SRI LANKA: Opposite Approach to Minimize Torture in Sri Lanka

By Sanjeewa Weerawickrama [1]

The history of torture has been from time immemorial. Today and in the future torture is a reality in many countries. To solve a problem there may be multiple approaches. Maybe certain methods are more effective than others but each has its own ways, means and value. An intervention to minimize torture is a main issue in Sri Lanka. It has seen much effort paid to it over a long period of time. It is reasonable to concentrate on the victim who suffered torture as well as the violation of his fundamental rights. But, the torturer must be punished according to the Law. To punish the torturer and to get justice for the victim, a proper investigation should be carried out. It is imperative to analyze the entire situation of an act of torture relating not only to the victim but to the actions and mind-set of the perpetrator.

Why is it Important to Pay Attention to the Torturer in Order to Reduce Torture?

Where there is torture in a society there has to be a torturer. If there are no torturers there will be no acts of torture. It is important to study the mental state of torturers. How did they develop such a personality? If a person understands the possible outcomes of being a torturer, perhaps he will think twice before inflicting torture on another person. Do you think that this is a possible, effective avenue to minimize torture in a given society? The modern world is evolving to where it can achieve targets more easily with a deeper understanding of the problems. In this exercise let us consider the mental state of the torturer with a view that it can be used to lessen torture in society.

Any Special Risk Factors in Becoming a Torturer?

Are all the officers or individuals in the Police Institution torturers? The answer is very straight forward and it is NO. [2] In general, human-kind is considered as an empathetic species. If so, why do a small percentage of people engage in such brutal actions as to be investigated? It is not only the mentality of the individual that has to be considered. The collective attitude of individuals in a group has to be evaluated. It depends on a given society existing with many inter-influential situations.

So, if we want to understand why torture occurs, it is important to consider the psychology of individuals, their peer groups and society in general. The peer group indeed affects the behaviour of an individual. It can lead them to do things that they would never ordinarily do. The field of Psychology has researched the subject of torture for years. Some initial research that was undertaken by Professor Stanley Milgram, at Yale University, (published in 1963) and the Stanford Prison Experiment should be considered as how human behaviour is influenced by external factors. Milgram concluded that an ordinary person would be willing to obey instructions from an authority figure to increase electric-shocks on a person without considering his own conscience. [3] Milgram’s research and other similar research have concluded that the superior, Official-Type of Encouragement is operative in a situation–i.e. Top-Down Pressure. A reverse force has also been identified, known as Peer Encouragement –i.e. Bottom-UpPressure according to John Conroy. [4] He said that “When torture takes place, people believe they are on the high moral-ground, that the nation is under threat and they are the front line protecting the nation, and people will be grateful for what they are doing.” It explains how a torturer justifies his conscience for being a torturer.

Not only the aspects mentioned above, but other causes and risk factors can be associated with the execution of torture. It has been recognized that various psychological deviations are seen in these perpetrators especially Sadistic Satisfaction. Acts of torture may satisfy the deviated mental state of the torturer. And, as a result such persons are willingly to inflict torture on others. These characters are people who lack empathy. [5]

In addition, the concept of Dark Personalities, coined by Paulhus and Williams (2002), shows how the vulnerability of a torturer can be explained further. Such a personality is described mainly as having one of three characteristics which are believed to finally create a ruthless person. [6].

1. Sociopath 
A person who has undergone a traumatic childhood is included in this category because of early trauma, abuse or neglect. As he develops, he becomes mentally deranged and is unable to regulate his emotions.

2. Narcissist
“They really see themselves as special, better than the niftiest person that ever lived. There is no chink in their armor, they are simply infallible in their minds”.

3. Psychopath
4. A person suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behavior.

In a recent article published by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), it was recognized that there are three dynamics in becoming a torturer. According to Riccardo Bocco and Jonathan Austin, three dynamics are required for torturers to emerge, even in the absence of a leader. A system that requires torture to be used is found in: situational dynamics, material dynamics and circulation of the knowledge of torture. [7]

Whatever theories that are put forward, the causative and risk factors for being or converting into a torturer are difficult to pinpoint [8]. But there are a few ways that can predict such personalities emerging.

