Tackling torture: Who are the torturers?

15 February 2016


On 3 December 2015, the ICRC held a public conference in the Humanitarium to try to answer the following question: How can decoding the mechanisms at work in torturers help tackle the phenomenon of torture? This was the third such event as part of the Conference Cycle on Generating Respect for the Law.


  • Françoise Sironi, psychologist and psychotherapist, senior lecturer at Paris 8 University,
    expert for the International Criminal Court
  • Riccardo Bocco, professor of political sociology at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies
  • Paul Bouvier, ICRC medical adviser


  • Sophie Barbey, ICRC detention adviser

Summary of the conference

Torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment – whether physical or psychological – persist, despite being absolutely prohibited in international humanitarian law and international human rights law. No country or community can claim to be immune to the appearance and persistence of such acts, which are often justified or tolerated on political, security, cultural and/or religious grounds. The extreme violence generated by acts of torture and other forms of ill-treatment are an intolerable attack on human dignity. The physical and psychological consequences for the victims of torture are often very serious, irreparable even, and require a long rehabilitation and reintegration process.

The fight against torture requires unremitting endeavors, and to act as much as possible at the same time on the preventive, curative, and normative levels. While authorities ensure the existence of sustainable mechanisms related to preventive and normative actions, to de-legitimize and sanction the acts of torture, it is also crucial to address and alleviate the suffering of the victims of torture and other forms of ill-treatment as long as there will be. That alone could pave the way to build their future and to stop the cycle of violence

To tackle all forms of ill-treatment more effectively, it is important, among other things, to determine who the perpetrators are, the reasons that drive them to such acts, and their place in the system to which they belong. Clearly there is no question of absolving them of moral or criminal responsibility for their acts. Furthermore, this focus on those who commit torture rather than those who suffer it does not diminish the importance of looking after the victims. As Sophie Barbey pointed out, helping them "to rebuild their lives and their future is also, to a certain extent, about curbing the cycle of violence".

It was with this in mind that the ICRC invited three experts to discuss how torturers are made, strategies to try and prevent going through with the act of torture, and the action that humanitarian organizations like the ICRC can take to tackle this phenomenon and address the issue with those in charge. The aim of the conference was to highlight the work of: psychologist and psychotherapist Françoise Sironi, whose expertise extends to perpetrators of crimes against humanity such as Kaing Guek Eav (alias Duch), director of the S-21 prison during the Khmer Rouge regime; Professor Riccardo Bocco, whose research project "Transnational fields of torture" (with Jonathan Austin) looks at preventive measures that could defuse the external dynamics that converge to create a torturer; and ICRC medical adviser Paul Bouvier, with his wealth of humanitarian experience acquired over many years spent visiting people deprived of their liberty.

The question each panellist had to answer was:

How can decoding the mechanisms at work in torturers help tackle the phenomenon of torture?

How does someone become a torturer?

For Françoise Sironi, no one is predestined to become a torturer; there is no set torturer profile or known psychopathology. The torturer's perversion and sadism are not innate; they develop through the practice of the profession. It is therefore by looking at the interplay, in the subject, of individual history, collective history and geopolitical factors that common life experiences and specific psychological traits are revealed. (This is the "geopolitical clinical" perspective developed by Françoise Sironi in her therapeutic work with perpetrators of crimes against humanity.)

The common features in torturers' development reside in unique childhood experiences or traumatic experiences later in life. Trauma to the psyche can result from an excessively strict upbringing, or deep wounds to their sense of self early in life (e.g. from being humiliated, degraded or made to feel inadequate). These wounds may be linked to individual or collective history. The latter includes belonging to an ostracized group, experiences of violent "deculturation" (attacks on internal or external cultural objects) and difficult, conflictual or unsuccessful acculturation when two cultural worlds meet (e.g. through migration or a long-term post-colonial consequence). However, violent deculturation does not inevitably create torturers; adherence to a religion, form of spirituality or founding humanist principles that is strong and internalized without being rigid or dogmatic makes people resilient and could prevent the psychological descent into committing torture.

But for people without such sources of resilience, these wounds and traumatic experiences lay the foundations of future deadly violence or torture. The psychological damage is then drastically and strictly suppressed and denied. A splitting takes place, with the other part of their psyche seeking to survive and triumph through recognition (e.g. of a leader who spurs them on from outside) and vengeance. That part is exploited by recruiters, who set in motion the process of creating a torturer through a three-phase traumatic initiation: 1. fostering and harnessing qualities that the subject already possesses (e.g. obedience, strength, bravery); 2. brutally breaking down the subject's initial identity, seeking to break their existing ties and allegiances (e.g. by forcing them to break cultural or sexual taboos); and 3. building or conferring upon them a new identity through ritual (e.g. tattoos, blood pacts) to create a strong sense of belonging to a new group. This process actively seeks to train them to renounce any capacity for empathy, and to set aside their individual identities in the pursuit of a collective ideal. The subjects become completely subordinated to the system; their psychological functioning is identical to that of the group or system to which they now belong. For their psyche to continue functioning without being compromised, the torturers must enter a state of denial, dangerous and extreme negationism and self-justification. These defence mechanisms are manifested through certain characteristics, as Paul Bouvier described: "flat, monstrous discourse, denying the facts, trivializing the acts, downplaying their responsibility, rationalizing, justifying on moral grounds, even blaming the victims themselves. We see a mechanism of moral disengagement, to use Bandura's term, or simply a dehumanized discourse."

