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A recent video address from Svetlana Tikhanovskaya recorded under evident psychological pressure from the Lukashenko regime highlights the need to adopt a more precise official definition of the concept of “psychological torture” in the post-Soviet space. Legal experts believe that the United Nations’ (UN) and Russia’s differing definitions of this concept lead to human rights violations.


In her August 11 video address Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said that she had made the decision to leave Belarus all by herself. However, her representative Olga Kovalkova claimed that the former presidential candidate had been brought out of the country by the members of the Lukashenko regime. Photo: Youtube screenshot.


Events in Belarus following the August 9 presidential election demonstrated that undemocratic regimes are increasingly employing psychological torture not only to obtain testimony from arrestees, but also to extract political statements from opponents. The video address of opposition presidential candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, delivered on August 11 shortly before her departure from Belarus, leaves no doubt that she was subjected to illegal mental pressure and possibly even to psychological torture and intimidation, including threats against family members. 

In Tikhanovskaya’s case, it is clear that her children were threatened. Her statement that “our children are the most important thing in our lives” supports this assumption, and in the following phrase — “I’m still the same weak woman that I was”—the influence of Lukashenko’s regime becomes obvious. The fact that a female candidate became so popular with voters distinctly irks the Belarusian president: a woman as a successful political opponent does not fit the Soviet status quo. It was therefore necessary to force a public statement about her being “a weak woman” who could not possibly hold up against a portly man with a moustache. 

Tikhanovskaya’s assertion that “the decision to [leave Belarus] was only [her] own” clearly points to the following. First, the address was likely recorded under immense psychological pressure; second, those in charge of making the video did not do their job well. The video address produces the exact opposite of its intended effect: it is practically impossible to believe that Tikhanovskaya made the decision to leave by herself. The events that followed in Belarus—mass arrests, riot police crackdown, victims’ messages from detention centers—indicate that detainees were subjected to both physical and psychological torture. The problem is so urgent and trending that it would be impossible to ignore yet another aggravating factor: in the official Russian translations of UN documents the concept of “psychological torture” is inadequately interpreted. 

Due to an incorrect translation, the Russian understanding of non-physical torture diverges from the UN’s official stance. This is evidenced by the wording of Article I of the United Nations Convention against Torture: any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person. The original word “mental” was translated into Russian as “moral” (нравственный). This diffuses the core understanding of the concept of “torture” and makes it too vague for precise application of related laws. 

The other accepted translation of “mental”—“that of the soul” (душевный)—is more appropriate given the common Russian label of mentally ill persons as “sick in the soul” (душевнобольной), but moves the concept even further from the scientific understanding of the mechanism underlying this kind of torture. Note that the official back translation of “нравственный” maps to “moral” not “mental,” which further complicates the situation as the two terms are not synonymous and are associated with completely different meanings. 

This mistake was made by the UN’s Russian translators back in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The wrong translation made it into the 1984 Convention, as well as into most UN documents due to bureaucratic inertia; in our opinion, this inertia must be remedied immediately. Attempts of UN translators to fix the situation confused it even further. For example, in the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of 1975, the word “mental” is translated as “intellectual,” which is clearly somewhat closer to the original English definition, but is still not fully adequate. Additionally, in this particular document, the same definition of “mental” is also translated as “moral” and “intellectual” in two different instances. 

Formally, the UN itself is responsible for the work of the Russian translators, but there is some uncertainty about the exact role played by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the law-making process: why do Russia’s UN mission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice, State Duma, and high courts keep overlooking the semantic chaos unfolding before them?

Moreover, since Russian is one of the official UN languages, Russian translators’ initial mistake set a precedent, which led all post-Soviet states to translate their own texts of the Convention against Torture in a similar fashion. Thus, in the Ukrainian translation, the term “mental” is rendered as “moral,” evoking the idea of “moral torture,” which sounds similar to “moral damages,” but should actually address illegal psychological pressure exerted on the victim by government officials or their subordinates. It is quite possible that similar issues are lurking in translations into other languages of post-Soviet states, besides ones from English and other official languages of the UN. 

