Torture Prevention

Physicians: Key Actors in the Fight Against Torture


Torture is one of the most serious violations of a person’s fundamental human 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 alarmingly widespread, particularly in places out of public view.

The World Medical Association (WMA) has a long-standing commitment to act 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 constitutes a crucial instrument in the global effort to end impunity for perpetrators. The WMA and several of its members co-authored the Istanbul Protocol and proactively support its distribution and use.

Nelson Mandela Rules (1)

The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners were adopted in 1957 and revised and renamed the Nelson Mandela Rules in 2015. They are often considered by states as the primary source of standards relating to treatment in detention. The revised rules include provisions on stricter conditions for solitary confinement, body searches, as well as the recognition that independent healthcare professionals have a duty to refrain from participating in torture or other ill-treatment.

The OPCAT (2)

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 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 health of the detained population.