06 Jul 2021
IRCT Briefing: 'Conversion Therapy'

In April 2020, the IRCT’s Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) released a statement documenting how so-called ‘conversion therapy’ violates the global prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. In a further research report, IRCT identified State involvement in conversion therapy in at least 68 countries. The IRCT called for a ban on the practice, and its research has since contributed to a growing global effort to speak out and legislate against the practice. During the celebration of WorldPride 2021 in Copenhagen in August, the IRCT hosted a breakout session bringing together key actors working against conversion therapy. View the highlights here. In this briefing we outline the research to-date and progress towards a ban.  

IRCT Briefing: 'Conversion Therapy'

The IRCT calls for a global ban on 'conversion therapy', often targeted at the LGBTQ+ community, as a form of torture.

What is ‘conversion therapy’? 

Conversion therapy is a set of practices that aim to change, ‘repair’ or ‘cure’ an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It is premised on a belief that an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity makes them ill or abnormal and that those characteristics can changed, and doing so is a desirable outcome for the individual, family, or community. Other terms used to describe conversion therapy include sexual orientation change effort (SOCE), reparative therapy, reintegrative therapy, reorientation therapy, ex-gay therapy, and gay cure. The practices of conversion therapy vary across different cultural, religious and medical contexts, but can include violent physical acts such as beatings, rape, forced nudity, forced feeding, starvation and electrocution, as well as a range of reputedly therapeutic practices including psychotherapy, group therapy, and hypnosis, sometimes under the guise of spiritual guidance.  

Where is it happening and who carries it out?  

Conversion therapy is practiced in every region of the world, across the Global North and South. The first global report on the practice, undertaken by OutRight Action, conducted 489 surveys across 80 countries and convincingly established conversion therapy as a worldwide problem. IRCT’s research report identified sources indicating that conversion therapy is performed in at least 68 countries. Conversion therapy appears to be performed widely by health professionals, including medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, sexologists, and therapists. It is also conducted by spiritual leaders, religious practitioners, traditional healers, and community or family members. Conversion therapy is undertaken both in contexts under state control, such as hospitals, schools, and juvenile detention facilities, as well as in private settings like homes, religious institutions, or youth camps and retreats. In some countries, conversion therapy is imposed by the order or instructions of public officials, judges, or the police. 

Who is subject to conversion therapy? 

The arguments made by conversion therapy practitioners is that an individual with a sexual orientation or gender identity that is different from heterosexual orientation requires those characteristics to be ‘converted’ back to the supposed norm of society. As such, individuals who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, or other variations in sexuality or gender identity (LGBTQ+) are the most at-risk group for conversion therapy, with children being particularly vulnerable.   

Why does the IRCT call ‘conversion therapy’ torture?  

The Convention Against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” for purposes that include “any reason based on discrimination of any kind” and in circumstances when “such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.” As a group of 39 distinguished independent medico-legal specialists from 23 countries, IFEG’s expertise in the evaluation and documentation of the physical and psychological evidence of torture and ill-treatment is world leading. Having reviewed research into conversion therapy and the testimonies of those affected, IFEG was able to conclude that it was “clear that conversion therapy is a form of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment when it is conducted forcibly on individuals or without their consent and may amount to torture depending on the circumstances, namely the severity of physical and mental pain and suffering inflicted.” “Many conversion therapy practices bear similarity to acts that are internationally acknowledged to constitute torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Those include beatings, rape, forced nudity, force-feeding, isolation and confinement, deprivation of food, forced medication, verbal abuse, humiliation, and electrocution,” said IFEG. “These specific acts as well as the entire period during which the individual experiences them is recognised internationally to subject individuals to significant or severe physical and/or mental pain and suffering […] All forms of conversion therapy, including talk or psychotherapy, can cause intense psychological pain and suffering. All practices attempting conversion are inherently humiliating, demeaning, and discriminatory.” 

What about conversion therapy done in private – how is that torture? 

The CAT definition of torture does not include acts perpetrated by private individuals. However, the Committee Against Torture, the treaty’s monitoring body, in its General Comment No. 2 established a “due diligence” obligation on States to prevent acts of torture or ill treatment by private individuals where they know or have reasonable grounds to suspect such acts are being committed. In its 2015 annual report, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stressed that States “have an obligation to protect all persons, including LGBT and intersex persons, from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and found that conversion therapy breaches this duty.

What progress has been made towards a ban on conversion therapy?

As of end January 2022, and building on research by ILGA and Stonewall, conversion therapy without consent is only banned nationwide in seven countries: Canada, Germany, Malta, Albania, Brazil, Ecuador and Switzerland. Most of those instituted bans over the past two years only. Spain, the US, Australia and Mexico have regional or state bans, while seven more countries (Argentina, Uruguay, Fiji, Nauru, Samoa, Norway and Taiwan) have mental health laws prohibiting diagnosing patients exclusively on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity which act as a form of indirect ban. National Governments and Parliaments in Ireland, New Zealand, Israel, Denmark, Finland, France and the UK are all actively considering conversion therapy ban legislation, or are in the process of launching consultations. And in China, although there is no legal ban, the courts have twice ruled in favour of gay men who sued medical practices that attempted conversion therapy, awarding compensation. The UN Committee against Torture, the UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, and the OHCHR have all called upon States to ban the practice. In 2016, the UN Committee against Torture recommended that a States Party to the Convention should take “the necessary legislative, administrative and other measures to guarantee respect for the autonomy and physical and personal integrity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons and prohibit the practice of so-called ‘conversion therapy’.”

For more information

Who are IFEG? 

Established by the IRCT in 2009 as part of its mission to be an international hub of expertise on torture, IFEG is an organisation of 42 distinguished experts from 23 countries specialised in the forensic investigation and documentation of torture and ill-treatment. IFEG members have a range of medical and mental health specialisations, including in medicine, psychology, psychiatry, pathology, forensic anthropology, and psychotherapy. Together they represent over 500 years of experience and have examined more than 18,000 victims of torture. IFEG members have testified in court and other forums over 2,000 times and have conducted 1,500 trainings on torture and the Istanbul Protocol, the key international standard for investigating and documenting torture. IFEG medico-legal evaluations involve examining alleged torture victims to identify any physical and psychological evidence and to document those findings in high-quality reports. IFEG members also share knowledge on forensic documentation and on the effects of torture where the current medical or scientific literature is lacking by drafting and issue expert statements or advice to governments and international organisations. Together IFEG members have produced over 50,000 medico-legal reports on both torture and other issues and have authored or edited over 2,000 scientific articles and books on forensics. 

“Conversion therapy is a form of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment when conducted forcibly on individuals or without their consent and may amount to torture depending on the severity of physical and mental pain and suffering inflicted.”

The Independent Forensic Expert Group

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