The Role of Physicians in the Prevention of Torture

Torture is one of the most serious violations of a person’s fundamental rights. It destroys dignity, body and mind and has far-reaching effects on family and community. Freedom from torture is a universal and fundamental human right for all as guaranteed under international law and defined in the UN Convention against Torture. However, its practice remains widespread, particularly in places out of public view. The WMA has a long standing commitment to acting for the prevention of all forms of torture and ill treatment. The WMA unequivocally condemns any involvement of physicians in acts of torture, whether active or passive, as a severe infringement of the International Code of Ethics and Human Rights Law.


The Istanbul Protocol: A manual for the efficient investigation and documentation of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment

The Istanbul Protocol (1999), which has been endorsed by the UN, provides the first set of internationally recognised guidelines for medical and legal experts on how to determine whether a person has been tortured. It specifies independent valid evidence that can be used in court cases against alleged torturers. The Istanbul Protocol has become a crucial instrument in the global effort to end impunity for perpetrators. Together with other organisations, the WMA was actively involved in its drafting process.

Download the Istanbul Protocol (OHCHR site)

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The role of physicians in the prevention of torture

The Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture (OPCAT) establishes “a system of regular visits undertaken by independent international and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty, in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 1 of the Protocol).

As part of this system, State Parties are invited to set up at the domestic level a visiting body for the prevention of torture (commonly referred to as the National Preventive Mechanism, NPM). The WMA believes that the participation of physicians in these visiting mechanisms is essential to address health issues related to torture and ill-treatment, to evaluate the health system and to assess the impact of general conditions of detention on the heath of detained population. The WMA encourages therefore medical associations and other health professionals to participate in the OPCAT process in order to ensure:

  • The ratification of the protocol by your country and/or
  • The setting up of National Preventive Mechanism and/or
  • The involvement of health professionals in the NMP

For more information on OPCAT, please visit the following page of the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT).

With the Toolkit, become actors of the change and act to prevent torture!

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