Archive for category Administrative
Torture rehabilitation in the Western Balkans – stories, challenges and the importance of working together
As part of his work as IRCT Regional Coordinator for Europe, we hear from Mushegh Yekmalyan as he travelled to the small town of Petrovac, Montenegro, to discuss anti-torture work from three torture rehabilitation centres and around 20 other human rights organisations in the Western Balkans.
Meeting new people is always an exciting experience, especially when you get the chance to hear from fellow human rights defenders and how the work we are all part of has aided rehabilitation, recovery and revival among people and communities.
The three-day roundtable meeting, organised by the International Aid Network (IAN), an IRCT member, was the final event of a three-year torture prevention project in the Western Balkans.
Torture survivors were present at the meeting. It was particularly moving to hear the problems of de-humanisation in their stories, the help provided by rehabilitation centres to mend the damage torture causes to families and communities, and who should be providing the rehabilitative services in the region.
The problem of de-humanisation
In many legislations, mentally disabled people have no right of appealing an assessment of their mental disability – an assessment often made by doctors who may have even not seen them and have come to a conclusion on the basis of some paperwork that was done by others.
The same is also true about the justice system where judges often do not see the person alleged to be mentally disabled, so just base their judgements on an opinion of a doctor.
The shocking reality that only the legal guardian has a right to appeal such decisions constitutes the very fact of de-humanisation as the person has no right to protect himself/herself when the rest of the world seems against you.
This situation was abused thousands of times in authoritarian regimes to de-humanise political opponents and dissidents, who were not just imprisoned but were simply sent to the psychiatric wards where nobody could see them and hear from them. Unfortunately this loop hole still exists in modern times and there is always a risk of having a person locked up in a psychiatric ward because of human error or abuse.
Addressing the far-reaching effects of torture
The crime of torture can not only traumatise the direct victims, but also their families and communities. In general, after years of repression, conflict and war, regular support networks and structures have often been broken or destroyed.
Providing support to survivors of torture and trauma can help reconstruct broken societies. Rehabilitation centres therefore play a key role in promoting democracy, co-existence and respect for human rights. They provide support and hope, and are a talisman against terror and torture.
It was fascinating to hear how the IRCT members in the region are engaging with communities damaged by conflict and torture in the Balkans. Much of the work focuses on remote villages where social workers, accompanied by doctors, are frequent visitors to families affected by torture in an attempt to make the survivors of torture feel integrated into their community. This work is often supported by UN agencies and other donors, and much work is being accomplished thanks to these close ties.
The war-torn Balkans have numerous stories from torture survivors who were former prisoners of war, or civilians caught in the crossfire. The victims not only suffered from the violence of conflict, but also humiliation from their communities because of their victim status.
The responsibility to provide rehabilitation
But who should offer support and provide rehabilitation? In many contexts where the survivors of torture are still within the same country and even often within the same municipality where the torture happened, a need of proper protection of the survivor and the caregiver must be guaranteed. However, in many contexts where the state has a blind eye to the problems of torture – and perhaps even supports the punitive actions of police force and paramilitary – the support must come from human rights organisations and networks working outside the state structure. This is why the rehabilitation centres not only in the Balkans but also across the globe are so important – they provide help where it seems like there is no room for hope.
Many IRCT member centres are on frontline and often are overwhelmed by horror stories of war, violence, torture and ongoing brutalities. But collective understanding of the importance of the work they do at meetings like this help them to carry on and help those in need.
“This government will not give an inch when it comes to protecting our borders,” says Australian Immigration minister Scott Morrison in a rather definitive sound-bite.
But the lack of negotiation is not a hard-line response to a threat. The position of the government is not to tackle an impending disaster. Instead the anti-asylum stance – which particularly targets refugees fleeing Indonesia by perilous, horrifying makeshift boat trips across the Pacific – is one promoted to ensure political success, even at the possible expense of thousands of lives of asylum seekers who are simply holding regard for their own life.
In October 2013, this blog covered the story of Operation Sovereign Borders – a seemingly militaristic operation, led by decorated Major General Angus Campbell, under the coalition government of Australia, which aims to halt the arrival of asylum seekers by sea.
The rhetoric is clear, the message direct: stopping the boats is the number one priority.
It’s an aim which some commentators have already hailed as a victory, allowing Australia to move past its days of “lost sovereignty and lawless migration”.
Currently all unauthorized migrants – or ‘illegals’ as the State shorthand seems to suggest – are detained. The detention exists as an intermediary phase whereby assessments can be carried out to determine the legality of a person’s stay. The alternative method to deal with arriving immigrants is to send them back to their homeland.
