Archive for category Sub-Saharan Africa
In all corners of the world, there are people whose support for the anti-torture movement makes an enormous difference to torture survivors, their families and caregivers. Among them are some high profile individuals who are using their name and status to raise awareness about torture and to promote justice for torture victims. We highlight four of them and their actions, and look at why the movement needs more supporters like them.
It is not every day that a blog on torture includes a famous rapper, a retired bishop and a baptist minister, but that is nonetheless the case with our list of anti-torture supporters:
#1 Mos Def
The first on our list is American rapper and actor Mos Def, also known as Yasiin Bey. In addition to his music and acting career, Mos Def is a strong supporter of the anti-torture movement and he has taken unorthodox measures to raise awareness about torture and ill treatment. Most notably, he starred in a campaign video for human rights organisation Reprieve, in which he volunteered to be force-fed through the nose to bring attention to the force-feeding of 44 detainees on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay.
The video was released in July 2013 via the Guardian, and quickly went viral. In fact, it became the eight most viewed video in the history of The Guardian. But not everyone was a fan of the project. The following year, Mos Def, who lives in South Africa, was forced to cancel his tour in the United States after immigration refused his entry to the country.
#2 Desmond Tutu
Nobel Peace Laureate, Archbishop and human rights activist – Desmond Tutu’s many roles and achievements make others pale in comparison. A leading figure in the justice and racial reconciliation movement in South Africa, Desmond Tutu is also a strong advocate for a world free from torture.
Before retiring, he voiced criticism of serious violations of human rights, including Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe and the Israeli government’s mistreatment of Palestinians.
Desmond Tutu may be retired, but he is still involved in the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, which he founded together with his wife in 1998. He is also protector of IRCT member centre in Denmark DIGNITY, and continues to speak out against torture.
#3 Rev. Jesse Jackson
In addition to being a Baptist minister and former politician, Jesse Jackson is one of America’s most renowned civil rights activists. While many know him for his work with the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson has also been very vocal in ensuring justice for victims of torture. He has for years been a supporter of the many men who were tortured by Chicago police, led by former Commander Jon Burge, during the 1970s and 1980s. When the Mayor of Chicago recently issued an apology and proposed a $5.5 million reparations fund for dozens of torture victims, Jesse Jackson called for a “truth and reconciliation commission”, saying if it was good enough for South Africa it is good enough for Chicago.
“Because Jon Burge was in charge, he was the commander,” Jackson said. “He did not do this alone. Other police witnessed Jon Burge torturing these men.”
#4 Rage Against the Machine, REM, Nine Inch Nails and others
The last one on our list is not just one person, but a group of musicians whose efforts we thought should be mentioned.
Upon discovering that their music had been used in interrogations of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, high profile musicians such as REM, Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor joined the Close Gitmo Now campaign.
Launched in 2009, Close Gitmo Now is a coalition of activists, artists and retired generals aiming to put pressure on US politicians to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.
Speaking out against Guantanamo Bay and the use of music as no-touch torture there, Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine said:
“Guantanamo is known around the world as one of the places where human beings have been tortured – from water boarding, to stripping, hooding and forcing detainees into humiliating sexual acts – playing music for 72 hours in a row at volumes just below that to shatter the eardrums. Guantanamo may be Dick Cheney’s idea of America, but it’s not mine. The fact that music I helped create was used in crimes against humanity sickens me – we need to end torture and close Guantanamo now.”
The need for more high profile supporters
While the support of well-known musicians or other high profile individuals alone is not enough, it can raise public awareness and influence the general debate. Guantanamo Bay is the prime example of this. Although the world’s most notorious detention camp still remains in operation, what goes on there never fully escapes public scrutiny.
Sadly, in other parts of the world, there are numerous cases of torture that will never receive even a fraction of the attention that Guantanamo Bay gets. Not enough people care. If torture victims had the support of a well-known name, they might be able to get the attention they need to bring the perpetrators to justice. The same goes for most torture rehabilitation centres that often struggle financially. Without this form of support, it can be difficult to attract potential donors or raise additional funds. One of the biggest challenges in the fight against torture is apathy. The support of famous people can make a difference.
Despite ongoing international efforts to eliminate the practice of torture, it is not a question of whether torture still takes place, but rather where in the world it is still practised and how prevalent it is. Currently, more than 40 states across the globe have failed to ratify the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) and in many of these countries, human rights defenders are raising the alarm, alerting to the constant flow of cases involving torture and ill treatment.
