Debility, dependency and dread: On the conceptual and evidentiary dimensions of psychological torture


  • Ergun Cakal DIGNITY - Danish Institute Against Torture



torture, human rights, psychological torture, physical torture, pain, interrogation techniques


Background: Psychological torture is deployed to break and obliterate human resistance, spirit and personality, but it is rarely afforded sufficient attention. Deficiencies in conceptualising, documenting and adjudicating non-physical torture mean that it is frequently left undetected and uncontested by the public, media and the courts, bolstering impunity for its perpetrators. A review of the current literature to map conceptual and evidentiary shortcomings from an inter-disciplinary perspective is therefore warranted.

Method: The relevant texts were identified through a systematic full-text search of databases, namely HeinOnline, HUDOC, UNODS and DIGNITY´s Documentation Centre, with the keywords `psychological torture´, `mental pain and suffering´, `severity´, `humiliation´, `interrogation techniques´, and `torture methods´. The identified texts, limited to English-language journal articles, NGO reports, court-cases and UN documents from 1950 to date, were then selected for relevance pertaining to conceptual, evidentiary, technological and ethical critique provided therein.

Results/Discussion: Evidential invisibility, subjectivity of the suffering, and perceived technological control are the primary ways in which psychological torture methods are designed, and how they manage to evade prosecution and consequently be perpetuated. Cognisant of the need for further research, pertinent questions highlighting the need to develop approaches, sharpen standards and use a medical/psychological/legal interdisciplinary approach are suggested.


American Psychological Association. (2005). Report of the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security. e419822005-001

Arcel, L. T. (2003). Inhuman and degrading treatment of women: psychological consequences. In: Kjærum, M., Thelle, H., Xia Yong & Bi Xiao Quing (eds.). (2003). How to eradicate torture (pp. 951-984). Beijing: Social Sciences Documentation Publishing House.

Başoğlu, M. (ed). (2017). Torture and Its Definition in International Law: An Interdisciplinary Approach. New York: Oxford University Press. https://doi. org/10.1093/med/9780199374625.001.0001

Başoğlu, M. (2009). A multivariate contextual analysis of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatments: implications for an evidencebased definition of torture. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 79(2), 135–45. https://doi. org/10.1037/a0015681

Başoğlu, M., Livanou, M., & Crnobaric, C. (2007). Torture vs other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64, 277– 85.

Başoğlu, M., & Mineka, S. (1992). The role of uncontrollable and impredictable stress in postraumatic stress responses in torture survivors. In: Başoğlu M. (Ed.). (1992). Torture and its consequences: Current treatment approaches (pp. 182-225).New York: Cambridge University Press.

Burgers, J.H, & Danelius, H. (1988). The United Nations Convention against Torture: A Handbook on the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Dordrecht-Boston-London: Martinus Nijhoff.

Costanzo, M.A. & Gerrity, E. (2009). The effects and effectiveness of using torture as an interrogation device: using research to inform the policy debate. Social Issues and Policy Review, 3(1), 179-210. 2409.2009.01014.x

Crampton, D. (2013). What indicators exist, or may exist, to determine whether a violation of the prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment has occurred on the basis of psychological maltreatment, and whether it amounts to psychological torture. LLM Dissertation. School of Law. University of Essex (on file with author).

ECHR. (1978). Ireland v. United Kingdom, 5310/71, 19 January 1978.

ECHR. (2018). Ireland v. United Kingdom, 5310/71, 20 March 2018.

ECHR. (2001). Keenan v. United Kingdom, 27229/95, 3 April 2001.

ECHR. (2014). Al Nashiri v. Poland, 28761/11, 24 July 2014.

ECHR. (2014). Husayn (Zubaydah) v. Poland, 7511/13, 24 July 2014.

ECHR. (1999). Selmouni v. France, 25803/94, 29 July 1999.

ECommHR. (1976). Ireland v. United Kingdom, European, Yearbook of the European Convention on Human Rights, 19.

Evans, M.D. (2002). ‘Getting to Grips with Torture’. International and Comparative Law Quarterly 51(2), 365-383.. iclq/51.2.365

Evans, M.D. & Morgan, R. (1998). Preventing Torture: A Study of the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. New York : Oxford University Press.

Farber, I.E., Harlow, H.F. & West, L.J. (1957). Brainwashing, conditioning, and DDD (debility, dependency, and dread). Sociometry, 20, 271-285.

Freedom from Torture. (2015). “Proving” Torture: An ever-rising bar for medical evidence? Conference October 2015.

Ginbar, Y. (2017). Making Rights Sense of the Torture Definition. In: Başoğlu, M. (ed.). (2017). Torture and Its Definition in International Law: An Interdisciplinary Approach (pp. 273-314). New York: Oxford University Press.

Grant, M. J. (2013). The illogical logic of music torture. Torture, 23(2), 4–13.

