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

New York, 10 December 1984
  • Introductory Note 
  •  Procedural History 
  •  Documents 
  •  Status 
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By Hans Danelius
Former Justice of the Supreme Court of Sweden


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I. The Torture Convention

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the “Torture Convention”) was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1984 (resolution 39/46). The Convention entered into force on 26 June 1987 after it had been ratified by 20 States.

The Torture Convention was the result of many years’ work, initiated soon after the adoption of the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the “Torture Declaration”) by the General Assembly on 9 December 1975 (resolution 3452 (XXX)).

In fact, the Torture Declaration was intended to be the starting-point for further work against torture. In a second resolution, also adopted on 9 December 1975, the General Assembly requested the Commission on Human Rights to study the question of torture and any necessary steps for ensuring the effective observance of the Torture Declaration (resolution 3453 (XXX)). Two years later, on 8 December 1977, the General Assembly specifically requested the Commission on Human Rights to draw up a draft convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, in the light of the principles embodied in the Torture Declaration (resolution 32/62).

1 February 1982, Commission on Human Rights addressing the problems of genocide, political liquidations, mass killings, arbitrary and summary executions, disappearances, torture, etc.The Commission on Human Rights began its work on this subject at its session in February-March 1978. A working group was set up to deal with this item, and the main basis for the discussions in the working group was a draft convention presented by Sweden. During each of the subsequent years until 1984 a similar working group was set up to continue the work on the draft convention.

There were a number of issues on which it was initially difficult to reach agreement. In particular, the following issues gave rise to long discussions:

The Definition of Torture

The definition of torture which appeared in the Torture Declaration was considered not to be precise enough and was criticized on various points. The discussions resulted in a more elaborate – and also more complex – definition which appears in article 1, paragraph 1, of the Torture Convention

Jurisdiction

The discussion centred round the concept of so-called universal jurisdiction. In other words, the question was whether each State should undertake, in respect of torture, to assume jurisdiction not only based on territory or the offender’s nationality but also over acts of torture committed outside its territory by persons not being its nationals. The principle of universal jurisdiction – which had already been accepted in conventions against hijacking of aircraft and other terrorist acts – was eventually accepted and found its place in article 5, paragraph 2, of the Torture Convention.

International Implementation

As the effectiveness of the Torture Convention, like that of many other human rights conventions, would depend to a large extent on the supervision system, the implementation at the international level gave rise to extensive discussions. It was finally decided that a Committee against Torture would be set up (article 17 of the Torture Convention) with the following tasks:

  (i)   To receive, study and comment on periodic reports from the States parties on the measures they have taken to give effect to their undertakings under the Convention (article 19);
  (ii)  To initiate an investigation when there is reliable information which appears to contain well-founded indications that torture is being systematically practised in the territory of a State party (article 20);
  (iii) To receive and examine complaints by one State party of violations of the Convention by another State party (article 21); and
  (iv) To receive and examine applications by individuals claiming to be victims of a violation of the Convention by a State party (article 22).

However, the competences of the Committee against Torture under (ii), (iii) and (iv) were not made compulsory but apply with the following modifications:

- A State party may “opt out” and declare that it does not recognize the Committee’s competence to initiate investigations under article 20 (article 28);
- The Committee’s competence to examine inter-State complaints only applies when a State party has specifically recognized this competence (article 21);
- The Committee’s competence to examine applications by individuals only applies when a State party has specifically recognized this competence (article 22).

   A State Party’s Undertakings

Most of the provisions of the Torture Convention deal with the obligations of the States parties. These obligations may be summarized as follows:

  (i)   Each State party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture. The prohibition against torture shall be absolute and shall be upheld also in a state of war and in other exceptional circumstances (article 2);
  (ii)  No State party may expel or extradite a person to a State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture (article 3);
  (iii) Each State party shall ensure that acts of torture are serious criminal offences within its legal system (article 4);
  (iv) Each State party shall, on certain conditions, take a person suspected of the offence of torture into custody and make a preliminary inquiry into the facts (article 6);
  (v)  Each State party shall either extradite a person suspected of the offence of torture or submit the case to its own authorities for prosecution (article 7);
  (vi) Each State party shall ensure that its authorities make investigations when there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed (article 12);
  (vii) Each State party shall ensure that an individual who alleges that he has been subjected to torture will have his case examined by the competent authorities (article 13);
  (viii) Each State party shall ensure to victims of torture an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation (article 14).