If anything, the recent report on CIA’s use of torture shows that this crime is more prevalent than most of us probably thought. The US is a signatory to the Convention against Torture, yet its own intelligence agency relied on the practice of torture as an integral part of its interrogation technique.
If a country that has committed to respect the UN Convention still allows for the practice of torture, then what is the status in the 40 something countries that are still to adopt it?
We have looked at three of these countries. Despite facing very different problems, they all have one thing in common: none of them has managed to tackle the problem of torture.
As a country with a population of more than a billion, it is not hard to see what an overpowering task it is to eliminate torture. Set on making the country an industrial superpower and creating more jobs, overcoming the enormity of its human rights problems is not an immediate priority – economic reform is.
Nonetheless, it is very worrying that a large number of torture cases in India happen at the hand of the police, and often while the victim is in custody. From 2001 to 2010, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recorded 14,231 deaths in police and judicial custody in India. The vast majority of these deaths can be ascribed to torture.
Only in recent weeks, newspapers have reported on the city of Chennai, where three police officers are currently being investigated for sexual torture of a 19-year old at the local police station. There is also the police commissioner in Delhi who has had to deny claims that the police has used torture to extract confessions. And in Calcutta, the West Bengal Government faces heat over alleged police torture of a woman.
According to various rights organisations, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg in a country that still has a long way to go despite its commitments to tackle the most prevalent human rights abuses. While the country has taken positive steps by strengthening laws protecting women and children, its reluctance to hold state officials to account for torture and other abuses continues to foster a culture of corruption and impunity.
To many, Fiji is the perfect holiday destination. With its white sandy beaches and exotic palm trees, this tropical archipelago in the South Pacific could easily be mistaken as paradise on earth. But even paradise has a dark side and in the case of Fiji this dark side involves a poor human rights record.
In recent years, there have been numerous allegations of the use of torture by state officials.
In March 2013, a video was posted on the internet showing two prisoners being badly beaten and humiliated by state security officials. Failure by the Fijian authorities to investigate the case has raised red flags about a culture of impunity for police and security forces.
Following last year’s elections, Fiji had its second review by the UN Human Rights Council which, among other things, urged the state to amend repressive decrees that put severe restrictions on freedom of expression, promote women’s rights and ratify the UNCAT.
Despite these recommendations and similar calls from various human rights organisations, the government is still to take action.
In the meantime, cases of police violence and torture involving state officials continue to emerge.
Central African Republic
For more than two years, a violent, sectarian civil war has left Central African Republic (CAR) paralysed, prompting rights organisations to warn of a human rights crisis spiralling out of control.
In January 2015, UN’s International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic, reported that crimes against humanity have been widely committed by all parties to the ongoing conflict. The Commission strongly recommended that accountability mechanisms be put in place to tackle the ‘cycle of impunity’ in the CAR.
However, recognising that the CAR Government simply does not have the resources nor the political incentive to bring the perpetrators to justice, the Commission has urged the international community to step up and fund a tribunal to prosecute those who have committed crimes against humanity.
These recommendations illustrate how vital it is for CAR to ratify the UNCAT. Until this happens, violence and torture continue to be rampant in the war-torn country.
What difference can the UN Convention against Torture make?
In the first instance, the UNCAT is one of the most important international human rights
instruments in the work against torture which outlines the rights of an individual, outlaws torture, and promotes respect for the human rights of an individual.
When a UN member state has become a party to the Convention, the government of that
country is accountable under international law to take action to prevent torture and to support the victims when torture takes place.
According to the Association for the Prevention of Torture, “the Convention against Torture requires that all States, and each of us, remain vigilant to the risks of torture. This is what makes it so relevant in 2014, thirty years after its adoption.”
You can read more about the countries that have ratified the UNCAT by clicking on this link. For comprehensive profiles on each UN member state, the United Nations website provides a full country list.
Whether targeting a Boko Haram suspect, an alleged criminal, a sex worker, or simply part of a minority group, a new Amnesty International report highlights how torture is endemic in Nigeria as the police and military routinely use it to extract confessions, extort money and to break the will of detainees.
The report, entitled ‘Welcome to Hell Fire’, claims torture has become widespread in the police and military hunt for members of Boko Haram – a militant Islamic group, branded as a terrorist organisation by the US, responsible for a string of attacks and death since 2009 including the Chibok Kidnapping on 276 schoolgirls in April 2014.