Hauff, E. (1994). The Phenomenology of Torture. In Lavik, N.J., Nygaard, N., Sveaass & E. Fannemel (eds.). (1994). Pain and Survival: Human Rights Violations in Mental Health. (pp.19-28). Oslo: Scandinavian University Press.

Herman, J. (2015). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence - from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books.

High Court of Israel. (1999). Public Committee Against Torture in Israel v. Israel H.C. 5100/94.

Inter-Am.C.H.R, Raquel Martí de Mejía v. Perú, Case 10.970, Report No. 5/96, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.91 Doc. 7 at 157 (1996)

International Committee of the Red Cross. (2007). Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody.

Jacobs, U. (2008). Documenting the neurobiology of psychological torture: conceptual and neuropsychological observations. In: Ojeda, A. E. (Ed.). (2008) The trauma of psychological torture (pp. 163-172). Connecticut and London: Praeger.

Kalbeitzer, R. (2009). Psychologists and Interrogations: Ethical Dilemmas in Times of War. Ethics and Behaviour, 19(2), 156-168. https://doi. org/10.1080/10508420902772793

Kanninen, K., Punamäki, R-L. & Qouta, S. (2003). Personality and Trauma: Adult Attachment and Posttraumatic Distress Among Former Political Prisoners. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 9(2), 97–126. s15327949pac0902_01

Khan, A. (2010). Faith-Based Torture. Global Dialogue, 12(1-2). ssrn.1504754

Lewis, N. A. (2005). Interrogators cite doctors’ aid at Guantánamo. New York Times, 24 June 2005.

Luban, D., & Shue, H. (2012). Mental torture: A critique of erasures in U.S. law. The Georgetown Law Journal, 100, 823–63. cbo9781107279698.011

Manderson, D. (2005) Another Modest Proposal. Deakin Law Review, 10(2), 640-653. https://doi. org/10.21153/dlr2005vol10no2art297

McCoy, A. (2006). A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. New York: Metropolitan Books.

McCoy, A. (2012). Torture and Impunity: the US Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

McCoy, A. (2012a). In the Minotaur’s Labyrinth: Psychological Torture, Public Forgetting, and Contested History. In: Carlson, J. & Weber, E. (eds.). (2012). Speaking about Torture (pp. 37-58). New York: Fordham University Press. https://doi. org/10.5422/fordham/9780823242245.003.0003

McDonnell, M., Nordgren, L. F., & Loewenstein, G. (2011). Torture in the eyes of the beholder: the psychological difficulty of defining torture in law and policy. Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, 44, 87–122.

Nordgren, L., McDonnell M., & Loewenstein G. (2011). What Constitutes Torture? Psychological Impediments to an Objective Evaluation of Enhanced Interrogation Tactics. Psychological Science, 22(5), 689–694. https://doi. org/10.1177/0956797611405679

Nowak, M. & McArthur E. (2008). United Nations Convention Against Torture: A Commentary. New York: Oxford University Press. https://doi. org/10.1093/law/9780199280001.001.0001

Nowak, M. & McArthur, E. (2006). The Distinction between Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. Torture, 16(3), 147-151.

Nowak, M. (2006). What Practices Constitute Torture?: US and UN Standards. Human Rights Quarterly, 28(4), 809-841. https://doi. org/10.1353/hrq.2006.0050

O’Mara, S. (2015). Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Ojeda, A. (ed). (2008). The Trauma of Psychological Torture. Connecticut and London: Praeger.

Organization of American States (OAS). (1985). Inter- American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture. 9 December 1985, OAS Treaty Series, No. 67.

Papaeti, A. (2013). Music, Torture, Testimony: Reopening the Case of the Greek Military Junta (1967-1974). In: Grant M.J., Papaeti, A., (eds.). (2013). The world of music: Music and Torture, Music and Punishment 2(1). 67-89.

Pérez-Sales, P. (2017). Psychological Torture: Definition, Evaluation and Measurement. London: Routledge. Pérez-Sales, P., et al. (2016). Incommunicado detention and torture in Spain, Part III: ‘Five days is enough’: the concept of torturing environments. Torture, 26(3), 21-33.

Pérez-Sales, P, Martínez-Alés, G, Gonzalez Rubio, R. (2018). Beyond torture checklists. Reliability and Construct Validity of the Torturing Environment Scale (TES). Conflict and Health (submitted/personal communication).

Pictet, J. (ed.). (1958). The Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949: Commentary, Vol. IV, Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross.

Physicians for Human Rights. (PHR). (2005). Break them Down: Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by US Forces.

Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights First. (2007). Leave No Marks: “Enhanced” interrogation techniques and the risk of criminality.

Pope, K.S., Gutheil, T.G. (2009). Psychologists abandon the Nuremberg ethic: Concerns for detainee interrogations. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 32, 161–166. ijlp.2009.02.005

Posner, R. (2004). Torture, Terrorism and Interrogation. In: Levinson, S. (ed.). (2004). Torture: A Collection (pp.291-298). New York: Oxford University Press.