The detention, while in theory short-term, often transforms into long-term detention, causing great psychological harm to asylum seekers, who remain estranged from humanity with many detention centres constructed away from the mainland. Reports of depression and anxiety are unsurprising and, unfortunately, these symptoms are similar to those experienced under torture – the frightening reality which may have triggered the risky boat journey to Australia in the first place.
IRCT member Association for Services to Torture and Trauma Survivors (ASeTTS) in Perth, Western Australia, provides counselling and mental health services for asylum seekers in the region who are currently in detention. But with the government seemingly succeeding in their clampdown on the “boat people”, ASeTTS may no longer have access to asylum seekers via state detention centres, purely because asylum seekers will not arrive at all. In fact state detention centres could closedown altogether, meaning there will be no support for asylum seekers, many of whom need vital help to move on from experiences of torture in their past.
And perhaps this is exactly what some political figures want – a complete end to the boats, an end to asylum seeking, and an end to the apparent ‘threat’. But what this narrow, vote-pursuing policy also ends is fair human rights treatment. So while the policy is claimed to be a success, it all comes at the cost of the Australian human rights record.
As signatories of various international human rights conventions upholding rights for asylum seekers – particularly the 1951 Refugee Convention – Australia’s government should give fair and proper consideration, screening and treatment to anyone seeking asylum, to identify potential trauma and suffering which forced them to take the decision to leave their country. But even more basic than that, to assure basic protection of human rights, correct and fair treatment of asylum seekers is a must.
Every September the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) sees thousands of film fanatics and cinema experts alike convene in Canada to preview the latest films in the upcoming cinema calendar.
Now in its 37th year, the festival screens around 350 films and provides awards for some of the best, past winners including movies which have then gone onto win the Oscars.
It is a big stage to promote a message. And this year the big message seems to be raising awareness of torture, the effects of torture, and rehabilitation.
Before in the blog series we have covered some of the most harrowing, realistic and insightful films on torture – you can read our report here. But this year this year in Toronto, torture awareness seems to be at the top of the agenda once again.
A powerful message
There are a range of films dealing with torture at the festival. Prisoners focuses on the story of a man (Hugh Jackman) who locks away the suspected kidnapper of his daughter (Paul Dano) before subjecting him to torture. It is a concentrated study of the effects and the immorality of torture between two people.
Another movie, 12 Years a Slave, takes the audience back to pre-Civil War America where a black man named Solomon (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is sold into slavery. The film follows his life, the torment from his slave masters and his journey to escape the horrors of slavery.
But perhaps the most exciting upcoming release themed around torture methods, effects and rehabilitation is Colin Firth’s The Railway Man. (See the trailer below).
The Railway Man is based on a real-life story from prisoner of war Eric Lomax who, following capture by Japanese troops in 1942, became a prisoner forced to build the Burma Railway in Thailand.
A prize-winning memoir, Lomax recounts his experiences of war, the gruelling tasks he had to complete as a prisoner and the struggle to forgive those who had tortured him.
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and co-starring Nicole Kidman as Lomax’s (Colin Firth) wife, the film shows the trauma of both war and torture. Not shying away from reality, the film also depicts detention in a makeshift cage, beatings from guards and water-boarding.
The film seems to promote the message that lives can be changed and, with the right support in place, people can move on. Victims of torture need not be seen as ‘victims’ forever. Through bravely seeking rehabilitation, victims become survivors – strong, courageous survivors of events which consist of acts of untamed cruelty, manipulation and violence.
The Second World War story aside, the film highlights the realities of torture, the turmoil torture causes a victim of torture and the struggles the victim of torture must go through to become the person they want to be.
It is a story of survival that happens every day. The bravery of survivors of torture cannot be understated, but there is still a long way to go to ensure effective rehabilitation from torture, access to justice for victims, and for procedures and steps to prevent torture in the future.
One of the ways to work towards these goals is to highlight the prevalence of torture worldwide and films showcasing the reality of torture is certainly one step in raising awareness of this very prevalent issue.
You can read our previous blog featuring some of the most analytical, realistic depictions of torture and rehabilitation by clicking this link.
Editor’s Note: The IRCT is welcoming a new staff member to their Communications Team, who will be regularly blogging for World Without Torture. In this article Ashley Scrace explains his role in the team, how his experience has led him here and the challenges he faces in the role of Communications Officer.
Other than small holidays trips abroad, I had never left the UK for any extended period of time beyond a few weeks. Suddenly moving from a stable life in my home country to my home in Sweden – where I reside and commute to Copenhagen every day, across the famous Øresund Bridge – came as a bit of a shock to the system. I had a job in Denmark with the IRCT set up, a home in Sweden guaranteed, but satisfaction is one thing which is rarely certain.