The report shows that the pursuit of Boko Haram has led to the torture of many suspects who have no ties to the group at all. Because of this campaign, torture has become routine. The report claims that, as a minimum, 5,000 people have been detained since 2009 when military operations began against Boko Haram. While the level of torture victims from this group cannot be fully determined, Amnesty spoke to 500 detainees, their relatives and human rights defenders, all confirming either they had been tortured or they know a detainee who has.
Consequently detainees and ordinary criminal suspects experience torture “as the main interrogation tactic… despite assurances from the Nigerian government to prevent the use of torture.” Torture practices include beatings, rape and other sexual violence, shooting to legs and arms and periods of time laid on beds of nails.
Torture in Nigeria has long been known by the IRCT, the effects of which continue to be addressed by Nigerian IRCT member Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA).
To illustrate the prevalence of torture, the effects of torture and the journey through rehabilitation necessary in just one case, we turn to the story of Leo – a 27-year-old concert-goer who, after happening to stumble across the scene of an earlier robbery in the city of Nsukka, experienced four-months of suffering as the police tortured him repeatedly for a crime which he was not even part of.
Leo’s story: “I do not know now why I was tortured”
Leo, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, was travelling to the city of Nsukka, in south-eastern Nigeria, hoping for a relaxing evening with friends at a music event.
On his way to the venue, Leo was approached by four security officials who claimed to recognise him from a robbery that occurred just prior to Leo’s arrival.
“The security forces were looking for a group of hoodlums who had just fled the scene next to the concert venue, and I was accused of being part of the gang,” says Leo. “I tried to explain that I had only just arrived in town, but the explanations fell on deaf ears.
“It was then that the four security guards turned on me and began to beat me,” explains Leo, who still has painful memories of his torture.
Leo’s beating escalated from punches and kicks to being hit with sticks, a shovel and even an iron. The torture continued over a period of a few hours.
“They beat me with whatever they could find nearby,” says Leo. “I had injuries all over my body. I was cut, bleeding and bruised. The pain was unbearable. I could not walk for days afterwards.”
After the beating, an unconscious Leo was taken to the local police station where he was detained, charged with robbery offences and transferred to nearby Nsukka prison, where he spent four months awaiting trial.
Leo does not recall torture while in detention and was released in May 2012 after police could not establish enough evidence against him.
“I do not know now why I was tortured,” says Leo. “I was not part of the crime scene at all and still feel shocked about the attack now, even though it was so brief.”
While in custody, Leo was approached by the team from IRCT member PRAWA, who offered counselling as a way for Leo to talk about the attack.
“The people from PRAWA helped me talk about my experience while I was in prison,” says Leo. “They understood what had happened and encouraged me to talk. They also helped to treat me for my injuries while I was in prison and offered me counselling during my time in prison and when I was released.
“My attackers are wicked people, but counselling has helped come to terms with the attack. I still see the PRAWA psychologist today to talk about any issues I have related to the attack. The attack left me feeling confused, hurt and scared. PRAWA have helped to restore my pride, and my trust in others.”
Now a labourer on a building site, Leo is thankful for his rehabilitation.
“I still feel some pains in my legs due to my injuries and my sexual life has not been the same since due to the injuries I received in the beating,” says Leo.
“But I would say that I am much better than before I met the team at PRAWA. It is good that centres like this exist, and that some people care about helping those who have been tortured regain their lives. I only hope more groups exist to fight torture in society and to provide treatments for victims like me.”
To read the stories of survivors from a range of countries on the IRCT website, click this link.
“…The soldiers took turns to hold her or rape her. When she tried to resist they beat her and forced her harder … They tried to tie her legs with anything they could lay hands on to separate her legs…”
– Excerpt from medico-legal report by Freedom from Torture doctor.
It is a shocking description, but sadly one all too common to many women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). According to a report from IRCT member Freedom from Torture, rape is routinely used as a weapon of torture to prevent women from supporting human rights, politics, or even their high-ranking positions in society.
The report – Rape as torture in the DRC: Sexual violence beyond the conflict zone – uses extracts from 34 medical assessments from women aged 21 to 60 to show the world what is happening today in the DRC – a country which is hypocritically one of the first signatories to the new International Protocol on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, which is launched by the UK Government next week.
