Why torture? Exploring our Perceptions of Torture, and What Causes It

In this post, our Communications Intern, Jee-Young Song, reports from the second day of the recent GJA-sponsored GREYZONE summer school.

26 June 2018 was the second day of the GREYZONE Summer School, and starting the day’s session was Danielle Celemajer, Professor of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the University of Sydney. Titled ‘The worlds that produce torture’, the main question put to us was:

“What causes torture?”

The straightforward answer to this would of course be obvious: doesn’t torture occur because a malignant perpetrator decided to inflict such an act on the victim?

However, this is an over-simplistic approach, as Professor Celemajer professed her view that there is in fact a complex map of causality for torture, with many contributory factors which extend beyond the scope of the individual perpetrator.

So when asked what we thought causes torture, various answers were given: including the possibility that torture may be used as a coping mechanism to satisfy the need to maintain stability within society. Agreeing with this answer, Professor Celemajer then highlighted that usually, a person’s attitude to torture is ingrained in the society they grew up in. For example, growing up in a culture where corporal punishment is widely practiced may instil a cultural expectation that everyone should tolerate a certain level of pain. Yet even this was never a sole cause of torture, as she explained later on.

How do we perceive torture?

This led onto the issue of how torture is  perceived generally, and in particular, how we look at the perpetrator. If we are to hold someone morally responsible for torture, what should be the case against them?

It was pointed out that we generally hold choice to be an important factor in determining how guilty a perpetrator is. The perpetrator should have chosen to commit the wrongdoing out of their own accord (perhaps a concept similar to that of mens rea – a ‘guilty mind’ – as found in criminal law), and the more intention there is, the more heinous the crime.

Moreover, it became evident that we tend to only blame people for torture, and to illustrate Professor Celemajer brought up the example of psychological torture by imprisonment. If such a case was on trial, we would quickly put the blame on the individual perpetrators who decided to put the victim in prison – but, what if the way in which the prison was designed had contributed towards the distress of the victim? As such, she argued it may be just as effective to remove the ‘object’ as it is to remove the person; and in doing so, there seemed to be a general consensus that although it is true that the individual perpetrator is largely to blame, we perhaps need to widen our perception of the causality of torture to include other, external factors which are harder to spot.

The Causality of Torture

Drawing from this, Professor Celemajer reiterated her view that torture is in fact caused by a complex network of mutually constitutive factors. Some of her empirical findings regarding this proposal were shared and discussed, including:

  • Social Environment and Cultural Factors

As mentioned in the corporal punishment example above, it is possible the perpetrator’s social background and cultural upbringing may lead to the justification that torture is a rightful act, having been brought up with the mind-set that it feels like ‘the right thing to do’. Indicative of this was an interview she had conducted with a Nepalese psychologist (scheduled to be part of her upcoming book, The Prevention of Torture: An Ecological Approach), who explained:

“Violence starts at home…domestic violence, child rights violations, and so on. This all perpetuates the violence culture…police and Armed Police Force are part of this culture…they learn such things and get to practice in more authoritative manner once they become [an] officer.”

This just showed how deeply ingrained a culture of violence could be in a society, to the point that it creates an accepting environment for torture. Rather than being viewed as an act of violence, it would be an expected institutional response.

  • Legal Factors and the Criminal Justice System

Closely tied to the social environment may be the legal framework, and how justice is generally perceived within a particular society. Whilst western standards may perceive torture as an abominable crime which contradicts every principle of justice, other cultures on the contrary may view torture as something intrinsically linked to delivering justice, and thereby upholding an effective legal system.

Again an example was given of an interview with the police in India, where they had voiced their dissatisfaction with the operation of the courts; delays in proceedings, for example, meant that the police were supposedly justified in acting outside the law in order to maintain justice. With the notion of justice being so different by culture, Professor Celemajer emphasised how important it is to first understand why the perpetrators conceptualise and justify their views in the first place, instead of outright dismissing and enforcing certain standards on them.

  • Organisational and Political Factors

Lastly, bureaucratic pressures were discussed as a possible contributory factor towards the use of torture. This may take the form of police corruption, certain quotas on how many criminals the police should arrest and so forth – but above all, the most prevalent example was pressure from political leaders who use torture as a means of control:

“…as long as they pleased their seniors or political patrons, they were free to do whatever they wanted, regardless of whether it was illegal or immoral…police becoming virtual dictators of their villages.” (Dhungana, 36)


Collectively, the above findings indicated that in order to fully understand what causes torture, there should not be a focus on what the ‘root causes’ are. Although it would be easy to follow a one-track line of logic to place the blame on the individual perpetrator, or to go a little further, the background in which they grew up in, it is clear from Professor Celemajer’s research that there is no one root cause. Instead, it shows that a combination of legal, cultural and political factors are mutually constitutive in creating a culture accepting of the use of torture. Thus, Professor Celemajer argued that having a wider perspective on this matter would greatly aid in assessing how to bring around systemic institutional change, and eventually prevent torture once and for all.