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
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
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.