International and Domestic Definitions

International Definition of Torture

The international community has created a common definition for the idea of torture as opposed to lesser forms of brutality. In the first article of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the term torture is defined as:

“…any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

The United States both signed and ratified the Convention against Torture in October of 1994, which means that it is bound by international law to protect the right of citizens against torture. Article 14 states that:

“Each State Party shall ensure that any individual who alleges he has been subjected to torture in any territory under its jurisdiction has the right to complain to, and to have his case promptly and impartially examined by, its competent authorities. Steps shall be taken to ensure that the complainant and witnesses are protected against all ill-treatment or intimidation as a consequence of his complaint or any evidence given.”

The U.S. has affirmed this commitment to security against torture in several other international and multinational documents, including:

  • American Convention on Human Rights (ratified 1978)
    Article 5.1-2: “Every person has the right to have his physical, mental, and moral integrity respected…No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment. All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”

U.S. Domestic Prohibitions Against Torture

The founding fathers of the United States strongly believed that all citizens deserved to be free from the threat of torture. The United States Constitution contains several provisions that echo this idea:

  • Amendment IV: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
  • Amendment VIII: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”