International Human Rights Law

Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)

I. Introduction🔗

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) was adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on 10 December 1984. It entered into force on 26 June 1987.1 The Committee against Torture monitors States’ implementation of the Convention.2

Note to reader
For an explanation of the Committee’s powers and other international legal mechanisms that may be available to enforce a State’s obligations under the CAT, please consult the “Ratification and Enforcement of Treaties” chapter, “International Human Rights Law” section.

I.1 Defining Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment under the CAT🔗

Under article 1, ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person, for such purposes as:

  • Obtaining from them or a third person information or a confession;
  • Punishing them for an act they or a third person have committed or are suspected of having committed;
  • Intimidating or coerce them or a third person;
  • For any reason ‘based on discrimination of any kind’.

Other purposes must have something in common with the ones just listed.

Pain or suffering must be inflicted ‘by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity’. Torture does not include pain or suffering arising ‘only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions’.3 In sum, torture consists of four elements:

  1. Severe pain and suffering, whether physical or mental, inflicted on the victim;
  2. Intentional infliction of the pain or suffering;
  3. The purpose of inflicting the pain or suffering;
  4. Infliction by, at the instigation of, or with the consent of a person acting in an official capacity.

Severe pain or suffering cannot always be assessed objectively. It depends on the negative physical and/or mental repercussions that violence or abuse has on each individual, ‘taking into account all relevant circumstances of each case, including the nature of the treatment, the sex, age and state of health and vulnerability of the victim and any other status or factors’.4 The Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has also suggested that States examine the victim’s social status, discriminatory frameworks that reinforce gender stereotypes and exacerbate harm, and the long-term impact on victims’ physical and psychological well-being, other human rights and their ability to pursue life goals.5

According to the Special Rapporteur, the purpose element is always fulfilled in cases of violence against women, if the acts can be shown to be gender-specific (‘in that such violence is inherently discriminatory’). Moreover, if it can be objectively established that an act had a specific purpose, ‘the intent can be implied’.6

While the majority of victims of sexual violence are women, the prohibition has evolved to include persons of all genders. Gender-based violence ‘can be committed against any persons because of their sex and socially constructed gender roles’, including women, girls, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, sexual minorities, gender-non-conforming individuals, and men and boys.7 As observed by the Special Rapporteur, ‘the purpose and intent elements of the definition of torture are always fulfilled if an act is gender-specific or perpetrated against persons on the basis of their sex, gender identity, real or perceived sexual orientation or non-adherence to social norms around gender and sexuality’.8 The Committee has stressed that article 1’s intent and purpose elements ‘do not involve a subjective inquiry into the motivations of the perpetrators, but rather must be objective determinations under the circumstances’.9

While some forms of sexual violence may amount to ‘other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ (“ill-treatment”) rather than torture, a gender-sensitive lens favours treating ‘violations against women, girls, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons’ as torture, where they carry all elements of this crime, instead of reducing them to ill-treatment only.10 It is a violation of the CAT to prosecute conduct solely as ill-treatment when the elements of torture are also present.11

Cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is not defined in the CAT, which only affirms that such treatment does not amount to torture and is ‘committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity’. Nevertheless, the Committee has gone to great lengths to emphasise that States must eradicate ill-treatment as well (see obligations III.1 and III.4).

Note to reader
All obligations listed in this chapter apply to CRSV that amounts to either torture or ill-treatment.

As for the requirement that torture and ill-treatment be committed in an official capacity, actions outside direct State control do not necessarily fall beyond the CAT’s scope of protection. As observed by the Special Rapporteur, the language ‘concerning consent and acquiescence by a public official clearly extends State obligations into the private sphere and should be interpreted to include State failure to protect persons within its jurisdiction from torture and ill-treatment committed by private individuals’.12 Similarly, the Committee has found that States should investigate and prosecute all cases of sexual and gender-based violence, especially those involving State authorities or other entities for whose actions or omissions States are responsible under the Convention.13

I.2 To What Kind of Sexual Violence Does the CAT Apply?🔗

All forms of sexual violence mentioned in the Introduction to the Guidebook may amount to torture or ill-treatment.14 In particular, the Committee has often recalled its jurisprudence that rape constitutes ‘infliction of severe pain and suffering perpetrated for a number of impermissible purposes, including interrogation, intimidation, punishment, retaliation, humiliation and discrimination based on gender’.15

The Committee has also found that sexual violence that takes place in detention settings (including touching, virginity testing, being stripped naked, invasive body searches, insults and humiliations of a sexual nature)16 generally violates the CAT. Coercive environments result in a situation of powerlessness where one person exercises total power over another, as is the case in places of detention, and consent cannot be implied.17 The same may be said of ‘beatings and electrocution in the genital area’, ‘threats of rape’18 and sexual harassment.19 Importantly, sexual abuse by the police constitutes torture ‘even when it is perpetrated outside of formal detention facilities’ as long as the victim/survivor is under the authorities’ physical control.20

I.3 When Is Sexual Violence Conflict-Related?🔗

Whether sexual violence is conflict-related does not affect the CAT’s application. Some States have argued that the CAT does not apply in armed conflict on the grounds that the law of armed conflict is lex specialis (i.e., the only law governing a specific field).21

The Committee has clarified that the CAT applies ‘at all times, whether in peace, war or armed conflict’, in any territory under a State’s jurisdiction and that application of the CAT’s provisions is without prejudice to any other international instrument.22 This is significant in light of the fact that cases of sexual violence are often not limited to areas of armed conflict but may be happening throughout a country.23

II. Legal Framework🔗

Note to reader
On the authoritativeness and the question of bindingness of the Committee’s work, consult the “International Human Rights Law” chapter, “Introduction” section, and the “Introduction” chapter, “Methodology” section.

III. Obligations🔗


III.1 States must criminalise CRSV🔗

III.2 States must ensure that the CAT is applied in their territory and territories under their jurisdiction🔗

III.3 States must address CRSV committed by private actors🔗

III.4 States must not expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be in danger of being subjected to CRSV🔗

III.5 Special protection against CRSV is owed to individuals and groups made vulnerable by discrimination or marginalisation🔗

III.6 Special protection against CRSV is owed to detainees🔗

III.7 States must educate their population on CRSV🔗

III.8 States must monitor the measures taken to eradicate CRSV and report on them to the Committee🔗

III.9 States should regulate the arms trade🔗

III.10 States should recognise the competence of the Committee to hear individual complaints and ratify other instruments of international law🔗

III.11 States should cooperate with international actors to eliminate CRSV🔗

III.12 States must establish National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) to eliminate CRSV🔗

Justice and Accountability🔗

III.13 States must establish impartial and effective complaints mechanisms to receive complaints of CRSV🔗

III.14 States must investigate CRSV🔗

III.15 States must prosecute CRSV🔗

III.16 States must provide CRSV victims/survivors with access to justice🔗

III.17 States whose decision to return individuals has been questioned under article 22 should provide such individuals with safeguards🔗

Humanitarian Response🔗

III.18 States must provide CRSV victims/survivors with appropriate care🔗


III.19 States must provide redress to CRSV victims/survivors🔗

Page Content


Postcode Loterij logo UKaid logo FIGO logo ICSC logo

In collaboration with