Archive for category Justice
The infamous case of Khaled Said would have ended with the official autopsy claiming death by asphyxiation due to the swallowing of a plastic bag with narcotics. But the truth is that the 28-year old Egyptian was brutally tortured and killed at the hands of two Alexandria policemen in early 2010, and ended up influencing the history of modern Egypt. Between one scenario and the other was an alternative report by two international forensic experts exposing the weaknesses of the official medical reports. The two policemen were convicted and Khaled’s case spurred the demonstrations and uprising that ultimately led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.
As torture often takes place in secret and with methods designed to be as painful as possible without leaving physical marks, proving torture is becoming increasingly hard.
One of the major challenges in proving torture, and thus fighting impunity, is to obtain sufficient evidence. If there is no proof, there will be impunity. In such a climate, perpetrators can continue to torture without risking arrest, prosecution or punishment.
However, through the use of documentation, torture can be proven. Specialised health professionals can, through careful and thorough physical and psychological examination of torture victims, establish crucial medical findings and evidence that can be communicated to the judiciary and other appropriate bodies.
A key purpose of documentation is thus to make it impossible for perpetrators to deny their crimes.
The two forensic experts behind the alternative report in Khaled Said’s case are part of the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG), a group of more than 35 eminent forensic experts from 20 countries. This group was established in 2009 by the IRCT in collaboration with the Forensic Department of the University of Copenhagen to provide support in examining torture victims in cases brought to justice systems at the international, regional or national level.
International law obliges states to properly investigate all allegations of torture and to punish those responsible. States also need to provide reparations for victims of torture, including fair and adequate compensation, restitution and rehabilitation to the fullest extent possible.
Where documentation is carried out, it puts pressure on states to fulfill their obligations under international law to fully, promptly, impartially and thoroughly investigate allegations of torture and provide reparation to victims.
However, often the required forensic expertise is not available to produce medico-legal reports of sufficient quality or the reports are not taken into account in legal proceedings due to flawed regulations or practice.
Other constraints relate to limited awareness among relevant stakeholders, especially at the national level, on the important role that medical documentation can play in establishing evidence. Intimidation and harassment of victims and professionals involved in trials against alleged perpetrators is also common. Such was the case of Dr. Germán Antonio Ramírez Herrera, an Ecuadorian forensic expert trained on the use of the Istanbul Protocol, who was killed under mysterious circumstances following the presentation of a number of cases he had documented.
For this reason, the IRCT has, for a number of years, worked to promote the value and use of medical documentation of torture according to the international standards contained in the Istanbul Protocol, the common name for The Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The report now being published shows how, in addition to the case of Khaled Said, the forensic group has provided support to more than 70 forensic examinations in torture investigation cases since its inception four years ago. It also shows the positive results of having hundreds of lawyers, doctors and immigration officials, among others, trained to use of the Istanbul Protocol to produce high standard medico-legal documentation of torture for judicial and administrative use.
As Mostafa Hussein, from the El Nadeem Center for Psychological Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, an IRCT member based in Egypt, says, “What [survivors of torture] say is not only incredibly powerful, but is what torturers would like to never hear.”
It began perhaps with a 63-page report [PDF]. Jointly produced by The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) and Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, the report found that health professionals in Israel are often involved in ill-treatment and torture.
This was a glaring contradiction of their roles and obligations as health professionals. But contradictions are perhaps the standard in the context of the human rights in Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).
But many human rights defenders and organisations from all sides are trying untangle these contradictions and point a way forward. While many steps need to be taken to ensure an end to torture in the region, one way forward is an end to impunity for these crimes. And for the perpetrators to be held to account, torture must be recorded, documented and reported.