The use of this incorrect translation and the subsequent unacceptable definition of “moral torture,” make applying the UN’s core concept to widespread non-physical torture and illegal psychological pressure on witnesses, suspects, defendants, and their family members very challenging in Russia. To date, the correct translation of “mental” as “psychological (or neuro-psychological)” only appears in the book The Defense Attorney’s Duty and the Psychologist’s Ethics by Sophia Nagornaya and Shamil Haziyev, which is due to be published in 2020 by Loom. This translation is mostly based on the perspective voiced by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer, who prepared a report on psychological torture for the October session of the UN General Assembly (the report remains a working draft and an official UN translation in Russian is not yet available). 

The situation could be rectified by applying the correct translation, but that would require immediate action on the part of diplomats, politicians, experts, and various civil society institutes, since the report’s preliminary text, containing a detailed description of the application and terminology associated with non-physical torture, has been already published by the UN. If the terminology is yet again translated incorrectly, it would complicate the appropriate enforcement of torture prohibition norms for quite some time to come. Therefore, it would be pertinent to raise this question prior to the UN’s October session, by which point both the full report and its Russian translation will be official documents. 

Formally, the UN itself is responsible for the work of the Russian translators, but there is some uncertainty about the exact role played by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the law-making process: why do Russia’s UN mission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice, State Duma, and high courts keep overlooking the semantic chaos unfolding before them? The Russian translation is already viewed as secondary to the English original; worse, high-level representatives do not attribute much weight to it, offloading all responsibility onto non-specialized translators1 and displaying what seems like an intentionally indifferent attitude toward their official duties. 

Russian civil society institutes and bar associations in particular have highlighted the flaws contained in the current definition of “psychological torture” and the need to revise it for the sake of its practical use by lawyers in all post-Soviet countries. The issue was discussed at the International Bar Association meetings held in Moscow and Singapore in 2007,2 as well as at the International Forum for the Rule of Law in Vienna in 20083 and the European Bar Association in Bruges in 2007.4 Clearly, it is time for Russian bar associations, together with other civic institutes, to intensify their efforts to secure an adequate Russian translation of the term “psychological torture” in official UN documents. Before this happens, however, Russian experts should focus on the original English definition. 

The 1984 UN Convention states that “each State Party shall undertake to prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture as defined in article I, when such acts are committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.” However, cases in which a judge’s tacit consent means that a defendant is prevented from perceiving courtroom events in their full scope due to abnormal levels of arterial blood pressure are not rare.5 During the discussions of the Convention’s definition of torture, the media raised an important question that defense attorney and member of the Russian Presidential Human Rights Counsel Shota Gorgadze had already broached during a trial in Novgorod. Mr. Gorgadze argued that the continuation of the trial under the circumstance of a hypertensive emergency capable of impacting the defendant’s perception of the proceedings should be viewed as torture. Including the concept of “neurological torture” in the current UN Convention could therefore contribute to Russia’s and, potentially, the global movement against torture.


Petr Barenboim, Ph.D. in Law, is a defense attorney and First Vice President of the International Union (Commonwealth) of Lawyers

Ekaterina Mishina, Ph.D. in Law, is an independent constitutional law expert



1 Volodina, S., Kravchenko, D. Correcting the translator's mistake. Advokatskaya Gazeta, No. 17 (322), 2020 (online issue).

2 "The Rule of Law and Psychological Torture: absence of a legal definition, prospects and problem" (white paper). The World Rule of Law movement and Russian Legal Reform. Moscow: Justitsinform, 2007.

3 Reznick, G. A Concept for the Rule of Law in Russia. The Moscow City Chamber of Advocates. Moscow: Justitsinform, 2008.

4 Semeniako E., Barenboim P. The Moscow-Bruges concept of a single legal and rule of law space for Europe and Russia. Moscow: Justitsinform, 2007.

5 Barenboim, P., Nagornaya, S. Advokatskaya Gazeta, No. 11, May 2020.


Text translation: Elizaveta Agarkova.