What is waterboarding?

Waterboarding is one of the oldest and most recognized forms of torture. Waterboarding is when an individual is restrained to a board or table, a cloth is placed over the mouth and nose and water is poured over the cloth blocking off the flow of air. This method of torture may be referred to as chiffon and is a form of asphyxiation (the deprivation of oxygen) using water. Other forms of asphyxiation using water may include submerging a person’s head in a container of liquid such as water or urine, a method referred to as wet submarine/submarino.

International standards

Waterboarding is recognized as a method of torture in the Istanbul Protocol and should be considered an unacceptable form of treatment under any circumstance In addition, The Council of Europe has specifically examined waterboarding and condemned the use of this method underlining that it “is not a professional interrogation technique, it is an act of torture” (5). Furthermore, waterboarding is explicitly prohibited by US military regulations (6).

In practice

In the aftermath of the Twin Towers attack in the US, the US Department of Justice determined that a broad array of “enhanced interrogation techniques” were lawful, thereby justifying the use of waterboarding in the so-called “War on Terror” (6–8). Waterboarding was used on suspected terrorists captured in Afghanistan and Iraq by the CIA and the US military prison, and monitored by US military doctors (9). Due to the fact that the findings and details of the interrogations are closely-held secrets, it is impossible at this time to know the details about the use of waterboarding.

The use of waterboarding has also been documented in Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, Lebanon, Syria, Bangladesh, Uganda, and likely occurs in many more countries across the world (10–12).

Health consequences

Waterboarding and its variants are an example of a physical torture method that produces immediate physical and mental suffering and leads to major psychological distress.

Physical consequences: The inhalation of water may cause the victims to drown or almost drown. Drowning is a complex process involving halting breath, struggling, physical exhaustion, rising carbon dioxide levels, the inhalation and intake of liquid, coughing, vomiting, loss of consciousness, respiratory failure and cardiac arrest. Physical consequences of waterboarding include Hypothermia (reduced body temperature), Aspiration pneumonia (lung infection), Laryngospasm (sudden spasm of the vocal cords which disables speech and breath), incontinence, memory deficits, epilepsy, acute brain damage, and an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Psychological consequences: The experience of drowning has been described as one of the most traumatic experiences a human being can endure (13). and it is associated with a range of long-term psychological effects including panic attacks, depression, PTSD and changes in personality (10). Waterboarding often leads to shock, confusion, distrust, lack of sleep, mental exhaustion, and isolation (10,13).


  • There is a need for comprehensive training of medical and judicial professionals to expand awareness and understanding of waterboarding as a torture method, and to train medical staff in treatment of the torture victims.
  • There is a need to create public awareness about the fact that waterboarding is a form of torture and is therefore considered a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.
  1. Kanstroom D. On “Waterboarding”: Legal Interpretation and the Continuing Struggle for Human Rights. Boston Coll Int Comp Law Rev. 2009 May 1;32(2):203.
  2. Beynon J. ‘Not waving, drowning’. Asphyxia and torture: the myth of simulated drowning and other forms of torture. Torture Q J Rehabil Torture Vict Prev Torture. 2012;22 Suppl 1:25–9.
  3. Moreno A, Grodin MA. Torture and its neurological sequelae. Spinal Cord. 2002 May;40(5):213–23.
  4. United Nations, editor. Istanbul Protocol: manual on the effective investigation and documentation of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Rev. 1. New York: United Nations; 2004. 76 p. (Professional training series).
  5. CPT. 15th General Report on the CPT’s activities. Strasbourg: European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT); 2005 Sep.
  6. Graham LO, Connolly PR. Waterboarding: Issues and Lessons for Judge Advocates. Air Force Law Rev. 2013 Jan;69:65–90.
  7. Marcovitz H. Exposing torture: centuries of cruelty. Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books; 2015. 112 p.

Written by: Marie My Warborg Larsen
February 2018
For questions and comments, please contact: factsheets@dignity.dk

See more from DIGNITY's Fact Sheet Collection:

  1. Falanga
  2. Telefono
  3. Sexual torture
  4. Pepper spray
  5. Waterboarding
  6. Solitary Confinement