The IRCT is no stranger to training health and legal professionals in using the Istanbul Protocol – the common name for the Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – in producing forensic medico-legal reports in cases of alleged torture. The document was developed in 1999 with assistance from more than 75 experts and spearheaded by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, an IRCT member, and Physicians for Human Rights. The Istanbul Protocol is the set of standards and procedures to identify symptoms of torture for use as medical evidence in legal proceedings. The IRCT and partners worldwide have trained thousands of health and legal professionals on the use of this manual. [download a copy here]
But the project plan and the context are indeed unique, says Dr Joost den Otter, IRCT’s Clinical Director and Head of Health. Joost is heading up IRCT’s partnership with PCATI, who is running the project to train around 17 health professionals, targeted toward those professionals that speak Arabic, working in the OPT or willing to work with interpreters. All of them ready to assess detainees and prisoners from the OPT held within Israeli detention facilities. While a typical training session in the Istanbul Protocol will be just a single day, he says, the current project with PCATI lasts two years and involves four training sessions for the 17 participants, and any other legal or health professionals that are welcome to join. Participants also have to complete two assessments a year using the Istanbul Protocol procedures in cases of alleged torture. They also must write a scientific paper on torture for a peer-reviewed, academic journal in their particular health field.
“Health professionals are on the frontlines,” explains Joost. “These are the people who, rather than contribute to torture, must be doing their best to fight it. And further to that, spread their newly-gained knowledge to their colleagues.”
And the context of training Israeli health professionals on how to properly assess torture allegations is a bit tense. Some feel a contradiction or opposing senses of loyalty to the Israeli state, in which they are a citizen of, and reporting human rights violations.
“There is a perceived connectedness to the perpetrators. The ‘ticking-time bomb scenario’ is definitely in the air,” Joost says, referring to the oft-cited though clearly refuted [PDF] argumentation that torture is necessary in cases of immediate threats against citizens. Although the participants have been very eager and enthusiastic about the training on the Istanbul Protocol, they have reported a hesitancy to share this fact with their friends and family.
PCATI itself, unlike the IRCT, is not a health-based organisation, but a legal one. They have long been trying to gain access to the courts for victims of torture. They have filed approximately 800 complaints alleging torture by the General Security Service, but the courts have not yet taken one up.
Many of the health professionals also feel a sense of frustration after identifying a victim of torture – there are extremely few options for torture victims to access rehabilitation services.
“In this context, most torture happens in Israeli prisons, but torture is also rampant in Palestinian territories, where it may be even more difficult to access appropriate after-care.”
PCATI is not a member of the IRCT as they don’t offer rehabilitation services, but across hour-long checkpoints is the Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Torture in the West Bank, which Joost visited during his most recent training in the area. There are two more IRCT centres in the Palestinian Territories – Gaza Community Mental Health Programme and Jesoor Transcultural Right to Health also in the Gaza Strip.
But borders in the region are an obstacle. Joost, on this most recent trip, spent 90 minutes waiting at a checkpoint coming from Ramallah to Jerusalem. On a bus with a dozen girls making the trip to school, he felt his mere 90 minutes during this one-time trip was almost of no consequence compared to their twice-daily, five-days-weekly journey.
A fraught and tense context, of course, but one in which those on the front lines – the doctors, psychologist and other health professionals – can move forward on ending impunity and bringing the perpetrators of torture to justice.
Like other international bodies, the UN Committee Against Torture takes good time to develop its work. Thus, it requires a lot of patience and a strong focus on long-term objectives to work with the Committee.
But sometimes developments happen all at once and with such speed that it is hard to keep up. This November session of the Committee was one of those moments, which saw a wealth of significant developments especially in relation to the areas of redress, documentation of torture and protection against reprisals. These are all issues of key concern to the IRCT and something that we have been working on with the Committee for years. It is therefore with great pleasure I will outline the most significant developments and speculate as to how the rehabilitation movement can best utilise them in its daily work – while still promoting further improvements.
Victims’ needs for redress and rehabilitation
This subtitle is significant because it illustrates the spirit of the Committee’s new approach to redress and rehabilitation outlined in its new General Comment on Article 14 of the Convention Against Torture. The Committee embraced a victims-centred approach, advanced by the Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez, and integrated this thinking into its General Comment.