The women in the report, all of whom remain anonymous, come from a variety of backgrounds, from mothers to university graduates, from doctors to cooks. But the women have one thing in common: they were targeted because of their political involvement as members or supporters of opposition groups, or women’s rights organisations
The activities that led to their arrests included storing and distributing leaflets, banners and tee-shirts and attending meetings and demonstrations. In one story, Jomaphie (not her real name) was arrested by uniformed soldiers while attending a political event in the capital, Kinshasa. She was detained with many others for four days in a small room before being transferred to detention elsewhere.
Men and women were held together for the first night, during which they were given no food or water. Women were removed repeatedly from the room and raped by different soldiers and were beaten when they attempted to resist. The men were separated after the first night but the women remained in the same room for three more nights, during which time they were given biscuits and water and continued to be raped and beaten repeatedly. After this they were transferred from the airport to prison.
Conditions of detention
The women were all arrested by state actors – soldiers, police or members of the security services – and mostly they were detained in state security facilities. They were frequently mistreated during arrest and en route to detention. They described being beaten, hit with rifle butts, rubber truncheons and belts, being restrained face down in the back of a truck and being kicked and stamped on, slapped and punched.
There was no proper judicial process following any arrest and the women had no access to any legal advice or representation. The vast majority were allowed no communication with friends or family.
The conditions in which they were held were foul and unhygienic; with little light or air, no sanitation and without adequate food and water. Women held in solitary confinement described being detained alone in cells as small as one metre square in which they were either unable, or barely able, to lie down. Others were crowded into small cells with up to 20 other people.
The report lists horrors unimaginable to many, but ones which are unfortunately very real indeed. But perhaps the most shocking fact is that the DRC is a signatory of both the UNCAT (United Nations Convention Against Torture) and the OPCAT (Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture) – both legally binding protocols which are meant to ensure that torture is forbidden, and that survivors of torture can seek adequate redress for torture as well as support and assistance to end impunity.
Freedom from Torture has been providing support to people tortured in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since 1985, and in 2013, 111 survivors of torture from the DRC used our services. The findings of Freedom from Torture suggest that as a matter of urgency the DRC and the international community should be pursuing a more joined-up approach to tackling sexual violence by recognising the links between rape, sexual violence and torture.
To read the full report and for more information, click this link.
Through more than 140 rehabilitation centres across the globe, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) is the largest international network against torture, providing rehabilitation, justice and hope to victims of torture all over the world.
Although under the same umbrella, each of these organisations is unique and operates in a variety of contexts. There are centres working around the clock to deal with humanitarian crises – such as Restart in Lebanon, or the Institute for Family Health in Jordan, which are currently struggling to respond to the challenging influx of Syrian refugees, many of them victims of torture, and groups working with the victims of long past dictatorships, such as those of Latin America in in 1970s.
There are also centres focused on healing entire communities through group therapy and counselling in places where armed conflict created deep societal wounds, and centres who are working with victims of terrible, and often covered-up, state torture, in countries usually assumed democratic and free from torture.
The range of focus areas is vast and, to counter this, so are the different methods of rehabilitation: there are traditional methods of rehabilitation, from psychotherapy and counselling, to group projects focused on rebuilding a community; there are innovative programmes such as yoga sessions which offer physical solutions to long-term pain; storytelling classes and artistic events across centres allow survivors of torture to express their pain in a personal and enlightening way; and projects such as the natural growth project, run by Freedom From Torture, which allow survivors of torture to find their place in the world by reconnecting them with nature and society.
Despite the differences, these organisations share an aim: to create a world without torture.
Over the coming weeks we will be focusing on particular torture rehabilitation centres from across the globe, giving an insight into how they operate and the work they complete on a daily basis.
Every week we shall turn our attention to a different centre and showcase how the centres and programmes work within varying national and local contexts, with different target groups, and use a range of methods to address the effects of torture on individuals, families and communities.
Torture has far-reaching consequences. Rehabilitation too has a far-reaching impact, one which can assist a person, a family, a community, and even a region, in moving on from their past and into a pain-free life once more.
Join us from next week as we go behind-the-scenes of the centres.
The fight to find safety away from persecution and torture is tough enough – every year war and conflict, together with ethnic, religious and cultural persecution, force millions of people to flee their home country to lands often unknown other than in name. Fleeing the homeland is not so much a choice but a necessity for survival.
So imagine, after all the struggles to ensure security, being deported back to the country where you were tortured. That’s the reality for 11 Congolese refugees who, until last month, were residing in Tees Valley, north-east England, to escape their torturers.
