The use of torture is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions, which date to the 1860s and provide a framework of international legal protections to safeguard soldiers, civilians and prisoners during wartime.
What constitutes torture has roiled U.S. and international political debates the past two decades, particularly in light of the U.S. military sanctioning waterboarding during its post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But torture is more than just a legal, ethical or moral issue; it is also a medical one.
In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Dr. Jens Modvig of the Danish Institute Against Torture discussed torture as a medical and health issue. Modvig (Twitter) is also chair of the United Nations Committee Against Torture, a body of 10 independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment by its signatories.
With graphic images, Modvig detailed the definitions of torture – and what the impacts of them are. “Being suspended from your arms creates some impact,” he said. “Being beaten under your feet creates a different impact.”
Torture is a global problem. Amnesty International estimates that 141 countries have used torture or ill treatment in the past five years. A total of 169 countries have adopted the UN Convention Against Torture, although about half of those that have done so are still using torture methods.
“Torture goes under the radar, and the figures we have for torture are not that reliable,” he said. “There is so much under the radar we can’t count.”
For people who have been subject to torture, the health effects linger or last a lifetime. It can include impaired shoulder function from people being hung for extended periods with their arms pulled behind them, to difficulties walking after being beaten on the soles of their feet.
There are also the mental ailments that affect torture victims, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. And often when they seek care they are dismissed.
“They are often not only misunderstood, but are often retraumatized,” he said.
Finally, Modvig talked about the process by which torture victims can document what they went through the Istanbul Protocol, a set of international guidelines.
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