But despite only working with the IRCT for a couple of weeks now, I am certain I will be very satisfied here and, I hope, those interested in the IRCT and its work with rehabilitation, justice and prevention of torture will be equally satisfied with my work.
I have been involved with journalism, particularly newspaper and radio journalism, since my mid-teens. From work experience placements on local newspapers and radio I soon developed an active interest in the media and communications. It was during my time at the University of Sheffield that I learned one valuable element which, until this point, had never really been emphasised: focus on the human interest.
Everyone has a story. Everyone has feelings, opinions, views and emotions to contribute to those stories. But bringing that out can be tough, and that is where my skills lie – develop information, bringing out the truth, and conveying it in concise, colourful, coherent stories.
Joining the IRCT
Joining the IRCT after years of news journalism therefore seemed natural. Quite often in journalism you forget about the people behind the stories. You focus on angles, values, ethics and so on, and it becomes rather distant from your subjects.
The IRCT changes that. It is my role to discover the stories of survivors of torture, to listen to them with empathy, to recognise their messages and feelings, and to digest the stories so a global audience can recognise the realities of torture, the effects of torture on a person, and just what can be done to rehabilitate survivors.
The work of the IRCT is like no other I have experienced. Not only do the numbers of rehabilitated torture survivors show success, but their stories do too. Some of these people have been tortured for having a voice in the past. They have so much to say, but nowhere to say it. Perhaps they have no impetus to say anything more. But with careful rehabilitation, survivors of torture are coming forward with their stories – they are being shown they are entitled to a voice.
It is therefore an honour to be able to work alongside such incredible survivors, and such passionate colleagues.
It has been made apparent to me even in these early days that torture is a reality which is often swept under the carpet. Right now I am reading through some of the most harrowing accounts of human rights abuse I have ever seen. The stories come from a brave group of torture survivors in Rwanda whom – after years of physical, mental, and sexual torture – have decided to speak out about their experiences.
Perhaps rather ignorantly, I did not realise this level of torture still exists, particularly in these sheer numbers. That is perhaps what has shocked me most so far – the numbers of torture cases worldwide are staggering. Truly staggering. Torture is a very real problem and it is only with organisations like the IRCT that the realities of torture can be brought to light.
The biggest challenge I will face is comprehending just what a real problem torture is. At times it may seem preventing it is impossible, but I hope my work with the IRCT can contribute to their fight against torture, and can help survivors seek rehabilitation and justice.
And of course, all of this comes amidst the background of Syria – another area where refugees face conflict and war on a daily basis. At the IRCT we will be working with colleagues across the region to follow the situation in Syria to see how the conflict develops, how neighbouring countries cope with the conflict, and how international governments react.
So do stay tuned for my posts on the World Without Torture blog (which I shall be updating from time to time) to find out exactly what I am doing with the team in this unique, humbling position. It is a pleasure to be here.
Editor’s Note: This is a blog post from IRCT Secretary-General Joost Martens
The turning of the year has provided many of us with an opportunity for reflection and taking-stock. For me, it’s no different: looking back at my first months in the job, since taking on the role of Secretary-General, and looking ahead at the many challenges and opportunities that we have in front of us.
As I have said before, the IRCT exists because of its members, and in recent months, I’ve been getting to know our members better, through the Governance Council meetings in the autumn, through my participation in regional seminars and through ad hoc contacts. And I’ve been overwhelmed by the dedication and commitment of the people that make up this movement.
An important part of the challenges ahead of us are related to the incidence of torture. This can be in the form of increased sexual violence and torture against women and girls in many parts of the world; it can take the form of a rise of human rights abuses perpetrated not just by governments, but related to private business interests; or it can be linked to the economic austerity that is impacting upon the refugee and migrant populations in Europe, North America and Australasia, where a growing tide of anti-immigrant rhetoric is heaping further harm on those who need protection most.
But there is another type of challenge of great concern, which has to do with the working of the centres and the rehabilitation that can be provided: this has to do in part with threats to IRCT member centres’ staff in different parts of the world, because the stigmatization of human rights defenders as subversive – care for caregivers is an important and urgent need in that respect. What is most concerning, however, is the mere fact that many of the rehabilitation centres may face forced closure because of lack of financial resources, putting at risk the presence of sustained and professional torture rehabilitation facilities.