This is very noticeable in the section focusing on rehabilitation which in several places has a strong focus on the needs of victims. This can be seen in provisions on early access to rehabilitation services based on a medical rather than judicial assessment of the victim’s claim, consideration of the risk of re-traumatisation of the victim in rehab and judicial processes, and the clear statement that achieving full rehabilitation can only depend on the victim rehabilitation potential and not the resources of the State .
The General Comment also makes a significant contribution to the Committee’s future monitoring of States fulfillment of the right to rehabilitation by establishing that specialised services must be available, appropriate and promptly accessible and that such services can either be provided directly by the State or through the funding of non-State facilities, including NGOs, but always with the victim’s participation in the selection of service provider.
This provides a framework for rehabilitation advocates, victims and their representatives to directly engage with government authorities to further define how rehabilitation should be provided in the specific national context. Where this dialogue needs a bit of international “facilitation”, the text also provides criteria against which international monitoring mechanisms can assess States’ implementation of their Convention obligations to provide rehabilitation. Lastly, it can hopefully initiate a global dialogue on how to best ensure that torture victims receive the rehabilitation that they need.
During the session, the Committee had the chance to review how the government of Peru has set up its redress programme. This resulted in a fruitful dialogue and some novel recommendations from the Committee especially in relation to rehabilitation services. The recommendations can be found in paragraph 18 of the Concluding Observations on Peru. [Download document]
Documentation of torture is an integral element in investigations
The Committee has long had a strong focus on implementation of the Istanbul Protocol as a torture documentation tool. However, this has mainly been recommended to States as a training tool. The IRCT has long been arguing that while the Istanbul Protocol is a useful training tool, it should also be actively used as a mandatory and integral part of any investigation of torture and ill-treatment since it is only through its mandatory, appropriate and independent use in investigations that it will make a real contribution to ending impunity. One noticeable example of this is the situation in Mexico, where the Government has made a less-than-genuine implementation of the Protocol. During this session’s review of Mexico, the Committee extensively questioned the government on this issue and ended up issuing recommendations that clearly recognise the Istanbul Protocol’s role as an important part of torture and ill-treatment investigations. The specific recommendations can be found in paragraph 17 of the Concluding Observations [Download document].
This is an important step in the global promotion of torture documentation. It provides a context in the Committee Against Torture to question States on their active use of the Istanbul Protocol rather than how many trainings they have done. Further, it is very well aligned with current IRCT priorities of developing a global action plan for national implementation of the Istanbul Protocol.
Reprisals – focal point
In recent years, the Committee Against Torture and other related bodies such as the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture have become increasingly concerned with the occurrence of acts of reprisals against persons or organisations that interact with these mechanisms. While the Committee has previously addressed these acts on an ad-hoc basis, it has now made the decision to designate one of the Committee members as rapporteur on reprisals.
In parallel, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture has established a working group to look into the issue. While this is a welcome development, there is still a lot of work to be done on designing specific measures that these mechanisms can take to prevent and otherwise address acts of reprisals. In this context it will be particularly important to involve national organisations to ensure that their voices are heard. The IRCT will be happy to support our members with bringing their positions to the attention of the Committee.
Time for national implementation
While all of these developments are welcome, the real test of their relevance will be whether they are in fact implemented on the ground. Here it is the role of organisations like the IRCT to bridge the gap between the international and national level by providing the support that our members identify as needed to promote national implementation. This could be in the form of political pressure, capacity building, technical assistance or something entirely different. We will only know when we hear from you.
Asger is Head of the Geneva Liaison Office
Meeting new people outside IRCT or outside the circles of human rights work, we’ve found people have a number of questions about what the IRCT does and, more simply, about the issue of torture around the world. “Is there still torture?” they ask, often astounded that there is. For many, the term ‘torture’ invokes ideas of medieval torture chambers and the rack or the Iron Maiden.
