Understanding the risk of torture

The risk of being tortured or ill-treated is higher at certain times during the period of a person’s detention and in certain situations. The APT’s approach to prevention of torture is based on a careful analysis of why and where high risks of torture occur.

It is important to stress that no State is immune from the risk of torture and ill-treatment. As a result, there is always a need to be vigilant and to develop and implement effective preventive strategies.

The overall environment

A lack of political will to prohibit torture, lack of respect for the rule of law and high levels of corruption can all increase the risk of torture. The organisation and functioning of the criminal justice system is also an important factor to consider. The level of independence of the judiciary, as well as the level of reliance on confessions, will have a direct influence on the risk of torture.

Other risk factors include:


  • A culture of impunity
  • Poor access to justice
  • An over-emphasis on security over respect for human rights
  • Weak democratic accountability
  • A lack of complaints mechanisms for victims of torture and ill-treatment
  • Pressure on law enforcement to demonstrate results
  • Public acceptance of torture
  • Discrimination against certain groups in society


When? Specific moments and circumstances

The risk of torture and other ill-treatment exist in all situations where persons are deprived of their liberty. Any such situation creates an imbalance of power, where the detained person is totally dependent on the individuals and authorities in charge. However, the risk of torture is higher during the initial period of detention:

  • Arrest
  • Interrogation
  • First hours of police custody
  • Arrival and admittance to places of detention
  • Pre-trial detention periods
  • Transfers from one place of detention to another
  • Forced deportation


What? Risky practices

Certain practices by detaining authorities increase the risk of torture and ill-treatment. Forced confessions, incommunicado detention and enforced disappearances are extreme and illegal examples, but the risky practices also include:

  • Solitary confinement
  • Disciplinary sanctions
  • Threats and reprisals
  • Corporal punishment
  • Use of restraints
  • Admission checks and body searches


Who? Persons at risks

All persons in detention are vulnerable to abuse. There are however certain groups of persons who face a higher risk of torture and ill-treatment, including pre-trial detainees, political prisoners and persons convicted of certain crimes such as terrorism or sex offences. Other persons are more at risk because of discriminatory practices in society and are therefore in particular situations of vulnerability when they are detained:

  • Women
  • Children
  • Migrants
  • The homeless and the poor
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex persons
  • Indigenous people and ethnic minorities
  • Persons with psycho-social disorders


Where? Places of detention

The risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment exists within any closed facility; not only prisons and police stations but also, for example, psychiatric facilities, juvenile detention centres, immigration detention centres and transit zones in international ports. The risks are especially high in secret places, places where there is no external oversight and where detainees have no or little contact with the outside world. Other high risk places include:

  • Administrative detention
  • Overseas and offshore detention
  • Overcrowded places of detention