In the ‘Unsafe Return 2’ report, from UK human rights charity Justice First, evidence suggests 11 out of 15 Congolese refugees whom the charity tracked between November 2011 and September 2013 are again facing persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after UK authorities took the decision to deport them.
It is feared that three out of the 11 deportees have been killed following detention and ill-treatment at the hands of the Congolese authorities.
The case is another which highlights the urgent need for greater safeguards for refugees and asylum seekers to prevent torture from reoccurring, assuring safety and security from their perhaps tormented past.
Many refugees want to return to their home yet many cannot. It is the responsibility of nations providing asylum to rehabilitate torture victims and to safeguard them from ever returning to places where they face, as the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defines, “a well-founded fear of being persecuted”.
Over the past several years, the IRCT has undertaken interventions in support of victims of torture and trauma among refugee and internally displaced populations. For example, the PROTECT-ABLE project has trained doctors, member centres have offered rehabilitation services to torture survivors in refugee camps and assisted local health professionals to conduct psychosocial needs assessments of internally displaced persons across the world.
However, more needs to be done to highlight the special needs of asylum seekers and refugees, so they can have their full case heard and can receive proper protection and rehabilitation from torture.
Perhaps most worryingly is this, and many other heavy-handed approaches to asylum seekers in the UK, shows how flawed the UK asylum system may be.
Written by Ashley Scrace, Communications Officer at the IRCT in Copenhagen
Although a global problem, torture takes shape in different ways in different contexts. Tackling it is also a local challenge, with human rights defenders asking, how does torture happen here?
PRAWA, or Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action, is a Nigerian rehabilitation and advocacy organisation and member of the IRCT. They have developed a methodology and series of programmes to prevent torture from happening in the first place, one that is nearly so obvious and simple.
In Nigeria, torture happens in prisons. It happens when people come in contact with police and prison authorities. It happens through the horrific and inhumane conditions of prisons.
There is a vast problem of crime in Nigeria, says Godwin Ugbor, a psychologist at PRAWA based in their Enugu headquarters. This is mostly related to dire poverty and hunger. While the country itself is rich from oil – one of the largest oil producers in the world – this wealth has not been distributed widely. It’s the 49th most unequal country, meaning any wealth is only held by a few.
“There is just so much hunger,” Godwin says. The result of that poverty and inequality, he explains, is rampant crime.
Furthermore, the high rate of crime in Nigeria means there is increased pressure on police services to function well and arrest perpetrators – but they suffer from the same poverty and lack of proper funding and training as the rest of the country.
“Because they don’t have the skills, they resort to torture,” he says.
So, one of PRAWA’s approaches to preventing torture – keep people out of the judicial system. Although people are sometimes implicated and tortured for crimes they never committed, the best method of prevention is to ensure that the young don’t become involved in criminal activity. Additionally, they work with the police and justice system apparatuses to bring about a human rights ethic to their work. And for those in prison, PRAWA provides psychological rehabilitation during their sentences and through the transition to public life. If most torture occurs in prisons and police lock-ups, then PRAWA rehabilitates prisoners.
Godwin has only been a psychologist for a year and a half, but he’s jumped into this work quickly, almost ‘overwhelmingly’, he says. It’s never-ending work, with prisoners and other clients calling at all hours.
“Your personal life is lost.”
Godwin started working with prisoners during an internship, one of four he had during his studies to become a psychologist.
“The system is so flawed and the conditions in prison so terrible, you develop a great deal of sympathy. It is a large group of people that really need help.”
Terrible may be an understatement. “Say they built a prison for 100, maybe 400 people will be living there. It’s extremely overcrowded. A cell for five, may have 20 people. There are bad sanitary conditions. Not good personnel working there. And really horrible food.”
Godwin says for those living under these conditions – often in long sentences or remaining there for months or years after they should be released due to flawed judicial processes – can develop chronic mental illnesses. Many prisons now have asylum cells for the mentally ill. He gets calls from them sometimes as late as 10pm, desperate for help and someone to talk to.
However, Godwin’s work has taken a turn recently to focus more on prevention – ensuring that the youth of Nigeria don’t get caught up in crime and risk arrest, becoming entangled with the judicial system and thus tortured.
The Illegal Migration Awareness Project (IMAP) trains youth and peer educators on the issues of illegal migration, a particularly relevant issue in Nigeria, Godwin says.
