Words and terms

Words and terms

Below, you can find information about which words and terms you can use when you talk about the person who has experienced a human rights violations as well as the human rights violations.

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 HHRI – 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 and in de judiciary the term victim is used.

You can choose which term you use and if it seems purposeful you can also use both terms interchangeably.


The human rights violations
What is a gross, serious or severe human rights violation?

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. We use the definition of torture from CAT, 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 here.


What other violations of human rights are considered to be serious, severe or gross? 

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. In the report, they state the following:

“The analysis undertaken for this report suggests that expert human rights bodies apply several criteria when they distinguish ‘serious’ violations, though their use is often implicit and no set of criteria has been formally agreed. ‘Serious’ violations are determined by:

  • The character of the right;
  • The magnitude of the violation;
  • The type of victim (vulnerability);
  • The impact of the violation.

These elements can be regarded as merely descriptive. It is not presumed that they should be prescriptive criteria or are indicators that a violation must fulfill in order to be described as ‘serious’” (Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2014. Briefing no. 6 p. 5).

Below you can find a list of what could be considered serious human rights violations: 

  • Abduction/kidnapping
  • Acts of intimidation, harassment, and extortion
  • Administrative detentions in large numbers
  • Apprehension (of foreign journalists)
  • Arbitrary arrests and detention in undisclosed locations
  • Attacks on human rights defenders and journalists
  • Attacks on schools and education facilities
  • Blockades
  • Collective reprisals
  • Confiscation of land and property
  • Crimes against humanity
  • Deliberate/direct targeting of and indiscriminative attacks on civilians/civilian objects and infrastructure
  • Denial of access to any legal process/violation of right to a fair trial
  • Denial of access to work
  • Denial to the right to freedom of conscience/persecution of a religious group
  • Denial of the right to seek and obtain asylum/violation of the principal of non-refoulement
  • Deplorable conditions of work and life/forced labour/sexual slavery/slave labour
  • Deportation or transfer, directly or indirectly, by an occupying Power of parts of its own population into territory it occupies
  • Discrimination/segregation
  • Enforced disappearance
  • Excessive use of force by security forces/disproportionate violence
  • Excessive use of force/indiscriminate/unlawful attacks (incl. targeted aerial bombardment)
  • Extrajudicial and summary execution
  • Failure to distinguish in attacks and to protect civilians
  • Failure to fulfil procedural obligations (failure to investigate)
  • Failure to provide food and health care in prisons
  • Female genital mutilation
  • Firing bullets during demonstrations/disproportionate and excessive use of force against all forms of protest
  • Forced displacement/massive population displacement/internal displacement
  • Forced eviction
  • Forced marriage
  • Gender-based violence
  • Impunity
  • Inadequate after-care for victims of gender-based violence
  • Incest
  • Lack of citizenship and civil status
  • Mass expulsion
  • Massacres/extraordinarily large number of killings
  • Obstruction of humanitarian and medical aid
  • Pillage
  • Rape (incl. mass rape) and other forms of sexual violence/violations
  • Recruitment of children
  • Repeated failure of authorities to end breaches of a right
  • Seizure of children
  • Severe restrictions on freedom of movement/violation of the right to leave and to return to one’s country
  • Torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment/physical abuse
  • Use of civilians as “human shields”/refusal to evacuate wounded
  • Violation of children’s rights/sexual abuse of children/violence against children
  • Violation of freedom of expression
  • Violation of the right to an adequate standard of living/deprivation of basic services
  • Violation of the right to associate freely
  • Violation of the right to food
  • Violation of the right to health and social security/attacks on hospitals
  • Violation of the right to housing
  • Violation of the right to humane treatment in custody, detention in degrading conditions
  • Violation of the right to life/killing/murder/manslaughter
  • Violation of the right to private and family life, home and correspondence (mainly with regard to property)
  • Violation of the right to property/destruction of property and houses/large scale demolition of houses and infrastructur
  • Violation of the right to self-determination
    (Source: Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2014)



‘Survivor’ Versus ‘Victim’: Why Choosing Your Words Carefully Is Important
HelloFlo downloaded last 2018
The words “survivor” and “victim” have very different connotations. Being a “victim” implies helplessness and pity, which might not adequately describe the experiences of some people who experience sexual assault. Experiences vary from person to person, after all. However, what’s so different about the term “survivor” is that it implies that people are able to take control of their own lives. “Surviving” conveys that the person is still fighting, whether through the judicial system in order to bring justice to the perpetrator, to gain awareness for the cause, or to learn to live after experiencing an assault. A “survivor” thrives in their environment.

Key Terms and Phrases
RAINN downloaded last 2018
We often receive questions about using the “right” term or phrase. Here’s how we choose the language that we use.

Who Is a Torture Survivor: Understanding the Legal Definitions of Torture
Healtorture.org 2016
This webinar, from March, 2016 features Annie Sovcik and Marie Soueid from the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), with Tim Kelly from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and Faith Ray with the CVT National Capacity Building Program. This Measured Impact Webinar is part of a two-part training on the legal definitions of torture and how they apply to eligibility determinations for Survivors of Torture programs. This webinar concentrates on the legal frameworks of the U.S. and U.N. definitions of torture, as well as the refugee definition. It includes examples to illustrate cases that rise to the level of torture and cases that do not.