Here are two examples. Correlation between animal cruelty and future cruelty towards human beings has been an established fact. [9] Those that have undergone severe childhood abuse should also be highlighted. A precise explanation about the causative factors is beyond the scope of this article.

The Cost to the Torturer Because of Torturing

Up to this point, we have discussed why people tend to inflict torture on others. However, the main idea of this article is to elicit the effects upon the torturer himself. The understanding of the outcome and the fate that they have to undergo for being a torturer has its own psychological effects on them. Through this awareness much hope can be generated to minimize torture. The perpetrator will understand the cost that he has to pay throughout his lifetime. This insight, as to how the torturer’s life will be negatively affected, would make a person think twice before torturing. It is a recognized fact that there will be psychological sequelae for the torturer as well. [10] Many literature citations confirm this. The list below states possible psychological outcomes in perpetrators of torture. [11]

Psychosocial Sequelae for Perpetrators of Torture

Post-Traumatic Symptoms

1. Intrusive thoughts and re-experiencing torturing in nightmares and flashbacks
2. Avoidance of reminders and triggers
3. Social alienation – feeling outside of humanity, social isolation, family isolation
4. Feelings – extreme shame and guilt/ remorse, self-condemnation, feeling loss of humanity, fear of retaliation including legal claims
5. High arousal states – angry outbursts, difficulty in concentration, sleep disturbances inability to fall or stay sleep
6. Dissociative personality splinter – developing a Torture Persona, sense of Disembodiment, amnesia for parts or whole of the experience
7. Drug and alcohol abuse – self-medication, prescription drug abuse
8. Suicidal thoughts and behavior
9. Increased aggression/continued perpetrator behavior

The above 9 illustrations makes it clear that the cost a perpetrator has to pay is considerable and should not be overlooked. More research and interviews are needed in Sri Lanka to elaborate these causative outcomes among the torturers in Sri Lanka.

Recommendations and Conclusion

To conclude this article, it is mandatory that the Government take the major responsibility in minimizing torture. There should be proper instruction related to the outcomes that a perpetrator of torture would suffer while still in the Police Department or the military. Empathy should be stressed/developed during the training of new personnel. Not only that, they should be educated to know that torture is wrong. So it is essential to share new research about the possible squealae to torturers and to highlight the possible outcomes of torturers in their training courses. By changing attitudes regarding torture, rationally there should be fewer numbers of torturers in our Police Institution and Armed Forces. Modern techniques should be introduced especially Interviewing Techniques for suspects and DNA analysis.

A reliable screening method would be most advantageous in interviewing new recruits. It could weed out vulnerable recruits liable to torture in the future. Set up an Educational Curricula with high moral and ethical standards, employing the latest techniques and investigative equipment in use globally. Strongly emphasize the lifelong repercussions torturers have to pay for engaging in this heinous behavior. These are a few approaches to minimize torture in Sri Lanka in addition to the system of punishing perpetrators.


  1. Rasika Sanjeewa Weerawickrama, LLB (Col), LLM (HK)), (Attorney-at-Law) is a Legal Practitioner in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. The author acknowledges the excellent guidance in researching by Rev. Sister Marya Zaborowski, Maryknoll Sisters of Saint Dominic.
  2. Stephen Reicher and Alex Haslam, a Psychologist. Why not everyone is a torturer?
  3. The Milgram Experiment. 1963
  4. The view from the bottom-up – Changing Ireland.
  5. Psychology of torture.
  7. Françoise Sironi, Riccardo Bocco, Paul Bouvier Tackling Torture: Who are the torturers?
  8. Interview with a Torturer.
  9. Cynthia Hodges, Cruelty to Animals and Violence towards People.
  10. Why do humans torture others?
  11. Psychosocial Drivers, Prevention and Sequelae of Engaging in Torture.