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What is Torture?

Beatings. Electrocution. Rape. Mutilation. Sham executions.

Torture is a cruel epidemic that touches every part of the world. In the past five years, Amnesty International has documented its use in 141 countries.

Torture is inflicted on men, women and even children. On members of all social classes, age groups, religions, sexual orientations and professions.

Today wars are rarely fought on traditional battlefields; instead, they consist of insurgency and counter-insurgency. And more governments than ever see torture as a legitimate weapon.

Many states use torture as a matter of policy and habit. But almost any government can end up rationalizing the use of torture. When there is a threat to national security, the argument goes, “enhanced interrogation” allows authorities to get information that can neutralize the threat and save lives.

Once this rationale takes hold, a government can apply it to an ever-expanding range of targets. Torture becomes the first response rather than the last resort.

Of course, torture is also used by non-state actors – opposition forces, or death squads acting with or without government approval.

Torturers may be brutally direct, or they may use modern technology, psychological techniques, and drugs, leaving few physical signs and thus making it difficult to corroborate reports of torture.

But even so, enough cases are being documented to prove that torture and ill-treatment are widespread.

The pretext for torture may be to obtain information or a signed confession, but this is not its primary purpose – signing a confession seldom leads to relief. The torturer’s goal is to instill a sense of powerlessness and terror, both in its victims and in society at large.

The ultimate goal is to break the victim’s spirit – and to destroy the ability of survivors to live normal lives.