Article 5:
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Concepts and Ideas

In his well-known book Dei delitti e delle pene ("On Crimes and Punishments," first published in 1764) Cesare Beccaria forcefully attacked the practice of torture and pleaded for its total abolition. In his view, torture was "a secure means of acquitting strong criminals and convicting innocent but weak persons." His pleading was well in line with the human rights ideology of the Enlightenment, and its impact was considerable.

In the course of the subsequent decades, the criminal laws of many European countries shifted away from cruel forms of punishment and towards an increased respect for individual rights. In this context, torture as a method for eliciting the truth was removed from several criminal codes. In Sweden, King Gustavus III wrote, on 27 August 1772, to the Governors of all the Swedish provinces, ordering them to destroy any torture chambers that might exist in their provinces so as to make it impossible to use them for any interrogation under torture.

The practical results of the "human rights" movement which swept through Europe at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century were in many respects impressive. In 1874, Victor Hugo proudly announced that "torture has ceased to exist."

Unfortunately, it appeared that these important humanitarian achievements would be short lived. In the wake of World War I, Europe came to know leaders who were prepared to resort to brutal violence in order to achieve their political aims. Under the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930's, torture became a means of spreading terror among the population; it was used systematically and on a large scale. The situation deteriorated even further during World War II. Having witnessed the horror of the concentration camps and detention centers, not only in Germany but in other countries occupied or dominated by Germany, a widespread consensus emerged that effective measures of international co-operation needed to be taken to prevent a repetition of such atrocities. It was obvious that a prohibition on torture and similar practices would become an essential element in the human rights instruments which were to be drafted.


See Hans Danelius in Asbjørn Eide et al, Eds., The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Commentary (1992) at 101.

Peter Danchin, Columbia University