Torture has been called the 20th century epidemic. Amnesty International estimates there are more than 90 countries in the world that systematically practice torture. A fundamental characteristic of torture and ill-treatment is that it is an integral part of the institutional structure of many states. Contemporary warfare has increasingly become a matter of insurgency and counter-insurgency, with the result that governments and security forces respond to political dissent using torture and state terror as instruments of political strategy.
When a government perceives a threat to the security of the state, it may rationalize the use of torture on the grounds that these techniques are means to obtain information and break the source of the threat.
This rationale allows for the expansion of torture since a government is able to expand its definition of security so that the number of people or groups who appear to threaten it becomes broader. It is important to note that torture has also been used by opposition forces, and by groups such as death squads acting with or without government approval. Nor is torture confined to particular regions of the world or to governments with particular political ideologies.
In many countries the victims of torture include men and women from all social classes, age groups, religions, sexual orientations and professions. Torture uses modern technology, psychological techniques and drugs which leave few physical signs, thus making it difficult to corroborate reports of torture. Nevertheless, enough cases are being documented to prove that torture and ill-treatment are widespread today. Techniques of torture include: environmental manipulation (e.g. sleep deprivation, isolation); pharmacological manipulation (e.g. hallucinatory or muscle-paralyzing drugs); coercive methods (e.g. forced observation of torture of friends and family); somatic methods (e.g. beatings, rape, mutilation, starvation); psychological methods (e.g. sham execution).
Although torture and ill-treatment can be conducted on both physical and psychological levels, an act of torture can never be classified as having exclusive physical or psychological effects. Much of the trauma and stress of torture arises from the total experience of incarceration and ill-treatment, rather than from specific acts of violence. While torture may be used to obtain information or signed confessions, this is not its primary purpose. Signing such confessions seldom leads to relief or release. Torture is directed towards instilling and reinforcing a sense of powerlessness and terror in victims and the societies in which they live. It is a process which generates a situation designed to destroy the physical and psychological capabilities of survivors to function as viable individuals.
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