How to Document Torture
The documentation of torture serves a number of purposes. As stated in the Principles on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1), these purposes include:
- Clarification of the facts and establishment and acknowledgement of individual and State responsibility for victims and their families;
- Identification of measures needed to prevent recurrence;
- Facilitation of prosecution and/or, as appropriate, disciplinary sanctions for those indicated by the investigation as being responsible and demonstration of the need for full reparation and redress from the State, including fair and adequate financial compensation and provision of the means for medical care and rehabilitation.
States have an obligation to document acts of torture and to investigate with a view to prosecuting those responsible. However, they often fail to independently and consistently do so. In such cases, there may be local civil society groups or human rights organisations that are collecting such data - they may use this information to draw attention to a particular situation or to advocate for reforms; to ensure that survivors have access to appropriate rehabilitative treatment; to ensure that there is an independent record of what occurred; or possibly to bring legal or administrative challenges in local, regional or international courts.
How do you document allegations of torture?
There are a number of excellent sources of information on the standards and procedures for documentation of torture. These should be reviewed in detail:
- Torture Reporting Handbook Human Rights Centre, University of Essex/ UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office
- Istanbul Protocol: Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
- Physicians for Human Rights (Research and Investigations)
The above sources have consistently referred to the following:
- The need for accurate and reliable information;
- The desirability of detailed accounts from the victim(s) and where possible, others who might have witnessed the torture;
- Findings from health professionals (medical doctors, psychologists and others);
- Secondary/Supporting evidence - for example, evidence confirming that the victim was in fact at the location where the torture is said to have occurred; evidence confirming the alleged perpetrator's position, and that he/she was in the same location and had access to the victim;
- Any other data confirming that torture is prevalent in the country/detention centre concerned.
Challenges with documenting torture:
- One of the most important challenges relates to the security and safety of victims and those civil society organisations undertaking documentation. There will be extreme security risks in some countries - at times, documentation may not be feasible, or, this activity will need to be undertaken amidst heightened security conditions;
- Also, the process of seeking statements or other evidence from victims may in itself be a traumatic experience for them. It is normal for those who have suffered severe trauma to experience an array of psychological problems - these can be treated. Survivors should be encouraged to seek professional assistance;
- The process of collecting evidence may itself be difficult - torture usually occurs behind closed doors, with few witnesses. Survivors may not be in a position to obtain a medical exam until after the visible scars have healed. Nonetheless, it can be important to register a complaint with the appropriate body despite these constraints - sometimes, there will be many others who allege the same treatment - which will constitute a strong support to the case; occasionally, where specialised doctors are available, they will be able to demonstrate signs of torture in the absence of surface scars.
- The set of principles was included in the United Nations General Assembly resolution 55/89 4 December 2000 (Annex)