Focus Areas | The Istanbul Protocol

The global standard for torture documentation and investigation

One of the most effective tools for ending impunity related to torture is the “Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” Commonly known as the Istanbul Protocol, this UN document outlines international legal standards and sets out specific guidelines on how to document and conduct effective legal and medical investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment. The Istanbul Protocol is the first set of international guidelines for the medical documentation of torture and its consequences. 

A Tool for Future Accountability: The 2022 Update of the Istanbul Protocol 

The new edition of the Istanbul Protocol is updated and strengthened with lessons learned from more than 20 years of implementation experience, providing critical guidance to States to ensure they fulfil their treaty obligations to investigate, prosecute, and punish torture under the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) and international law.  

The 2022 edition of the Istanbul Protocol is available for download in all six official United Nations languages on the website of the OHCHR.

Resources on the Updated Istanbul Protocol

“The Istanbul Protocol has transformed how we understand, investigate, document, and work towards the eradication of torture around the world.”

Vincent Iacopino, MD, PhD, Istanbul Protocol Editorial Committee Member, former Medical Director and current Advisory Council member at Physicians for Human Rights, and Adjunct Professor of Medicine at University of Minnesota Medical School. 

Questions and Answers about the Istanbul Protocol 

What is the Istanbul Protocol?

The Istanbul Protocol is the first set of international guidelines for the medical documentation of torture and its consequences.  

Forensic medical evaluations conducted in accordance with Istanbul Protocol standards constitute critically important evidence in torture cases. Trained clinicians examine all signs and sequelae of physical and psychological abuse and produce a medicoal-legal affidavit documenting their conclusions. These affidavits serve as key evidence to prosecute perpetrators of torture, to help victims obtain redress in civil courts, and to substantiate claims of asylum in new countries. 

How was the Istanbul Protocol created?  

PHR’s Vincent Iacopino, MD, PhD in his role as PHR’s medical director was a lead author and project coordinator of the Istanbul Protocol, which was developed over the course of three years by more than 75 forensic physicians, psychologists, human rights monitors, and lawyers representing 40 organizations and institutions from 15 countries. In 1999, this ground-breaking resource was adopted as the United Nations’ recognized standard. 

How has the Istanbul Protocol been used? 

Since its official endorsement by OHCHR in 1999, the Istanbul Protocol’s standards have been adopted by international, regional, and national human rights bodies and legal mechanisms and have served as the global standards for investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment. The Istanbul Protocol has informed countless medico-legal investigations conducted by both State and non-State actors into torture worldwide.  It has served as a guide to clinicians in best practices for their conduct and documentation of medico-legal assessments of individuals alleging torture and/or ill treatment.  

The Istanbul Protocol has shaped a broad range of anti-torture activities including advocacy, training and capacity building, policy reform, prevention, and treatment, and rehabilitation of torture survivors.   

How does PHR promote the use of the Istanbul Protocol? 

Since 1999, PHR has trained thousands of health professionals around the world using the Istanbul Protocol guidelines and principles. In 2012, working with three partner organizations, we developed an Istanbul Protocol Plan of Action, a set of practical guidelines which have been instrumental in helping a number of countries improve torture investigation and documentation. 

Why was the Istanbul Protocol updated in 2022? 

The new edition of the Istanbul Protocol is strengthened with lessons learned from 20 years of implementation experience, providing critical guidance to States to ensure they fulfil their treaty obligations to investigate, prosecute, and punish torture under the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) and international law.  

The update was led by representatives of four civil society organizations; (Physicians for Human Rights, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, and REDRESS); and the four core United Nations anti-torture bodies (the Committee against Torture, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, Special Rapporteur on Torture, and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture).  

“Nearly 40 years after world governments agreed to prohibit torture, these heinous practices continue in more than half of the world’s countries, often with impunity.  We now call on all States to fully implement these standards and meet treaty obligations to prevent torture and ill-treatment, hold perpetrators accountable, and afford victims the redress and rehabilitation they are entitled to under international law.”

Vincent Iacopino, MD, PhD, Istanbul Protocol Editorial Committee Member, former Medical Director and current Advisory Council member at Physicians for Human Rights, and Adjunct Professor of Medicine at University of Minnesota Medical School. 

Watch: Experts Reflect on Their Experiences Using the Istanbul Protocol and its Global Impact