Human Rights Abuses:

The Physical and Psychological Sequelae of Torture

Today, Dec 10, 2000 is the 52nd anniversary of United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It is a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. It is the highest aspiration of common people and a foundation of peace, justice, and freedom.(2) The Article 5 of UDHR states that " No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".

The World Medical Association, in its Declaration of Tokyo (1975), defines Torture as..

" the deliberate, systematic, or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons, acting alone or on the orders of any authority, to force another person to yield information, to make a confession, or for any other reason."

Torture destroys the self and the very foundation of stability; the person undergoing torture can believe in nothing; questions of morality become irrelevant; decisions may become impossible choices; and survival may mean either forced betrayal or lifelong guilt It has been estimated that there are over 50 million refugees in the world, of whom 23 million have been forced to flee their countries of origin. From 5% to 35% of the world's refugees have been estimated to have experienced torture.(1) Many others, not directly tortured, have been exposed indirectly as family or friends of those who have been abused. A large number of refugees have experienced torture in such diverse places as Cambodia, Vietnam, El Salvador, the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and most of all, our country Burma.

Physical and Psychological Consequences of Torture

Skeletal and soft tissue abnormalities secondary to beatings and suspension during torture are frequently described. There are strong evidences of female prisoners being sexually abused, or raped. The most dramatic psychological consequence of torture is the post-traumatic stress disorder. The common symptoms included insomnia and night mares, memory loss, and poor concentration. Anne Goldfield et al (Physicians for Human Rights) have found evidence of a psychological syndrome specific to the survivor of torture. It is characterized by extreme anxiety, insomnia and night mares...phobias, suspiciousness and fearfulness. In a 1984 follow-up study of the 135 subjects, it was found that 22 had a "chronic organic psycho syndrome."

The Radio Free Asia has released news of the situation of political prisoners in Mandalay prison. It was stated that Dr Zaw Min and the other two political prisoners are suffering from serious mental illness and required urgent medical attention. The mother of student leader "Min Ko Naing" who was in prison since August 1988 is suffering from heart disease from fears and worries for her son.

As a physician and / or health professional, it is our responsibility to be aware of these vulnerabilities and provide thoughtful and comprehensive care. We are in a unique position to foster the prevention of torture in addition to providing them the best medical care. Careful documentation of symptoms and physical findings associated with human rights abuses will focus attention on the occurrence of torture and hastens its elimination. These documentations will contribute to the international recognition and eradication of all those inhuman practice. To be sensitive to health issues, health professionals must be knowledgeable about human rights. With this action and manner, we all, as health professionals may be able to make significant contribution to political and legal efforts to denounce, punish and prevent human rights abuses and be able to bring peace, freedom and justice to our beloved motherland.


  • Goldfield A. The physical and psychological sequelae of torture. JAMA: May 13, 1988
  • Mann J. Health and human rights. Health and Human Rights Journal: Vol 2 No.1
  • Dr Khin Saw Win (Alice)

    This commentary is based on a posting Dr. Khin Saw Win made in the soc.culture.burma newsgroup and the FreeBurma Yahoo! Group on 2000-12-10. The posting has been edited for inclusion on the Burma Watch International Web site.

    Date last changed: 2007 September 25

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