March 2020 UN Report Addresses Psychological Torture

Nils Melzer

In mid 2019 United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer, a Professor of International Human Rights Law at the Geneva Academy of International Law, circulated an online call for submissions on psychological torture and ill-treatment. Member states, UN agencies, civil society and academia were invited to fill out the questionnaire.

Subjects of coordinated stalking were informed of the questionnaire, and while it is not known how many actually filled it out and submitted it, it is clear that the finished report addresses issues that all victims of coordinated stalking face.

In March 2020, Melzer presented his report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. In the report, Melzer expressed concerns over “continuing development of psychological tortures and legal misconceptions about what conduct is prohibited by international treaty”. He also stated that this is the “first time a UN Special Rapporteur has systematically addressed the topic of psychological torture”.

The report, titled Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatmentcan found at this link. The report is under “Latest Reports”, about 1/2 way down page.

According to Melzer — in an interview with Al Jazeera — to date, advocacy on and understanding of psychological treatment has been “fragmented and inadequate”. Additionally, he stated that while psychological torture has been recognized as a distinct concept from physical torture for a long time, “many governments do not recognize psychological torture as torture”.

As part of his research for the report, Melzer and a medical team visited currently imprisoned whistleblower Julian Assange in order to assess his health and conditions of detention. The visit resulted in the informed opinion that Assange, who as head of WikiLeaks exposed torture himself, has experienced torture and would most likely face further torture if extradited to the United States.

Defining psychological torture

Melzer’s report defines psychological torture as including “all methods and circumstances that purposefully inflict, or intend to inflict, severe mental pain and suffering”. Methods cited in the report include the purposeful infliction of fear, depriving someone of control over their lives and disrupting a victim’s self-determination and autonomy; also procedures that directly target psychological needs such as security, self-determination, dignity, privacy (through constant audio-visual surveillance), social rapport and communal trust.

The report also states that “Sensory hyper-stimulation below the threshold of physical pain, such as constant bright light, loud music, bad odors, uncomfortable temperatures or intrusive “white” noise, induces progressively severe mental stress and anxiety, inability to think clearly, followed by increasing irritability, outbursts of anger and, ultimately, total exhaustion and despair.”

Victims of coordinated stalking routinely report that many of the above stated methods are being used systematically to oppress them and strip away their fundamental human rights through intimidation, harassment, surveillance, public shaming and defamation as well as appropriation, deletion or manipulation of information. All of these add up to what Melzer defines as a “torturous environment”.

According to Melzer, “…harassment in comparatively limited environments can expose targeted individuals to extremely elevated and prolonged levels of anxiety, stress, social isolation and depression, and significantly increases the risk of suicide”, aligning undeniably with the effects that coordinated stalking victims report.

Report warns against trivializing psychological torture

Melzer believes the issue of psychological torture, which falls under his mandate as UN Special Rapporteur, has long been disregarded by the international community. 

He points out that many countries “deny, neglect, misinterpret or trivialize psychological torture as what could be euphemistically described as “torture light”, whereas “real torture” is still predominantly understood to require the infliction of physical pain or suffering. Some states have even adopted national definitions of torture excluding mental pain or suffering, or interpretations requiring that in order to constitute torture, mental pain or suffering must be caused by the threat or infliction of physical pain or suffering, threats of imminent death, or profound mental disruption.”

The Special Rapporteur’s analysis outlines how psychological torture can contain the elements that are required to constitute physical torture:

• Severe pain or suffering (which can be mental suffering that leads to physical problems),
• Intentionality (whereby the torturer knows that pain will result),
• Purposefulness (where the act is an attempt to coerce or otherwise manipulate the victim) and
• Powerlessness, which can be felt, for example, via “serious and immediate threats” or a deprivation of legal rights and decision-making.

Thus, according to the report, “the distinction between “physical” and “psychological” torture does not imply any difference in functional rationale but, rather, refers to the methodological avenue through which that rationale is being pursued by the torturer.

Melzer concludes that states must make better efforts to understand what psychological torture is and to prevent its use.

“Cybertorture” a serious threat

An alarming development that Melzer points to is “cybertorture”. States, corporate actors and organized criminals, he says, “not only have the capacity to conduct cyber-operations inflicting severe suffering on countless individuals, but may well decide to do so for any of the purposes of torture while avoiding the conduit of the physical body”.

He goes on to say that many countries have invested “significant resources towards developing methods of torture which can achieve purposes of coercion, intimidation, punishment, humiliation or discrimination without causing readily identifiable physical harm or traces. 

Arguably, therefore, much more systematic, government-sponsored threats and harassment delivered through cyber technologies not only entail a situation of effective powerlessness, but may well inflict levels of anxiety, stress, shame and guilt amounting to ‘“severe mental suffering” as required for a finding of torture.”

According to Melzer, to ensure the adequate implementation of the prohibition of torture, its interpretation should evolve with developments in technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics and biomedical sciences, all of which can surely be seriously misused.

A new era

Ultimately, Melzer outlines a foundation for defining a distinction between physical and psychological torture while at the same time making clear that both are violations of international human rights obligations.

The report was a welcome revelation for victims of coordinated stalking, many who have suffered for years without recourse. The report signifies a much needed step in the direction of stimulating investigation into coordinated stalking as well as providing credibility that is needed for mass public awareness. While much more needs to be done, UN Special Rapporteur Nils Melzer has opened the door to a new era for victims of coordinated stalking. 

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