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Call for inputs for the report on biopsychosocial dynamics conducive to torture and ill-treatment

Issued by

Special Rapporteur on torture


20 July 2020


Issued by Special Procedures


Torture and inhuman treatment

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Although torture and ill-treatment remain pervasive in all regions of the world (see A/73/207), the investigation and prosecution of such abuse remains comparatively rare. Even in the face of compelling evidence, disciplinary or judicial repression tends to be exceptional, media interest muted or short-lived and public complacency widespread, not only under authoritarian regimes, but also in liberal democracies.

Throughout his thematic research, country visits and individual communications, the Special Rapporteur has consistently found that: (a) all States, to a greater or lesser extent, are plagued by insufficient governmental transparency and accountability; (b) those shortcomings undermine the effective prevention, investigation, prosecution and redress of torture and ill-treatment; and (c) in all regions of the world, there is widespread public and institutional complacency with regard to governmental secrecy and impunity and the resulting risks and prevalence of torture and ill-treatment.


In the present report, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Nils Melzer, explores the root causes of the current worldwide complacency with regard to torture and ill-treatment, based on well- documented biopsychosocial patterns of self-deception and denial, and recommends the urgent and proactive incorporation of his science-based conclusions into ongoing, policy-based global governance reform processes, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In his report, which reflects his conclusions and recommendations, the Special Rapporteur:

a) Outlines the predominant biological, psychological and socio-environmental (“biopsychosocial”) factors governing human decision-making;

b) Identifies well-documented patterns of individual and collective self-deception and denial that are conducive to the current worldwide complacency with regard to torture and ill-treatment;

c) Demonstrates that any global governance system seeking to fully realize the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must be based on an empirical, science-based conception of human behaviour, devoid of moral idealization or judgmentalism, and build normative and institutional frameworks specifically designed to overcome the increasingly existential risks arising from human self-sabotage; and

d) Recommends the urgent and proactive incorporation of those science-based conclusions into ongoing, policy-based national and international governance reform processes, including, most notably, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The Special Rapporteur concludes that the root cause of the systemic governance failure is not a lack of expertise, resources or normative consensus, nor generalized malicious intent, but lies in generic biopsychosocial factors of:

(a) self-preservation (need for safety and security);

(b) self-determination (need for autonomy and control);

(c) self-affirmation (need for worth and dignity);

(d) self-justification (need for justice); and

(e) self-gratification (need for reward and stimulation), that have shaped human decision-making throughout history, irrespective of national, cultural, religious or other distinctive influences.

The Special Rapporteur recommends States to take national rigorous measures towards mitigating generic patterns of denial throughout political, administrative, judicial and legislative processes of decision-making aiming at enhancing transparency and accountability of public institutions, empowering the role of free media and civil society organizations, as well as enhance the cooperation with international mechanisms for the protection of human rights. 

Additional information
  • Special Rapporteur’s statement to the General Assembly

  • Press release of the report: UN expert: The most important obstacle to the universal eradication of torture is wilful ignorance