In that context, it is essential that there is global acknowledgement and recognition of the right to rehabilitation. Therefore, an important area of activity of the Secretariat is on advocating and campaigning for realising this Right to Rehabilitation, as envisaged under Article 14 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Realising this right is a key advocacy aim for the IRCT in 2013. With this right accepted as part of the Human Rights Framework of the UN, it gives the IRCT members an instrument to advocate for more resources to be made available for the rehabilitation of torture survivors.
The IRCT starts 2013 in a stronger position that we’ve been in for a while. Our funding base is stronger than in recent years, which is testament to the hard work put in by my colleagues at the Secretariat. We look forward to increasing our engagement with the membership through the hiring of new staff, to be based not at the Secretariat’s headquarters here in Copenhagen, but in the regions. This will allow us to be in closer contact with our member centres and work towards building and strengthening our capacities. As 2013 progresses, we will focus on making sure that the Secretariat as a whole is “fit for purpose”.
Being fit for purpose is key because the challenges ahead are many. But, from what I’ve seen so far, I know that as a movement we are ready to rise to the challenges; ensuring rehabilitation and access to justice for survivors of torture, and work towards the prevention of torture.
We shall be taking a short break for the winter holidays and will return on the 3rd of January 2013.
While also a fond farewell to Brita Sydhoff, Friday’s reception was also a warm welcome to new Secretary-General Joost Martens
Brita Sydhoff, former Secretary-General of IRCT, bade a warm and thankful farewell to the more than 100 guests Friday night at a reception in her honour. The reception was also to warmly welcome IRCT’s new Secretary-General Joost Martens.
More than a hundred guests joined the staff of IRCT, including staff from member centre Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims, members of the IRCT Executive Committee from all over the world, ambassadors and other diplomatic staff based in Copenhagen, and friends of the organisation.
“I wish to truly thank all of you, through thick and thin times we’ve had at the IRCT for your hard work and dedication to this cause – the rehabilitation of torture victims worldwide,” Brita said in her farewell speech. Among her achievements, she recounted she was particularly proud of the steadfastly democratic governing structures that lead the IRCT today. The Executive Committee, who are elected every three years by the 144 members of the IRCT, were in attendance at Friday’s festivities as they had just completed a two-day meeting in Copenhagen.
Click through our slideshow for photos of IRCT staff and supporters of the organisation during the reception on Friday.
These stories came to us through our member centres – the more than 140 rehabilitation centres worldwide that treat victims of torture and their families. As experiences of torture and rehabilitation are a particularly delicate subject (for a multitude of reasons, but foremost is the autonomy of survivors, their privacy and concerns of re-traumatisation), we wanted to share how we go about balancing these concerns with the belief that sharing stories can be effective in rehabilitation.
Recently, staff of the IRCT Secretariat sat down to update our policy on collecting and sharing torture survivors’ testimony. Most of us would agree that survivor participation is a cornerstone of effective torture rehabilitation services, but it can be a difficult task finding this right balance between safeguarding the mental and physical health of survivors and respecting their autonomy.
While testimony can be a powerful way to give a voice to survivors in the anti-torture movement, it can carry significant mental and physical health risks. During the meeting, the doctors in the room worried openly about the re-traumatisation of survivors and reducing the risk of harm from government retaliation.
Lawyers in the room added concerns over how to make sure that survivors freely give their permission at all stages of collection and use of their stories. Members of the communications team saw personal testimony as an important way of introducing the voices and experiences of survivors in to the anti-torture discussion, but were keen to avoid sensationalising stories.
With all these concerns, collecting and publishing testimony of survivors seems like a scary proposition. But from our experience at the IRCT, we’ve seen that many torture survivors want a forum to publicly share their experiences and participate in the anti-torture movement even where it places them at risk of future violations. So our biggest obstacle was designing a policy that took our presumptions and fears out of the equation and provided a consistent method for us to realistically assess the dangers, provide accurate information to survivors and trust that survivors themselves are the best experts on their experiences, values, preferences and approach to risk.
After going through many versions, we ended up with a procedure that hopefully guides us through the process of equipping survivors with the right information for informed consent, and a providing a flexible way to evaluate the context, safety concerns, and wishes of the survivor when deciding how to use a story.
There are of course still many challenges and a fair amount of debate over the most responsible way to collect and publish survivor stories, but what’s clear is that sometimes the most valuable service we can offer is simply a platform for survivors to make their voices heard.
Well, this is pretty neat. Find us on Scoop.it, a web service where you can ‘curate’ your own news topic. Ours, The Fight Against Torture, will be updated daily with news clippings, opinion pieces, and blogs on the global struggle against torture, ongoing cases, and the mechanisms at hand to prevent torture.
Thus, rather than having them here on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, we will now be able to update the Scoop.it site daily. Follow us, keep updated, and break the cycle of silence.