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Thematic reports

A/HRC/43/49: Report on psychological torture and ill-treatment


20 March 2020

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Torture and inhuman treatment


In the report, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment examines conceptual, definitional and interpretative questions arising in relation to the notion of “psychological torture” under human rights law.

In his report, the Special Rapporteur:

a) Examines the predominant conceptual discrepancies arising in relation to the notion of “psychological torture”;

b) Proposes working definitions of “psychological” and “physical” torture from the perspective of international human rights law;

c) Offers recommendations regarding the interpretation of the constitutive elements of torture in the context of psychological torture;

d) Proposes a non-exhaustive, needs-based analytical framework facilitating the identification of specific methods, techniques or circumstances amounting or contributing to psychological torture;

e) Illustrates how various combinations of methods, techniques and circumstances—not all of which may amount to torture if taken in isolation and out of context—can form “torturous environments” violating the prohibition of torture; and

f) Encourages the interpretation of the prohibition of torture in line with contemporary possibilities and challenges arising from emerging technologies and explores, in a preliminary manner, the conceivability and basic contours of what could be described as “cybertorture”.

The Special Rapporteur observes that 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.

The Special Rapporteur recommends that States adopt, incorporate and implement the definition of “psychological torture”, as a subcategory of the generic concept of torture, to include all methods, techniques and circumstances which are intended or designed to purposefully inflict severe mental pain or suffering without using the conduit or effect of severe physical pain or suffering. He further calls on States to adopt the interpretation, presented in the report, of constitutive elements of torture.


Mandate holders have long recognized “psychological” or “mental” torture as an analytical concept distinct from physical torture (see E/CN.4/1986/15). They have addressed specific methods or contexts of psychological torture, and have pointed to specific challenges arising in connection with the investigation and redress of this type of abuse (A/HRC/13/39/Add.5, para. 55), as well as to the inextricable link between psychological torture and coercive interrogation (A/71/298, paras. 37–45).

They have also dedicated a full thematic report to the practice of solitary confinement (A/66/268), advocated the development of guidelines for non-coercive interviewing (see A/71/298), supported the recent update of the Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Istanbul Protocol), and raised awareness of the challenges of psychological torture in numerous individual communications.

On 26 June 2019, on the occasion of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the Special Rapporteur launched his thematic consultations on the topic at a side event of the forty-first session of the Human Rights Council including an expert panel on the “Fault lines between non-coercive investigation and psychological torture” and the screening of “Eminent Monsters”, a documentary film on the origins and devastating effects of contemporary psychological torture.

Issued By:

Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Delivered To:

the HRC at its 43rd session, February-March 2020