Government Accountability for Torture and Ill-Treatment in Health Settings

The absolute prohibition under human rights law of all forms of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment is commonly applied to prisons and pretrial detention centers. However this prohibition also applies to places such as schools, hospitals, orphanages, and social care institutions—places where coercion, power dynamics, and practices occurring outside the purview of law or justice systems can contribute to the infliction of unjustified and severe pain and suffering on marginalized people.

This briefing paper focuses on torture and ill-treatment in health settings, including hospitals, clinics, hospices, people’s homes, or anywhere health care is delivered. It focuses on government accountability for placing health providers and patients in unacceptable situations whereby torture and ill-treatment is neither documented, prevented, punished, nor redressed.

People who are perceived as “deviant” by authorities, who pose a “nuisance” to health providers, who lack the power to complain or assert their rights, or who are associated with stigmatized or criminalized behaviors may be especially at risk of torture in health care. This briefing paper documents examples of torture and ill-treatment against specific populations, including:

  • People needing pain relief
  • People with disabilities
  • Women seeking reproductive health care
  • People living with HIV
  • People with TB
  • Sex workers
  • People who use drugs
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons
  • Roma

Torture and ill-treatment are antithetical to every notion of health care and human dignity. Health settings should be places where human rights are realized and fulfilled, not debased and violated. To stop the scourge of torture and ill-treatment in health care, health providers and anti-torture advocates must come together to listen to the stories of victims, understand the problem and its roots, and propose solutions.

A necessary first step is for human rights organizations and official mechanisms to systematically include health settings among the places they document and advocate against torture and ill-treatment. Courts and tribunals which are confronted with cases of severe abuse in health settings should likewise consider whether these abuses rise to the level of torture and ill-treatment.