Documentation of torture and ill-treatment in Low-Income Countries

A comparative analysis: Kenya, Bangladesh and Nepal

Project partners: DIGNITY in collaboration with University of Edinburgh.

There is a potential 'documentation gap' when it comes to torture and ill-treatment amongst the poorest populations. As such, there is a need to develop techniques that can be used effectively to document torture and ill-treatment in poor urban areas with limited clinical and legal resources.


The project has three linked objectives:

  1. A comparative analysis of the challenges faced by those attempting to document torture and ill-treatment amongst the urban poor in Low Income Countries.
  2. The development of a survey instrument for the documentation of torture and ill-treatment.
  3. The development of a "Handbook" with policy recommendations and best practice guidelines for the most effective methods for the documentation of torture and ill-treatment among the urban poor in Low Income Countries.

The broader aim of the research is to contribute to wider debates about the most effective ways to document violence and to help marginalised populations enforce accountability.

In many Low Income Countries, the urban poor are the most vulnerable to torture and other forms of ill-treatment by law enforcement agents and their proxies. They are also the least able to access forms of accountability, thereby perpetuating the structural inequalities that lie at the heart of poverty.

As such, the documentation of torture and ill-treatment can play a key role in improving access to justice and human security. The creation of reliable and persuasive evidence around the use of torture and ill-treatment is a central part of attempts to obtain redress or other forms of accountability, and therefore improve trust, political participation and stability. However, recent research demonstrates that torture and ill-treatment is difficult to document. In particular, torture and ill-treatment can be inflicted in ways that leave few discernable marks.

Additionally, the instruments used for the documentation of torture and ill-treatment, such as the UN backed Istanbul Protocol and the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire, have so far been largely medical, and focus on documentation of particular incidents for the specific purposes of court cases. In doing so, these instruments assume a level of institutional capacity that is often not available in Low Income Countries.

Doctors and lawyers, for example, are often not present in sufficient numbers to make the current instruments widely usable. Furthermore, the existing instruments are relatively weak at identifying forms of torture and ill-treatment that are not already reported to NGOs or public bodies. If low institutional capacity is often closely associated with violence and lack of accountability, instruments such as the Istanbul Protocol are therefore of limited potential use in situations where the documentation of torture and ill-treatment is most needed.

Comparative study
Case studies will be drawn from three countries: Kenya, Bangladesh and Nepal.

These three countries have been chosen for the following reasons: First, they are all classified as Low Income Countries by the OECD. Second, they all have histories of state-led violence against poor and marginal populations. Third, at the same time, none of the countries are currently experiencing levels of violence that would make the research unfeasible. Fourth, all three countries have large urban conglomerations, with high levels of poverty (Nairobi, Dhaka and Kathmandu).

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    Morten Koch Andersen

    Researcher, PhD

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    Ahlam Chemlali

    Programme Manager

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    Steffen Jensen

    Project Senior Researcher, Professor at Department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University

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Torture has been called ‘the mother of all human rights violations’. As long as a country practices or tolerates torture, people will be reluctant to speak, assemble and participate in the political life. Stopping torture is the first step towards improving human rights in general.

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