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What does the law say about torture?

24-06-2011 FAQ

International humanitarian law

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 8 June 1977 contain a number of provisions that absolutely prohibit torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment and outrages upon individual dignity.

For example, torture is prohibited by Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions, Article 12 of the First and Second Conventions, Articles 17 and 87 of the Third Convention, Article 32 of the Fourth Convention, Article 75 (2 a & e) of Additional Protocol I and Article 4 (2 a & h) of Additional Protocol II. In international armed conflict, torture constitutes a grave breach under Articles 50, 51, 130 and 147 respectively of these Conventions. Under Article 85 of Additional Protocol I, these breaches constitute war crimes. In non-international armed conflict, they are considered serious violations.

In addition, Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions, Article 75 (2 b & e) of Additional Protocol I and Article 4 (2 a & h) of Additional Protocol II prohibit "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment". In international armed conflict, these acts constitute grave breaches. In non-international armed conflict, they constitute serious violations.

Finally, the prohibition of torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment and outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, is recognized as a customary rule in the ICRC’s study Customary International Humanitarian Law (Rule 90) and by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

International human rights law, both universal and regional

The prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is also to be found in international human rights law, both universal and regional.

For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 5), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 7), the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Article 3), the American Convention on Human Rights (Article 5[2]), the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (Article 5) and the Arab Charter on Human Rights (Article 8) all contain provisions on this prohibition.

International criminal law

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as war crimes under Article 8 (2 a ii, iii & xxi and 2 c i & ii), and as crimes against humanity under Article 7 (1 f & k).

National law

In accordance with the above-mentioned international obligations, provisions concerning the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment also exist in national legislation.
Specifically, national constitutions and other fundamental texts, criminal law (substantive or procedural), as well as civil law and administrative law, reflect or should reflect these international obligations, and so play their part in fully implementing the prohibition and prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.