“Many youth want to leave the country and live without violence,” he says. But the impact of illegal migration can bring dire consequences. Many try to migrate across the desert, some dying during the journey. Others steal money, purchasing fake visas and passports and can be caught by officials. Those who make it abroad may have to resort to crime and theft to make ends meet.”
The education to peer leaders includes understanding alternatives to violence – training youth on how to handle certain situations without resorting to violence and aggression. Finally, career guidance programmes on vocational training and entrepreneurship assist youth in earning money, building a career, attending university and supporting themselves rather than turning to crime and theft.
“When I was in university, I would make shirts, shirts like this,” Godwin says while tugging at the fabric of his blue button-down. “That meant I was able to make enough money to support myself and attend school.”
It is methods like PRAWA’s that demonstrate the multi-faceted problem of torture – how problems of poverty increase one’s vulnerability to torture. And stopping torture means tackling it from all sides.
Editor’s Note: Tessa writes from the IRCT’s Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Seminar taking place in Yaounde, Cameroon.
As we’ve mentioned before, work in nongovernmental organisations (NGO – another acronym we use with ease within this little world) can use a particular language and methods that don’t really reflect to the outside world their true meaning and impact. We speak of meetings and projects with an air of great importance, but often struggle to explain why? Why is a meeting, of all things, so important and why do we focus so much on them?
This has been one of the goals of this blog – to shed some light underneath the veil of NGO-ese and the NGO methods to explain clearly, what is the impact of our work.
One the IRCT’s projects, Non-State Actors (NSA) is one such project riddled with this problem of communicating why meetings are so important.
I am writing right now from one of these meetings. I’m in Cameroon at the Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Seminar, co-hosted by the IRCT and our member Trauma Centre Cameroon (TCC). This is my first time to attend one of these meetings, and I firstly feel so privileged to be here and meet so many people within the torture rehabilitation movement; but I also feel like I’m only now beginning to understand the impact of these seminars and meetings.
This seminar has brought together 31 representatives – psychologists, counsellors, directors of centres, and social workers – from torture rehabilitation centres from all over sub-Saharan Africa. There are people here from Chad, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and of course, our gracious hosts and ridiculously hard-working staff of TCC, among others.
The title of this five-day seminar is “Learning from each other.” Our goal in being here is to do just that – learn from each other’s respective experiences in rehabilitating torture survivors, gaining access to justice and preventing torture from happening in the first place.
But our first task was simply to make sure we were all OK. Working for a world without torture in sub-Saharan Africa can be a phenomenally difficult task, as one can imagine from the media. Torture here is undeniably prevalent, whether during military uprisings, former dictatorships, ongoing torture from police officers, or in post-conflict settings. And working for the rehabilitation of torture survivors can be both personally taxing for the individual and intimidating, as we have seen from the threats to human rights defenders around the world.
So, in bringing these 31 individuals together, we tried to address these issues. Presenters from various centres explained their strategies for safety as human rights defenders. Fidelis Mudimu, from Counselling Services Unit (CSU) in Zimbabwe, was among three staff members arbitrarily arrested and detained. He spoke about strategies to assess risks. For example, the greater impact of a centre’s work – bringing forth more perpetrators to account for their crimes, documenting that torture has taken place, empowering victims through rehabilitation – can of course increase the risks that human rights defenders face because they challenge the impunity of perpetrators. Knowing the impact of one’s work can keep that defender aware of when they might provoke a threat.
Taiga Wanyanja, coordinator of Mateso – Mwatikho Torture Survivors Organization in Kenya, spoke about ways in which human rights defenders can mitigate against risks. Keep abreast of not only the context in which one is working, but how it changes. Is there political unrest or upcoming elections, such as the situation in Kenya in 2008 that resulted in many incidents of torture? Make sure the office itself is safe – in a well-lit area and not isolated and easily attacked.
But human rights defenders need to be mentally safe in addition to physically safe. When working in the fight against torture, it is both understandable and a considerable risk that human rights defenders may become traumatised, burned-out or facing other mental health challenges because of the nature of their work. Secondary trauma – trauma that comes from hearing and witnessing the stories of torture and violence all day, everyday – is a problem among those in human rights work, perhaps particularly in anti-torture organisations.
So, back to meetings. What is the purposing of bringing forth all these people from all over the continent to learn these things? Because, as Fidelis said, “We are a chain. And we are only as strong as our weakest link.” It is critically important for the safety – both physical and mental safety – that everyone learns from each other. This is learning from both successes and failures, knowing what works and what doesn’t, in fighting torture within each country, context and community.