Rejali, D. (2003). Modern Torture as a Civic Marker: Solving a Global Anxiety with a New Political Technology. Journal of Human Rights, 2(2), 153-171. https://doi. org/10.1080/1475483032000078152

Rejali, D. (2007). Torture and Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. https://doi. org/10.1515/9781400830879

Reyes, H. & Başoğlu, M. (2017). Control as a Defining Characteristic of Torture. In Başoğlu, M. (2017). Torture and Its Definition in International Law: An Interdisciplinary Approach (pp. 49-59). New York: Oxford University Press. Reyes, H. (2007). The worst scars are in the mind: psychological torture. International Review of the Red Cross, 89(867), 591–617. https://doi. org/10.1017/s1816383107001300

Rouillard, L-P. (2005). Misinterpreting the Prohibition on Torture Under International Law: The Office of Legal Counsel Memorandum. American University International Law Review, 21(9), 9-41.

Scarry, E. (1986). The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sifris, R. (2013). Reproductive Freedom, Torture and International Human Rights: Challenging the Masculinisation of Torture. London: Routledge. https://

Soldz, S. (2010). Psychologists Defy Torture: The Challenge and the Path Ahead. In: Harris, A. & Botticelli, S. (eds.). (2010). First do no harm: the paradoxical encounters of psychoanalysis, warmaking, and resistance (pp. 67-106). New York: Routledge.

Soldz, S. (2011). Fighting Torture and Psychologist Complicity. Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 23(1), 12-20. 59.2011.548240

Spielmann, D. (2012). Variations on an Original Theme: Music and Human Rights. In: Casadevall, J. (ed.). (2012). Freedom of Expression: Essays in Honour of Nicolas Bratza (pp. 363-381) Oisterwijk: Wolf Legal Publishers.

Spjut, R. (1979). Torture Under the European Convention on Human Rights. American Journal of International Law, 73(2), 267-272. doi:10.1017/ S000293000010764X

Stover, E., Koenig, K.A., & Fletcher, L.E.. (2017). The Cumulative Effect. In: Başoğlu, M. (2017). Torture and Its Definition in International Law: An Interdisciplinary Approach (pp. 375-407). New York: Oxford University Press.

Suedfeld, P. (ed.). (1990). Psychology and Torture. Washington, DC: Hemisphere Publishing Corp.

Sveaass, N. (1994). The Organized Destruction of Meaning. In: Lavik, N.J., Nygaard, N., Sveaass & E. Fannemel (eds.). (1994). Pain and Survival: Human Rights Violations in Mental Health (pp. 43- 65). Oslo: Scandinavian University Press.

Sveaass, N. (2008). Destroying Minds: Psychological Pain and the Crime of Torture. New York City Law Review, 11(2), 303-324.

UN Commission on Human Rights. (2006). Situation of Detainees at Guantánamo Bay. E/ CN.4/2006/120, 27 February 2006.

UN Committee Against Torture. (2006). Conclusions and Recommendations, USA. CAT/C/USA/CO/2, 25 July 2006.

UN Committee Against Torture. (1994). Summary of the 184th Meeting, 12th Session. CAT/C/SR.184.

UN Committee Against Torture. (1997) Report on Israel. A/52/44, 10 September 1997.

UN Committee Against Torture. (1998) Consideration of Report on Israel. CAT/C/SR.336, 20 November 1998.

UN Committee Against Torture. (2014) Conclusions and Recommendations on USA. CAT/C/USA/ CO/3-5.

UN Human Rights Committee. (1992). CCPR General Comment No. 20: Article 7 (Prohibition of Torture, or Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment),10 March 1992.

UN Human Rights Committee. (1998). Concluding Observations on Israel. CCPR/C/79/Add.93.

UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). (2004). Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (‘Istanbul Protocol’). HR/P/PT/8/Rev.1

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. (1997). Report. E/CN.4/1997/7, 10 January 1997.

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. (2004). Report. A/59/324, 1 September 2004.

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. (2016). Report. A/71/298, 5 August 2016.

US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. (2014). Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program. (With declassification revisions of 3 December 2014).

US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. (1990). Convention Against Torture: Hearing Before the S. Comm. on Foreign Relations. 101st Congress 13

Welch, B. (2010). The Torturer’s Apprentice: Psychology and Enhanced Interrogations. Global Dialogue, 12(1-2), 1-14.

Yarwood, L. (2008). Defining Torture: The Potential for Abuse. Journal of the Institute of Justice & International Studies, 8(3), 324-351.




How to Cite

Cakal, E. (2018). Debility, dependency and dread: On the conceptual and evidentiary dimensions of psychological torture. Torture Journal, 28(2), 15–37.