Human Rights News

Summary of International and U.S. Law Prohibiting Torture and Other Ill-treatment of Persons in Custody

Last Updated May 24, 2004

International and U.S. law prohibits torture and other ill-treatment of any person in custody in all circumstances. The prohibition applies to the United States during times of peace, armed conflict, or a state of emergency. Any person, whether a U.S. national or a non-citizen, is protected. It is irrelevant whether the detainee is determined to be a prisoner-of-war, a protected person, or a so-called “security detainee” or “unlawful combatant.” And the prohibition is in effect within the territory of the United States or any place anywhere U.S. authorities have control over a person. In short, the prohibition against torture and ill-treatment is absolute.

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The following summary sets out the major international legal obligations of the United States and various legal bases by which U.S. officials, military personnel and others could be prosecuted for torture or other mistreatment of persons held at U.S. military and intelligence detention facilities. Included are web links to the cited international conventions and federal statutes.  
I. International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Conventions  
The primary source of international humanitarian law (also called the laws of war) is the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, which the United States ratified in 1955. The Third Geneva Convention concerns prisoners-of-war; the Fourth Geneva Convention safeguards so-called “protected persons,” most simply described as detained civilians. Detainees must at all times be humanely treated (Geneva III, art. 13, Geneva IV, art. 27). Detainees may be questioned, but any form of “physical or mental coercion” is prohibited (Geneva III, art. 17; Geneva IV, art. 31). Women shall be protected from rape and any form of indecent assault (Geneva IV, art. 27).  
Torture or inhuman treatment of prisoners-of-war (Geneva III, arts. 17 & 87) or protected persons (Geneva IV, art. 32) are grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, and are considered war crimes (Geneva III, art. 130; Geneva IV, art. 147). War crimes create an obligation on any state to prosecute the alleged perpetrators or turn them over to another state for prosecution. This obligation applies regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator, the nationality of the victim or the place where the act of torture or inhuman treatment was committed (Geneva III, art.129; Geneva IV, art. 146).  
Detainees in an armed conflict or military occupation are also protected by common article 3 to the Geneva Conventions. Article 3 prohibits “[v]iolence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; …outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”  
Even persons who are not entitled to the protections of the 1949 Geneva Conventions (such as some detainees from third countries) are protected by the “fundamental guarantees” of article 75 of Protocol I of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions. The United States has long considered article 75 to be part of customary international law (a widely supported state practice accepted as law). Article 75 prohibits murder, “torture of all kinds, whether physical or mental,” “corporal punishment,” and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, … and any form of indecent assault.”  
II. Human Rights Law  
Torture and other mistreatment of persons in custody are also prohibited in all circumstances under international human rights law, which applies in both peacetime and wartime. Among the relevant treaties are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (arts. 7 & 10) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture), both of which the United States has ratified. The standard definition of torture can be found in article 1 of the Convention against Torture.  
In its reservations to the Convention against Torture, the United States claims to be bound by the obligation to prevent “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” only insofar as the term means the cruel, unusual and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Furthermore, U.S. reservations say that mental pain or suffering only refers to prolonged mental harm from: (1) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering; (2) the use or threat of mind altering substances; (3) the threat of imminent death; or (4) that another person will imminently be subjected to the above mistreatment.  
Prohibitions on torture and other ill-treatment are also found in other international documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.N. Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, and the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.  
Additionally, the prohibition on torture is considered a fundamental principle of customary international law that is binding on all states (what is known as a “peremptory norm” of international law because it preempts all other customary laws). All states are bound to respect the prohibition on torture and ill-treatment whether or not they are parties to treaties which expressly contain the prohibition. They are also obliged to prevent and to punish acts of torture, even if they are not parties to treaties that expressly require them to do so.  
The widespread or systematic practice of torture constitutes a crime against humanity. (See, e.g., art. 5 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court)  
III. U.S. Law  
The United States has incorporated international prohibitions against torture and mistreatment of persons in custody into its domestic law. The United States has reported to the Committee Against Torture that: “Every act of torture within the meaning of the Convention is illegal under existing federal and state law, and any individual who commits such an act is subject to penal sanctions as specified in criminal statutes. Such prosecutions do in fact occur in appropriate circumstances. Torture cannot be justified by exceptional circumstances, nor can it be excused on the basis of an order from a superior officer. “  
Military personnel who mistreat prisoners can be prosecuted by a court-martial under various provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ, arts. 77-134).  
The War Crimes Act of 1996 (18 U.S.C. § 2441) makes it a criminal offense for U.S. military personnel and U.S. nationals to commit war crimes as specified in the 1949 Geneva Conventions. War crimes under the act include grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. It also includes violations of common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; …outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.  
A federal anti-torture statute (18 U.S.C. § 2340A), enacted in 1994, provides for the prosecution of a U.S. national or anyone present in the United States who, while outside the U.S., commits or attempts to commit torture. Torture is defined as an “act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control.” A person found guilty under the act can be incarcerated for up to 20 years or receive the death penalty if the torture results in the victim’s death.  
Military contractors working for the Department of Defense might also be prosecuted under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000 (Public Law 106-778), known as MEJA. MEJA permits the prosecution in federal court of U.S. civilians who, while employed by or accompanying U.S. forces abroad, commit certain crimes. Generally, the crimes covered are any federal criminal offense punishable by imprisonment for more than one year. The MEJA remains untested because the Defense Department has yet to issue necessary implementing regulations required by the law.