Article 5-No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, Inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 5: Freedom from Torture
There is one absolute prohibition in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that is universally accepted as unequivocal: Article 5’s ban on torture. At times, states may have disputed the definition of what constitutes torture, but virtually none now openly defend the practice, even if some still carry it out in what the UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights described as “some of the darkest corners of our planet.”

The ban on torture is another reflection of the revulsion against Nazi concentration camps and Nazi medical experiments on living people that so motivated the drafters of the UDHR in the late 1940s. It is further elaborated in the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture, which makes the absolute nature of the prohibition of torture crystal clear: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any
other public emergency, may be invoked as justification of torture.”

Given this universal abhorrence, why would any contemporary democratic society condone the use of torture? The case most often made for torture is that – particularly in the fight against terrorism – it can save lives of innocent people.

Aside from all the flaws in the imaginary “ticking bomb” argument (How do security
forces know they have the right person? How do they know the suspect won’t make
things up simply to relieve the pain?) most reject it as merely an excuse for dehumanizing behaviour designed to assert power.

The ban on torture is so absolute that the UN body charged with monitoring the
prevention of torture has recommended even trainee soldiers should be reminded that
they have a duty to disobey orders from a superior officer to commit torture. The fact
that some states have gone to such lengths to redefine some of their practices, some
argue, shows that they actually respect the universal prohibition on torture, even as
they try to subvert it.

Following the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, the administration
of President George W. Bush reinterpreted the word “torture” very narrowly in an effort
to give officials leeway to mistreat suspects. Memos later made public showed the administration believed the prohibitions against torture were “quaint” and “obsolete,”
did not apply in what it labelled the “war on terrorism,” and even that the President
could “override” international law.

New euphemisms were invented to cover the administration’s actions. Under
“extraordinary rendition” the U.S. whisked suspects off to “black sites” – detention
centres in Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Bagram Prison in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay in
Cuba – to be subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

These shocking practices were condemned by a long list of organizations and people,
including a number of retired generals, admirals, military lawyers and intelligence
officers. But any discussion of human rights tended to be submerged under more
‘practical’ discussions – irrelevant under international law – of whether torture was an
effective and reliable means of extracting useful information.

Finally, it was the ubiquitous digital camera rather than moral arguments that turned
the tide against “defining away” torture. Photos of naked Iraqi prisoners being
humiliated while U.S. soldiers grinned proudly into the camera became emblematic of
official human rights abuses. The U.S. later repudiated these practices.

Today activists around the world risk their lives to document abuses and disseminate
evidence quickly on social media. But what is done with the information depends on
political will. “The problem is not lack of early warning,” says Pierre Sané of Senegal,
former head of Amnesty International, “but lack of early action.”

Even so, the UN considers that regular monitoring of places of detention by internal
and external independent oversight mechanisms to be one of the most effective methods of preventing torture. The elevation of human rights to the international level
means that behaviour is no longer governed solely by national standards. International
and regional treaties against torture (as well as against genocide and enforced
disappearances) have overcome arguments that certain individuals enjoy international
immunity from prosecution. Under the principle known as ‘universal jurisdiction’ people
suspected of the most serious international crimes – including torture – may be
arrested, tried and convicted in countries other than their own.

As one former UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay put it, “no one is let off the hook –
neither the actual torturers themselves, nor the policy-makers and public officials who
define the policy or give the orders.”

As just one example, “Chuckie” Taylor, son of the former president of Liberia, is in
prison in Florida in the United States, serving a 97-year sentence for torture and other
human rights violations committed on his home soil.

When former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet died in 2006, he had spent a year and
a half under house arrest in London, and upon his return to Chile was charged with
several of the more than 300 crimes in which he had been implicated in relation to
human rights violations during the military dictatorship from 1973-1990. Although held
under house arrest, he had not yet been tried or convicted by the time he died.

In 1975, a young woman was arrested by Pinochet’s political police and interrogated
at the infamous Villa Grimaldi torture centre in Chile’s capital, Santiago. Decades later,
after democracy was restored, Michelle Bachelet went on to serve two terms as
president of Chile. Today she is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.


This is one in a series of articles published by the Office of the High Commissioner for
Human Rights (OHCHR) to mark the 70th anniversary of adoption of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. All rights enshrined in the UDHR are
connected to each other, and all are equally important.

For more information on the events listed in this advisory, please contact Rupert Colville – +
41 22 917 9767 / or Ravina Shamdasani – + 41 22 917 9169 /
More details about the events and campaigns linked to the 70th anniversary will be posted on
For more information on the UDHR itself, please visit

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