Torture is defined as the act of purposefully inflicting pain or psychological suffering on an individual with the aim of extracting information or as punishment.
Most explicit forms of physical and psychological torture have been outlawed by the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which is signed by more than 140 countries. The Convention defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind."
Torture as a practice predates written history and has been observed in most ancient and modern civilizations and societies. Historian Edward Peters, from the University of Pennsylvania, observes that historical records of torture in Western civilization can be traced back to Ancient Greek societies, through to the Roman Empire and early Christian states in the Middle Ages. Peters notes that in Ancient Greece torture was referred to as basanos and practiced in many forms, such as beatings, which were part of the broader judicial process. Among Greek politicians and philosophers it raised universally important legal and moral questions such as when it could be inflicted. In Ancient Greece and in the Roman Empire, legal procedures stated that only slaves could be subjected to torture to extract information when they were accused of a crime.
According to Peters, during the early Middle Ages torture as punishment was practiced in Europe in the mostly private or communal settling of criminal affairs using officials or courts as intermediaries. Legal reforms gained strength during the 12th century which codified and standardized the law. Widespread torture practices often involved religious persecution and witch hunts. Jennifer Milanese, in an essay Torture and Death for Accused Witches (2004), describes how long before the Salem Witch trials in 1692, anyone suspected of being a witch could be tortured of executed. According to Milanese, at the end of the 13th century witchcraft was described as an act punishable by death, often by crushing or stoning a suspect.
Legal reforms and popular movements for the abolition of torture in Europe began gradually and had gained momentum by the early 18th century when anti-torture decrees were issued. However, in the words of British judge Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780), quoted by Peters, torture retained its status as "an engine of the state" at the fringes of the law and was reserved for crimes against the state such as treason.
Following the atrocities of World War II, 20 Nazi doctors were brought to justice by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg charged with crimes against humanity. The trial revealed evidence of human experiments involving torture at many of the concentration camps. The Nazis performed brutal acts of torture under three categories - medico-military research, miscellaneous ad-hoc experiments and racially motivated experiments. Some examples included inmates being submerged in freezing water for hours, while others were poisoned or suffered amputations.
Instances of torture remain in many countries, despite international initiatives such as the UN Convention, the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Countries such as Iran and North Korea have not signed the UN Convention against Torture. The United States and United Kingdom have been accused of using torture techniques such as sleep deprivation and waterboarding in order to extract information from terror suspects. In her article The Myth of Torture Lite (2009), ethics scholar Jessica Wolfendale criticizes such departures from ethical and political norms. She believes that differentiating between various forms of torture and rebranding milder forms as "enhanced interrogation" essentially replaces the question of whether torture should be used, with an additional question of what kind of torture is acceptable and under what circumstances it should be allowed.
Human rights charity Amnesty International launched its Stop Torture campaign in 2005, arguing that the ‘war on terror' had led to the loss of fundamental human rights. It reported hearing testimonies of terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Bagram in Afghanistan. The organization has put together a 12-point program for the prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and has called on governments to implement it.