How does torture work

ACAT Switzerland - For a world free from torture and the death penalty

Obtain information

“What would you do if you held a man who knows where and when a bomb will explode and wipe out many innocent lives? Wouldn't it be justified to use methods that violate human rights on him if he refuses to testify?

This moral dilemma, in which one has to choose between two evils for the lesser one, is not new. It was always the only argument made by those who tried to justify the use of torture. The French army used it in Algeria, the British in Ireland and the US have been using it since September 11th.

> Arguments against the time bomb scenario

In reality, the threat of hundreds of lives is just a pretext for using torture to obtain intelligence. In reality, a threat that many people face is being used as an excuse to use torture to obtain information.

The forced information is first of all information that is important for state security (and above all for those in power). They are both political and military. The point is to build networks and identify oppositionists, both real and suspected, claiming that there is no other way to get this vital information.

In this way, torture begins to creep into a country under the guise of interrogation and investigation.

Forcing Confessions

The suspect is tortured to confess a crime for which he was charged. This can also be used to force him to agree to a particular version of an event. He will also be asked to sign a text in which he acknowledges his guilt or makes public confessions.

The “confession” is then used as evidence and justifies the conduct of a trial and the judgments pronounced. These confessions can also be used as a pretext to justify repression against political, ethnic or religious groups to which the accused belongs.


In democratic countries, imprisonment is considered sufficient to punish even the most serious crimes. Even so, these societies are - not safe from torture. In more repressive societies or under authoritarian regimes, imprisonment is not enough to “make” a guilty party pay. He must also suffer physically, which is why physical punishment and torture are widespread in prisons. Simple theft or even adultery can be punished with amputations or public flogging. Ordinary prisoners are beaten and kept in unhealthy, overcrowded prisons, where guards enforce order with beatings. Being chained for a long time or being in solitary confinement for months can also occur. Under authoritarian regimes, members of the opposition, journalists and even all insurgents are threatened with torture. They can be kidnapped and severely beaten before being released. They can also be tried in show trials and torture while in custody increases their sentence. Torture can also be a form of revenge. In any case, it is not only a question of punishing the actions of the opposition, but above all a deterrent signal to all those who might be tempted to oppose the government, to criticize it or to expose its secrets.

Destroying the personality

The aim is the ultimate destruction of the victim's will and the shattering of his personality. In this way, those in power want to eliminate those people who they feel threatened by, be they in custody or at large. For the torturers, said Jean-Paul Sartre, “The most urgent thing to do is to humiliate [their victims]to tear down the arrogance in their hearts, to bring them down to the level of an animal. "Jean-Paul Sartre “Une victoire”, L’Express, March 1956)

Terrorize the individual and the social group

Torture is an instrument used by the strongest against the weakest. Individuals are tortured to instill fear in certain communities and social groups. Torture is therefore state terrorism, a form of governance. It usually goes hand in hand with extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances. This organized violence is directed against ethnic, religious and sexual minorities or individuals who belong to or are suspected of belonging to political resistance movements (armed or not) (family of opponents, intellectuals). With this logic, it doesn't matter whether you really hold onto the guilty party. You hold on to a like-minded fellow who is the same.

Torture is very often justified by a racist, fundamentalist or nationalist ideology: Because they do not have the right way of thinking, do not pray to the same god, do not have the right skin color or defend themselves against oppression, the victims are viewed as lower, hardly human beings to whom anything is permitted. Torture is never officially admitted by those in power. But the secret that surrounds them is not only intended to cover up their illegality, but also serves in a certain way as advertising for torture. Complaints are not dealt with and there is impunity. The fear of denunciation and arrest silences the people and leads them to be docile to the state and its representatives. Therefore, torture is not used to make people speak, but to keep them silent.

Source: ACAT-France