Ten of the most common questions we get are the following:
Sadly, yes, torture continues as a phenomenon today. In fact, torture takes place in the majority of countries in the world – as many as 90% of countries, estimates former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak. Furthermore, Nowak estimates that in as many as half of those countries, torture is a rampant and systematic problem.
2. Where does torture occur?
Torture most often takes place in places of detention – whether in the initial police lock-up, interrogation rooms, prison systems or other places where people are deprived of their liberty. This allows torture to remain a “secret” or “hidden” problem in the world [PDF]; places of detention are often well outside the realm of the public view and therefore escape public condemnation.
The United Nations defines torture in the UN Convention Against Torture, and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment as:
“… ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, 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. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”
4. How are people tortured today?
While such techniques from the Middle Ages are no longer used on a large scale, the techniques of torture are still just as cruel, inhuman and painful to the victim. Furthermore, modern torture techniques are often designed to leave as few marks as possible to avoid possible future prosecution for the crimes. The Istanbul Protocol, the international guidelines for documenting torture, discusses torture methods under the following categories: beatings and other blunt traumas, beating of the feet (falanga), suspension, other positional tortures (such as being detained in a small cage or box, being forced to stand while arms are stretched high), electrical shocks, tooth torture, asphyxiation, rape and sexual torture. Other practices, such as hooding, humiliation, being stripped naked, threats to oneself or family, mock executions, simulated drowning (waterboarding) and sleep deprivation are also common torture methods that leave no external marks behind.
5. Why do people torture?
“The main aim of torture is to destroy the self-esteem of the person. The torturer tries to destroy the personal integrity by methods that cause maximum physical and mental pain and ensure gravest humiliation.”
While this is the main aim of torture, as described in Atlas of Torture, the goal of such pain and humiliation may vary. Police may torture a person to extract a confession for a crime or implicate others in a crime, as is a common practice in many countries, such as the Philippines; people may be tortured for information, as was the excuse used by the U.S. for the CIA torture programme in the so-called ‘war against terror’; armed forces may use rape and sexual torture to destroy the social fabric of communities. Or, state officials may employ torture as punishment for acts that person or a third person is believed to have committed.
6. Who commits torture?
For a case to be described as torture, the crime must be committed by a public official or a person acting in an official capacity, such as a state authority like police officers, soldiers, armed militia, among others. This also may include teachers, healthcare workers, paramilitary groups or prison guards.
The victims of torture can be anyone – any person simply in the wrong place at the wrong time can become a victim of torture. However, there is no doubt that some groups are at particular risk of torture, for example, the poor. As the IRCT stated in The London Declaration on Poverty and Torture, poverty is one of the major factors that keep people particularly vulnerable to torture and other ill-treatment. “Most of the victims and survivors of torture belong to the poorest and most disadvantaged sectors of society,” Nowak said in the 2011 Global Reading for 26 June.
This is, generally speaking, because poverty makes people vulnerable to abuses and leaves them without the ways and means of defending their rights. Other factors can marginalise people, leaving them vulnerable to torture; this includes groups such as women, children, the elderly, religious, ethnic or sexual minorities and political opposition groups, among others.
8. What are the effects of torture?
There has been a growing body of scientific research on the physical, emotional, and mental effects of torture. The physical effects of torture depend greatly on the method of torture used. Certain types of torture are related to specific symptoms and signs. For example, for survivors of falanga, a type of torture where the soles of the feat are beaten, effects may include smashed and broken heels, later causing slow and painful walking for only limited distances.
The psychological consequences are frequently persistent and invalidating. The prevailing manifestations include anxiety, depression, irritability, emotional instability, cognitive memory and attention problems, personality changes, behavioural disturbances, neurovegetative symptoms such as lack of energy, insomnia, nightmares, sexual dysfunction, and “survivor’s guilt”.