Complementing this psychological approach, Riccardo Bocco seeks to identify the broader social mechanisms that converge to create a future torturer. The process described by Françoise Sironi falls under what Riccardo Bocco calls "contexts charged with intentionality", characterized in particular by education systems that favour violence ("poisonous pedagogy"), "deindividuation" and binary opposition (Good vs Evil, Friend vs Enemy). But how can we explain the appearance of torturers in "contexts devoid of intentionality", where torture is not actively selected as a strategy to repress political dissidence and stifle revolt? According to Riccardo Bocco and Jonathan Austin, three dynamics are required for torturers to emerge, even in the absence of a leader or a system more generally that requires torture to be used.

First, the "situational dynamics": a traumatic experience provoking a desire for vengeance (e.g. a soldier whose platoon has just been decimated, who turns violent while interrogating prisoners), or a lack of communication with a detainee (e.g. a language barrier creating a frustrating emotional charge). As regards the detention setting, Paul Bouvier mentioned other circumstances that make torture more likely to take place: vague rules and ambiguous messages, isolated institutions or teams, lax moral standards, and ignorance of the culture, history and traditions of the detainees, which fosters contempt for them. Second, the "material dynamics", i.e. the availability of equipment that could be used to torture (e.g. firearms, taser guns, certain types of handcuffs). Third, the "circulation of knowledge of torture" via different written and audiovisual communication means (Riccardo Bocco cited The Battle of Algiers, a 1966 documentary that set out to expose the atrocities of the Algerian War but ended up being used by many as an instruction guide to torture, including up to the present day).

Is it possible to rehumanize torturers?

For clinician Françoise Sironi, psychotherapy treatment for torturers years after their wrongdoing "is not driven so much by a humanist position as real concern for prevention: we have to defuse these ticking time bombs". The long-term effects of the violence they carried out and internalized can explode years later and be expressed through, for example, domestic violence, ill-treatment, social exclusion, alcoholism, or nihilistic and morbid mysticism.

Is it even possible to restore some humanity to the perpetrators of acts that are so abject to the human conscience, to somehow revive them from the "psychic death" that occurred when they became a torturer? Françoise Sironi and Paul Bouvier agree: it is possible, and it involves allowing the torturer to develop his empathy, thereby rehumanizing him. Françoise Sironi's method involves deconstructing the process that made the torturer. To do so, the clinician must find the suppressed and denied part of the torturer's psyche – the part that is still human and wounded – and help it to re-emerge. When it comes to addressing the perpetration of torture, the clinician must draw on his or her own humanity and empathy, and project them onto the patient devoid of empathy: this transferential relationship produces an experimental (i.e. induced by the situation) splitting, because the clinician simultaneously resides in his or her own humanity and the torturer's inhumanity.

We must keep in mind [...] humanity as a whole on behalf of which what we do is justified, legitimate and worthwhile.

The splitting in the torturer may be reduced, through the mimetic projection of the therapist's own sense of unity. The torturer's humanity may then, though not always, re-emerge. The most decisive stage of this psychological development is reached when the torturer can accept the "multiplicity of the self", in other words when he recognizes in himself the existence of contradictions and ambivalence, without experiencing psychological decompensation. This recognition marks a potential emergence from the splitting. It then needs to become increasingly long-lasting. Recognizing the multiplicity of the self makes it possible to accept multiplicity in the world.

How do you prevent torture?

While it is possible for some torturers to regain some of their empathy and humanity after the act of torture, how do you prevent them going through with the act in the first place? Riccardo Bocco described how a series of measures have already been adopted by certain police forces that "help to structure an "ethical" environment. This affects the situational and material dynamics." By way of example he mentioned the preventive equipment used in interrogation cells, such as cameras, two-way mirrors and a sound recording system, to curb any potential abuses on the part of the interrogator. But tackling torture is a more long-term process involving checking the mechanisms at work in the appearance of the phenomenon.

Paul Bouvier highlighted how the ICRC's contribution to preventing torture began over 100 years ago, with the first visits to prisoners during the First World War. Places of detention that are cut off from the outside world are ideal breeding grounds for abuses and ill-treatment, especially when they house vulnerable people or members of the enemy camp during an armed conflict. ICRC delegates conduct confidential interviews in private, with the victims of torture and the torturers alike, and sometimes in the very place where the act of torture was committed. "We take note of allegations of ill-treatment and include them in a confidential report submitted to the authorities. This will then be the basis of a dialogue – also confidential – with a view to improving conditions of detention and bringing an end to all forms of ill-treatment."

This work [...] goes on behind the scenes, but it is a force for humanity at the heart of armed conflicts and is crucial to preventing torture.

The ethical framework underpinning the ICRC's detention work is clear and well-established. It is founded on humanitarian principles and the Geneva Conventions (particularly common Article 3) and is structured into five tenets: 1. humanity, which calls for unconditional respect, without distinction, for the person and his or her dignity; 2. an unconditional prohibition of violence and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment inflicted upon those deprived of liberty 3. justice, which alone has the role of trying, sentencing and punishing the perpetrators and possibly providing reparation for victims; 4. the duty to care for vulnerable people , and in this particular case for victims of torture and other forms of ill treatment; 5. Bilateral and confidential dialogue with the competent authorities about conditions of detention and the treatment of detainees, and about what measures to take (this dialogue is rooted in the belief that the other party shares some of these values of humanity).

Thus, "expressing respect for all people, recalling that violence is prohibited under all circumstances, and setting out a moral and legal framework have great humanizing potential," said Paul Bouvier.

Media reports (in French)