   II. The Optional Protocol

An Optional Protocol to the Torture Convention was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 18 December 2002 (resolution 57/199). The Optional Protocol, which entered into force on 22 June 2006, establishes a system of regular visits by international and national bodies to places of detention in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. A Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has been set up to carry out such visits and to support States parties and national institutions in performing similar functions at the national level.

III. The Committee Against Torture

The Committee against Torture holds two annual sessions. At each session, the Committee examines reports from a number of States parties. Each report is examined orally in the presence of one or more representatives of the State concerned. Each State whose report is to be examined at a session is informed in advance of the main questions the Committee wishes to be discussed. After the examination of each report the Committee adopts its conclusions and recommendations. The Committee may also adopt general comments on specific provisions of the Convention or issues related to their implementation.

The Committee against Torture has also set up a working group to prepare the examination of individual communications received under article 22 of the Torture Convention. The working group examines the admissibility and merits of the communications and makes recommendations to the Committee.

Related Materials

A. Legal Instruments

Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, New York, 18 December 2002, General Assembly resolution 57/199.

B. Doctrine

J. Herman Burgers and H. Danelius, The United Nations Convention against Torture. A Handbook on the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Dordrecht, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1988.


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The question of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment was included in the agenda of the twenty-ninth session of the General Assembly, in 1974, and was submitted for consideration to the Third (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) Committee. The Committee, on 22 October 1974, adopted a draft resolution on torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in relation to detention and imprisonment in which the Fifth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders was asked to include, in the elaboration of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, approved by the Economic and Social Council on 31 July 1957, rules for the protection of all persons subjected to any form of detention or imprisonment against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and to report thereon to the Assembly in 1975. The draft resolution was submitted to the General Assembly and on 6 November 1974, on the recommendation of the Third Committee, the Assembly adopted resolution 3218 (XXIX).

The above-mentioned Congress was held in Geneva, from 1 to 12 September 1975. In a report submitted to the General Assembly (U.N.P. Sales No.: E.76.IV.2) at its thirtieth session, as also requested by resolution 3218 (XXIX), the Secretary-General summarized the debates and proposals of the Congress and included the text, approved by the Congress, of a Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (A/10260).

The matter was on the agenda of the General Assembly at its thirtieth session, in 1975, and was again allocated to the Third Committee. On 9 December 1975, the General Assembly adopted without a vote resolution 3452 (XXX), to which the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was annexed. On the same date, the General Assembly also adopted resolution 3453 (XXX), in which it expressed its appreciation to the Fifth Congress for the elaboration of the declaration and requested competent bodies to conduct further work for the elaboration of several instruments relating to the question of torture.

The item entitled “Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” was again on the agenda of the General Assembly at its thirty-first and thirty-second sessions.  At the latter session, on 8 December 1977, the General Assembly adopted resolution 32/62, in which, expressing its belief that further international efforts were needed to ensure adequate protection for all against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and considering that a further significant step would be the adoption of an international convention on the matter, it requested the Commission on Human Rights to draw up a draft convention, in the light of the principles embodied in the Declaration and to submit a progress report to the Assembly at its thirty-third session.

