ill treatment lies in the level of severity of pain or suffering imposed. In addition, torture requires the existence of a specific purpose behind the act – to obtain information, for example.

The various terms used to refer to different forms of ill treatment or infliction of pain can be explained as follows:

  • Torture: existence of a specific purpose plus intentional infliction of severe suffering or pain;
  • Cruel or inhuman treatment: no specific purpose, significant level of suffering or pain inflicted;
  • Outrages upon personal dignity: no specific purpose, significant level of humiliation or degradation.

Methods of ill treatment may be both physical and/or psychological in nature and both methods may have physical and psychological effects.

Torture is an affront to humanity and a crime. It feeds a cycle of violence, often engendering hatred not only among those who suffer directly but among entire communities. In places of detention ill-treatment and abuse is prevalent in many countries. The Geneva Conventions prohibit the abuse of prisoners in wartime. The ICRC remains committed to working throughout the world to ensure that detainees are treated with humanity.

If you want to know what we do to fight torture in places of detention, here is our recently adopted policy on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment inflicted on persons deprived of their liberty.