In other words, torture represents an extreme life stressor and exposure to torture increases the risk of developing psychiatric symptoms and subsequent dysfunction, social problems, marginalisation and poverty. We know that not everyone exposed develops psychiatric manifestations but that a number of genetic factors, including vulnerability to stress, proneness to anxiety, developmental deficits, previous psychiatric history, incapacitating physical consequences, quality of social environment and individual coping efforts, all play important roles. Furthermore, the more prolonged, repeated, and unpredictable the experience of torture is, the more traumatic it is and more serious the psychiatric consequences are likely to be.
9. What is rehabilitation?
We believe that all torture survivors and their families have a right to rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is simply ameliorating the effects of torture – it is to empower the torture victim to resume as full a life as possible.
Torture rehabilitation can take a variety of forms. In approaching it through a holistic approach, rehabilitation can include medical treatment for physical ailments resulting from torture; psychosocial counselling or trauma therapy; legal aid to pursue justice for the crimes; or programmes and activities to encourage economic viability, among others.
10. What can I do to help?
There are many ways in which supporters can help. The first and most direct help is of course donations to the IRCT for our work.
Another way in which supporters can help is to simply share the stories of torture survivors or human rights defenders. International support from the World Without Torture community can create unending pressure on authorities to live up to their human rights obligations, such as stopping torture, ending harassment of human rights defenders, or bringing perpetrators to justice, among others. Your tweets, Facebook updates, letters to state leaders: these are all ways in which we can together create unceasing pressure on authorities to stop torture.
A recent European Court of Human Rights case finds that the excessive use of tear gas, especially when people are detained or deprived of their liberty, can amount to inhuman and degrading treatment
The use of tear gas by law enforcement officials against demonstrators and detainees is widely documented as a method of crowd control. However, examples of its excessive use are occurring with alarming frequency, for example recently in Bahrain, the West Bank, Turkey and Honduras where the use of tear gas has lead to civilian deaths.
A number of IRCT member centres have been campaigning against the use of tear gas in their countries and in particular its use against peaceful demonstrators and people deprived of liberty which many human rights organisations consider amounts to torture or ill treatment.
The Centre for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Relatives (CPTRT) in Honduras has also raised its concerns about the use of tear gas by security forces, particularly in places of detention and against those demonstrating, such as the demonstrations that took place against changes to education in March 2011. . The issue was raised by the CPTRT during the recent visit of the UN Sub-Committee for the Prevention of Torture (SPT) to Honduras and the SPT confirmed that it would look into the issue. The CPTRT also intends to ask the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights for its view on the use of tear gas in prisons and against demonstrators.
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) has expressed its concerns over the use of such gases in law enforcement. The CPT considers that:
“… [P]epper spray [tear gas] is a potentially dangerous substance and should not be used in confined spaces. Even when used in open spaces the CPT has serious reservations; if exceptionally it needs to be used, there should be clearly defined safeguards in place. For example, persons exposed to pepper spray should be granted immediate access to a medical doctor and be offered an antidote. Pepper spray should never be deployed against a prisoner who has already been brought under control.” (CPT/Inf (2009) 25, paragraph 79)
The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV/HRFT) has vast experience in treating people who have been exposed to tear gas in five of its treatment and rehabilitation centres for torture survivors in Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Diyarbakir and Adana. The HRFT decided to conduct further scientific studies on the physical effects of tear gas as its wide use by security forces during demonstrations; it has caused severe injuries and in some cases deaths from exploding bomb canisters and the inhalation of toxic chemicals used in the gas.
The HRFT (Istanbul Centre) has studied 64 cases of people affected by tear gas and evaluated the early side-effects of these chemical agents in these cases based on age, gender, psychological findings as well as other injuries. The research shows that complaints and physical side effects caused as a result of exposure to the tear gas chemicals were highest during the first three days following exposure.
The HRFT considers that “tear gas is a weapon derived from chemical agents” and that “the use of these agents amounts to torture and ill-treatment when used against people whose liberty has been deprived.”
The recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the case of Ali Güneş fully supports the HRFT’s position on this issue.
In the recent case of ALİ GÜNEŞ v. TURKEY (Application no. 9829/07), the ECtHR found for the first time that the use of tear gas against people whose liberty has been restricted can amount to a violation of Article 3 ECHR. The Court stressed that there can be no justification for the use of tear gas against an individual who has already been taken under the control of the law enforcement authorities. Ali Güneş, a high school teacher and member of the Trade Union of Education and Science Workers (Eğitim-Sen), was in one of the thirteen allocated areas where demonstrations were allowed to take place during the 2004 NATO summit in Istanbul. He complained about having been sprayed with tear gas by police officers, even after being arrested. The incident was widely reported in the national press and Mr Güneş was able to produce as evidence a photograph published in the daily newspaper Sabah showing him between two police officers who were holding him by the arms, and one of whom was spraying his nose and mouth with gas at very close range. He also relied on medical reports which showed that his eyes had been affected by the gas.
In its judgment, the Court referred to previous cases in which it had considered the use of tear gas for the purposes of law enforcement, and where it had recognised that its use can produce effects such as respiratory problems, nausea, vomiting, irritation of the respiratory tract, irritation of the tear ducts and eyes, spasms, chest pain, dermatitis and allergies. Given the effects the gases cause and the potential health risks they entail, the Court considered that “the unwarranted spraying of [Mr Güneş’s] face in the circumstances described must have subjected him to intense physical and mental suffering and was such as to arouse in him feelings of fear, anguish and inferiority capable of humiliating and debasing him”. By spraying him in such circumstances the police officers subjected Mr Güneş to inhuman and degrading treatment within the meaning of Article 3 of the Convention.
The IRCT welcomes the clear indication from the European Court of Human Rights that tear gas should not under any circumstance be used against persons whose liberty has been restricted and considers that this sends an important signal to countries in the region that the excessive use of tear gas by security forces should not be condoned.
The outcome of the Turkish case should be of vital interest to other regions, where the oppressive use of tear gas is being used with alarming frequency, such as in Bahrain and Honduras. As the CPT has stated, clearly defined safeguards should be put in place where the use of tear gas is required. In addition, further protection against the excessive use of tear gas should be supported by more scientific research on the long-term effects of exposure to it, in particular to build on previous studies, such as those carried out by the HRFT and the US-based organisation Physicians for Human Rights.
The decision of the European Court in the case against Turkey, supported by an increased understanding of the long-term health effects of tear gas exposure, will give civil society organisations the increased ammunition needed to campaign against the excessive use of tear gas by law enforcement authorities.
Lea aquí (.DOC) la versión española
Rachel is interning at the IRCT with the Advocacy and Legal Team after completing her European Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation; she is also a Qualified Solicitor.
Tuesday, the new Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child opened for signature. The treaty will create an international complaints mechanism for children who have experienced human rights violations – the last of the core human rights instruments to gain a complaints procedure.
Importantly, the first 10 states to ratify it will be decisive actors in bringing the mechanism alive, since it will enter into force upon the 10th ratification. This post is an encouragement and tribute to the States that will take the lead in implementing this crucial measure for the enhancement of children’s rights worldwide.
When entered into force, children or their representatives will be able to bring complaints of human rights violations before a committee of international experts, when and if domestic courts fail to remedy violations. This is a major step towards strengthening the rights of the child, and giving children a status as equal rights-holders to adults.
However, is it justifiable and reasonable to make children go through an international complaints procedure for alleged human rights violations? Especially when the process of going through judicial procedures includes a high risk of re-traumatisation? It is genuinely difficult even for adults to overcome the psychological pressure involved in such a procedure, where the victim is required to often continuously re-tell the traumatic event and alleged violation is continuously discussed and requiring for explanations and re-telling the story.