At its 1978 session, the Commission on Human Rights accordingly set up an open-ended working group to consider the alternative drafts for an international convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment that had been prepared by Sweden (E/CN.4/1285) and by the International Association of Penal Law (E/CN.4/NGO/213). On 7 March 1978, the Commission adopted resolution 18 (XXXIV), by which it took cognizance of the report of the working group, and requested the Secretary-General to transmit all the relevant documents of the Commission on the topic to Governments of Member States and members of the specialized agencies for their comments and to prepare a summary of the comments received. The Commission on Human Rights further requested the Secretary-General to transmit its resolution to the General Assembly, together with the relevant chapter of the Commission’s report to the Economic and Social Council, as constituting the Commission’s progress report. At the same session, the Commission also proposed a draft decision for adoption by the Economic and Social Council, by which the Council would authorize the holding of a meeting of a working group, open to all members of the Commission, for one week before the Commission’s 1979 session in order to prepare concrete proposals for the draft convention. In addition, the Commission decided that the working group concerned with analyzing alternative approaches and ways and means within the United Nations system for the promotion and encouragement of human rights and fundamental freedoms should combine this, its principal task, with the work on the draft convention (E/1978/34).

On 5 May 1978, the Economic and Social Council adopted, without a vote, decision 1978/24, by which it approved the Commission on Human Rights’ recommendation concerning the pre-session working group meeting. It also decided to request the Secretary-General to transmit to the General Assembly the Commission’s resolution concerning the draft convention, together with the relevant chapter of the Commission’s report.

At the thirty-third session of the General Assembly, in 1978, the item relating to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment was again referred to the Third Committee for consideration. On 20 December 1978, on the recommendation of the Third Committee, the General Assembly adopted resolution 33/178, in which it took note of the progress report of the Commission on Human Rights and requested it to give high priority, at its following session, to the question of drafting a convention on torture.

In 1979, the Working Group accordingly met prior to the session of the Commission on Human Rights.  It continued to meet prior to and during the sessions of the Commission in the following years up to 1984, on the basis of authorizations given annually by the Economic and Social Council, on the recommendation of the Commission on Human Rights, for the purpose of completing the drafting of the convention (see Economic and Social Council resolutions 1979/35, 1980/32, 1981/37, 1982/38, and 1983/38). Also on a yearly basis, the General Assembly took note of the progress in the work of the Commission and renewed its request to the Commission on Human Rights to complete, as a matter of urgency, the drafting of the convention (resolution 34/167 of 17 December 1979, resolution 35/178 of 15 December 1980, resolution 36/60 of 25 November 1981, resolution 37/193 of 18 December 1982, and resolution 38/119 of 16 December 1983).

The Working Group used the draft convention proposed by Sweden (E/CN.4/1285) as the basis of its work.  At its last session, held between 30 January and 16 February 1984, it adopted all articles of the draft convention, except two (articles 19 and 20) concerning reporting by State parties and considerations of the reports by the Committee against Torture and the authorization of the Committee to initiate an inquiry in connection with reliable indications that torture was being systematically practised in the territory of a State party. The draft convention, as provisionally adopted, was annexed to the Working Group’s report (E/CN.4/1984/72) and submitted to the Commission on Human Rights.  The Commission on Human Rights, having examined the Working Group’s report, adopted resolution 1984/21 of 6 March 1984, by which it decided to transmit the draft convention to the General Assembly, through the Economic and Social Council, together with the summary records of the Commission’s debate on the item. The Commission recommended that the Assembly consider the draft convention with a view to its early adoption. It also requested the Secretary-General to bring the documents mentioned to the attention of Governments and to obtain their comments, preferably for submission to the Assembly at its following session.

On 24 May 1984, the Economic and Social Council adopted, without a vote, decision 1984/134 by which, noting the above-mentioned resolution of the Commission on Human Rights, it decided to transmit to the General Assembly the report of the Working Group, as well as the summary records of the Commission’s debate on the question during its fortieth session. The Economic and Social Council further noted the Commission’s request to the Secretary-General to submit the comments received from Governments on the draft convention to the General Assembly, and its recommendation that the Assembly consider the draft convention as a matter of priority, with a view to its early adoption.

At the thirty-ninth session of the General Assembly, in 1984, the draft convention, together with the comments submitted by Governments (see A/39/499 and Adds. 1 and 2) was considered by the Third Committee. Informal consultations on the drafting of articles 19 and 20 took place prior to and contemporaneously with the meetings of the Committee, which were held from 19 to 28 November 1984. The initial draft resolution was amended several times and was finally adopted by the Third Committee on 5 December 1984, without a vote.

