Words & terms

17.11 2020

The person

In the literature, the person who has experienced a severe human rights violation, is referred to as either survivor or as victim. Both terms are being used, but in some contexts one of them is usually preferred over the other. For example, advocacy and support organisations and groups – including MHHRI – often use survivor. We consider survivor to be more empowering than the word victim, as it implies that the person is able to take some control in his or her life; that the person has resources and strength. In legal documents the term victim is used. Being a victim in the judiciary means that one has been exposed to a crime, in this case an abuse of the victim’s human rights. You can choose which term you use and if it seems purposeful you can also use both terms interchangeably

Human rights violations

What is a gross or severe human rights violation? In 2014, some experts in international human rights law from the Geneva Academy conducted a study to consider what amounts to a serious violation of international human rights law among experts and in international practice. Their analysis showed that there were some criteria that human rights bodies implicitly apply when they distinguish ‘serious’ violations. ‘Serious’ violations were determined by:

What is torture?

In 1984, the United Nations General Assembly adopted what is being referred to as CAT, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In MHHRI we use the definition of torture from CAT (rather than the use of the word in the media or in daily language) which states that:

“[T]he term “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 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, when such pain or suffering is 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. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

As pointed out by the Association for the Prevention of Torture, APT, this definition contains three cumulative elements:

  • The intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering; by a public official, who is directly or indirectly involved; for a specific purpose.

APT continues by stating that “other international and regional treaties, as well as national laws, can contain broader definitions of torture, covering a wider range of situations”.

In article 2 of CAT, it is further stated that:

“Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.”

CAT can be read and downloaded in English, Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) website. Click here to read and download.