While this holds true, and we can all agree that no child should ever be forced to undergo such procedure without full consent and awareness of the implications of doing so, we must not forget that children, just like adults, are survivors rather than victims and that bringing the wrongs committed against them to justice is crucial for the protection of their rights and future well-being.
In working on IRCT’s project on children and torture, it has become clear that where national complaints mechanisms are ineffective or non-existent, tortured children are left unable to seek redress. Furthermore, we have seen cases where children who are tortured have had to face their perpetrator in court. As a result, they are subjected to repercussions and threats from their perpetrators not to file a complaint.
We must take this opportunity to expose the horrific practice of child torture by bringing it to the international level. We encourage States to sign the Optional Protocol for the CRC, as to provide this much-needed mechanism for children to take up their rights and find justice for the crimes perpetrated against them.
Please see the IRCT’s press release calling on states to sign the Optional Protocol to the CRC here.
Justice and documentation a key strategy to prevent torture
It was a great privilege to attend the recent conference, “Forensic Evidence in the Fight against Torture” in Washington, DC, co-hosted by the IRCT and the American University Washington College of Law.
The conference marked the conclusion of the IRCT’s latest European Commission-funded project on promoting the use of forensic documentation of torture, and brought together a highly distinguished collection of experts in the field from all over the world.
There were too many powerful and informative presentations and debates to list here, but one that stands out for me was the presentation from torture survivor Carlos R Mauricio. Mr. Mauricio spoke movingly of his experience, and explained that while “’therapy can help you understand why you feel so bad, what you really need is justice.” He won his legal case against the perpetrators of his torture in El Salvador.
We also heard Mostafa Hussein explain how the International Forensic Experts Group, established by the IRCT in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen, were able to provide expert testimony in the iconic Khaled Said case, which forms the central part of a film the IRCT has made about its work in the documentation of torture.
I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to directly interview many of the speakers and panelists at the event, including UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Professor Juan Mendez, himself a torture survivor who has recently described his experiences in a most thought provoking book. Professor Mendez told me that:
Documentation is essential to survivors of torture because the obligations of the state with regards to torture are manifold, but, each one of them depends on being able to document and prove that torture has happened. Unfortunately, torturers know of the difficulty in proving torture and, therefore, find ways of avoiding accountability.
The first and foremost obligation under the Convention against Torture is to investigate, prosecute and punish every single act of torture, but States get away from their obligation by saying torture is not proven. The second one, a very important one as well, is to exclude evidence obtained under torture, and the same thing happens. The person who has signed the confession comes before a magistrate or a judge and says ‘I’ve been tortured’, but, because there is no overwhelming physical evidence of torture the allegation is dismissed, and the evidence that has been coerced is admitted into court, in violation of the convention.
It is the same with remedies, reparations and rehabilitation.
Therefore, the use and understanding of thorough medico-legal documentation of torture is crucial in securing and end to impunity for torturers, the prevention of torture and redress for its victims.
It’s why, even though this particular EC-funded project is coming to a close, the IRCT will continue to develop its role as a key global hub on medico-legal documentation of torture based upon the Istanbul Protocol (PDF).
Scott heads the Communications Team at the IRCT. See @withouttorture for livetweets and photos from the event.
“Moving forward” and “learning lessons” cannot be done without holding perpetrators of torture to account
After 25 years in exile, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the former ‘president for life’ responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 Haitians, returned to his country and was promptly put on trial.
However, much to the likely devastation of the survivors of his torturous regime and the families of victims killed during his term, he has only been charged with corruption and embezzlement. There are to be no charges for the torture, extrajudicial killings, and ‘disappearances’ that the victims of his crimes deserve to see him held accountable for.
And both expectantly and deservedly, the condemnations of the Haitian decision have come flooding in. From the Washington Post Editorial Board to the UN High Commission for Human Rights, the magistrate responsible for the decision has been unanimously vilified for allowing Duvalier impunity for his most heinous crimes and human rights violations. I agree that Duvalier should be held accountable and that this recent decision was rightfully worthy of condemnation.