On 10 December 1984, the General Assembly, acting on the recommendation of the Third Committee, adopted without a vote resolution 39/46, by which it adopted and opened for signature the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, annexed to the resolution.  The Convention entered into force on 26 June 1987, in accordance with its article 27, paragraph 1, following the deposit of the twentieth instrument of ratification.


Text of the Convention

Selected preparatory documents
(in chronological order)

General Assembly resolution 3218 (XXIX) of 6 November 1974 (Torture and other cruel, Inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in relation to detention and imprisonment)

Report of the Fifth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders (U.N.P. Sales No.: E.76.IV.2)

Report of the Secretary-General, “Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in relation to detention and imprisonment”, (A/10260)

General Assembly resolution 3452 (XXX) of 9 December 1975 (Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment)

General Assembly resolution 3453 (XXX) of 9 December 1975 (Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in relation to detention and imprisonment)

General Assembly resolution 32/62 of 8 December 1977 (Draft convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment)

Draft convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, submitted to the Commission on Human Rights by Sweden (E/CN.4/1285)

Draft convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, submitted to the Commission on Human Rights by the International Association of Penal Law (E/CN.4/NGO/213)

Commission on Human Rights resolution 18 (XXXIV) of 7 March 1978 (Draft Convention on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment)

Report of the Commission on Human Rights on its thirty-fourth session (E/1978/34)

Economic and Social Council decision 1978/24 of 5 May 1978 (Draft convention on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment)

General Assembly resolution 33/178 of 20 December 1978 (Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment)

Economic and Social Council resolution 1979/35 of 10 May 1979 (Draft convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment)

Economic and Social Council resolution 1980/32 of 2 May 1980 (Draft convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment)

Economic and Social Council resolution 1981/37 of 8 May 1981 (Draft convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment)

Economic and Social Council resolution 1982/38 of 7 May 1982 (Question of the human rights of all persons subjected to any form of detention or imprisonment, in particular, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment).

Economic and Social Council resolution 1983/38 of 27 May 1983 (Question of the human rights of all persons subjected to any form of detention or imprisonment, in particular, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment)

General Assembly Resolution 34/167 of 17 December 1979 (Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment)

General Assembly resolution 35/178 of 15 December 1980 (Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment)

General Assembly resolution 36/60 of 25 November 1981 (Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment)

General Assembly resolution 37/193 of 18 December 1982 (Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment)

General Assembly resolution 38/119 of 16 December 1983 (Torture and other cruel, Inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment)

Report of the Working Group of the Commission on Human Rights (E/CN.4/1984/72)

Commission on Human Rights resolution 1984/21 of 6 March 1984 (Draft convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) (E/CN.4/RES/1984/21)

Economic and Social Council decision 1984/138 of 24 May 1984 (Draft convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment)

Report of the Secretary-General to the General Assembly “Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (A/39/499 and Add. 1-2, 2 October 1984)

General Assembly resolution 39/46 of 10 December 1984 (Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment)


The Convention entered into force on 26 June 1987. For the current participation status of the Convention, as well as information and relevant texts of related treaty actions, such as reservations, declarations, objections, denunciations and notifications, see:

The Status of Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary-General

Statements
Thirty-ninth Session of the General Assembly, 93rd Plenary Meeting, 10 December 1984: Adoption of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 
[Minor sound quality problems in the original]

Video (2 minutes, Full Version)
Play Statement by Mr. Paul Lusaka, President of the General Assembly (Zambia)
Video (25 seconds, English)
Play Statement by Mr. Grzegorz Polowczyk (Poland), Rapporteur of the Third Committee
Introduction of the report of the Third Committee
Video (54 seconds, English)
Play Statement by the President of the General Assembly, Mr. Paul Lusaka (Zambia) Adoption of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Video (55 seconds, English)
     
1 February 1982
Thirty-eighth Regular Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, Switzerland. [Read more]
1 February 1982
Thirty-eighth Regular Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, Switzerland. [Read more]
1 February 1982
Thirty-eighth Regular Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, Switzerland. [Read more]
27 March 2007
Fourth Session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland.
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