However, a common from Haiti’s current president caught my attention: Asked about the Duvalier case, President Martelly told The Washington Post: “It is part of the past. We need to learn our lessons and move forward.”
President Martelly’s language is markedly similar to another leader a little to the north of the island nation. The current U.S. administration has refused to pursue an investigation or charges against top Bush Administration officials for allegations of torture committed during the so-called ‘war on terror’, with Obama saying in a statement that it is a “time for reflection, not retribution”. These crimes too have been swept under the carpet, despite international obligations to properly investigate and hold perpetrators to account.
Yet both Duvalier and U.S. government officials need to be held to account for their crimes. Sweeping the responsibility for these crimes under the rug not only fails the state’s obligations to the survivors and victims’ families; it perpetuates a cycle of impunity, and gives a free rein for torturers to continue.
Take courage friends; the road is often long, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high. But deep down, you are not alone.
Watch this video featuring a TED Talk from Karen Tse, a human rights lawyer from a fellow anti-torture organisation International Bridges to Justice.
Peter Helmers (IRCT’s Head of Programmes) and I recently travelled to Manila, in the Philippines, to take part in the annual Asian regional seminar of IRCT member centres which, this year, focused on the subject of access to justice.
The Philippines is an apt country in which to discuss justice for torture survivors: its relatively new law on torture – supported by a set of implementing rules and regulations – positions the country as one of the most advanced in the region in the struggle against torture and attempts to prevent it. It provides an example for other countries to follow, and much of the credit for this advanced legal and regulatory framework goes to our Filipino member centres the Medical Action Group – hosts of the regional meeting – and Balay.
Access to justice for victims of torture can be a complicated area, but luckily, over the course of the seminar we had the opportunity to learn from those working in the field about what it means and how it can be achieved. Not only were our colleagues and friends from many Asian countries able to join the seminar, but several local NGOs enriched the learning experience for us all.
According to international standards, justice for victims of torture entails access to restitution, satisfaction, guarantee of non-repetition, compensation and rehabilitation. This means that victims should, to the fullest extent possible, have restitution to the status quo before torture happened; their suffering should be acknowledged and perpetrators should be punished by the law; they should receive the guarantee that no-one will ever torture them or anybody else again; they should receive financial compensation and they should receive medical and psycho-social rehabilitation.
That’s the theory anyway, but, what does this mean in practice? Well, this is where it can become complicated! Of course, international standards are recognized by all as the ones to follow, yet, they can be difficult to achieve in practice. Limits are imposed by the national socio-political context that differs from country to country and sometimes even within the same country.
One of the great influencing factors in accessing justice can be the presence of a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) which often balance the immediate needs of survivors with peace and confidence-building measures in post-conflict situations. Another important influencing factor identified was the possibility to file legal complaints in front of national courts. In some countries legal advocacy for torture victims is hindered by either fear of immediate retaliation or judicial complacency regarding crimes committed by police forces and / or the army.
Of course, the concept of justice has differing meanings across national and cultural boundaries. When we asked each other what justice meant, one of the participants wrote the following: social justice, spiritual justice, cultural justice, customary justice and collective community justice. What characterizes all of these is a strong community oriented approach which may reflect what some perceive to be the rather individualistic nature of many of the legal standards developed around the status of victim of torture.
Moreover, the very idea of who is ‘generally’ a victim of torture might influence the concept of justice. While the traditional image of the torture survivor is one of a political opponent, the torture survivor in Asia is often the worker, the farmer, the indigenous person, the person of low socio-economic status. Is then the concept of justice larger than the one many have focused on in the past?
Well…it’s certainly food for thought, and we look forward to furthering exploring with our Asian member centres, how the concept can be further developed as they continue their day-to-day work of helping torture survivors overcome the trauma inflicted on them.