Posts Tagged UN
Nearly three weeks since the 26 June campaign swept the world, we continue to receive photos from the big day. As always, various torture rehabilitation centres across the globe came out in force to celebrate and honour victims and survivors of torture, and their photos offer a unique insight into some of the many activities and events that took place.
Under the theme ‘Right to Rehabilitation’ the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims’ member Albanian Rehabilitation Centre for Trauma and Torture dedicated a special exhibition to the sufferings of victims of the communist regime. The exhibition included photographs, names and faces of people who were initially persecuted for political reasons and then imprisoned and executed without trial.
At the University of South Australia, nearly 300 people attended an event co-organised by the university and local rehabilitation centre Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Service (STTARS). Regional Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Thomas Albrecht delivered the keynote speech, discussing the global challenge of refugee protection, with specific focus on providing sustained support to survivors of violence and torture.
IRCT member The Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture hosted 26 June events that saw around 140 participants, including survivors, experts and community members come together to discuss and learn about the consequences of traumatic experiences as well as the successes and challenges associated with helping torture survivors overcome their past. The day included a photo exhibition, a set of discussions, and theatrical and musical performances.
IRCT member in Russia, The Committee Against Torture organised a series of peaceful organisations in Nizhny Novgorod, Orenburg and Yoshkar-Ola dedicated to 26 June – complete with red balloons. In Moscow a similar event was organised together with Amnesty International.
In Sri Lanka, HRO Kandy held a poster exhibition themed “Justice & Dignity for all” in the days leading up to 26 June. The exhibition, which attracted more than 3,500 visitors in the course of two days, depicted the rights of individuals through posters drawn by school children. The message that HRO Kandy wanted to share with the visitors was: “Say No to Torture”.
We encourage you to share your photos and stories with us either as a comment here or on our World Without Torture Facebook page.
Every day and across the globe, women and girls are tortured and ill-treated. For some, rape is part of their ordeal and their rehabilitation path is often solitary, while governments, communities and families struggle to respond to their needs. With the support of a generous donor, 16 IRCT rehabilitation centres in 14 countries are helping thousands of these women and girls to take control of their lives through a range of activities.
Can design and sewing workshops contribute to the rehabilitation and empowerment of female victims of torture and sexual violence? If you ask two torture rehabilitation centres in Cameroon and Pakistan, the answer is yes.
For the past year, the centres have organised self-help workshops and activities with focus on how to generate income aimed at women who have been subjected to various human rights violations. The idea is to empower them to become economically independent and take control of their lives – something that also has a positive effect on their self-esteem.
The training and support provided by the programmes in Cameroon and Pakistan have proven very popular. Last year, more than 1,600 women and girls participated in an array of activities that fit with the needs of their community, including IT training, music lessons, beautician courses and small-business management.
The two centres are not the only IRCT members to run these types of events. Across the world, another 14 rehabilitation centres have implemented similar projects.
Centres in India, Iraq, Lebanon and South Africa have organised workshops led by doctors and social workers to discuss prevention and the consequences of sexual violence on women’s health, while a centre in Sierra Leone is practicing healing ceremonies to alleviate the traumatic memories of the victims and promote peace and reconciliation within the community.
As a survivor who is part of the program in Iraq, explained: “When I arrived at the centre I felt that my family and I were drowning in the sea. The centre has been like a ship that has led us to the beach where we could start a new life.”
At another centre, a woman described how she “was completely demoralised and overwhelmed by suicidal thoughts” when she came to the centre. “I thought my life was worthless after facing the stigma of having been raped twice. However, the workers at the centre helped me get my life back,” she told.
Women and girls’ empowerment is crucial to creating better and prosperous societies, but gender equality is far from a reality in many places. Women’s rights continue to be neglected with the United Nations estimating that as many as 35% of women worldwide have experienced some form of violence.
Empowerment is widely considered a very effective approach to treat and support victims of violence. Whether it is training activities and seminars to help women become economically independent or treatment and healing to help them recover from their trauma, there is a great need to support female victims of torture and ill-treatment. With so many women worldwide having experienced some form of violence, this response must equal the size of this global problem.
So far the 16 IRCT members have treated more than 3,000 women and 1,200 children subjected to torture and sexual violence. We are still to see how many small business owners or beauticians the events and seminars have fostered, but for many in Cameroon and Pakistan things are looking brighter.
The use of torture is a contentious topic that has caused a myriad of heated arguments between those who believe the practice can be justified and those who say that it is a serious human rights violation that can never be tolerated. As a result, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about torture, poisoning the debate.
In this blog we debunk 7 of the most common myths about torture.
Torture works and there are no better alternatives
In the wake of last year’s release of the CIA torture report, there has been an ongoing and toxic debate over the use of torture. Does it work? Is it really that bad? The defenders of torture argue that had it not been for the CIA’s torture program, cities like London would have been hit by terrorist attacks. They also claim that at times, torture is a necessary evil to keep us all safe.
These are just some of many misconceptions about torture. Not only do we now know that what took place at Guantanamo Bay actually led to false confessions and stories, history also tells us that torture is not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.
Torture always leaves visible scars and is easy to document
That is not always the case. Unlike the infamous torture methods used in the Middle Ages, states today are trying very hard to hide their crimes. Thus, many torture methods leave little or no physical marks. Some examples are mock executions, temperature manipulation, sensory torture (noise and light), waterboarding (mock drowning), threats of harm to friends or family, and sleep deprivation. Increasingly sophisticated methods are harder to document, and the effects they produce more likely to be invisible, thus contributing to impunity.
Torture is anything awful done to a person
While the CIA ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ are torture, getting up early in the morning for work and doing the dishes is not. The UN Convention against Torture includes a widely accepted definition of torture. Torture always involves:
- severe pain or suffering, physical or mental
- extraction of information or a confession, punishment, intimidation or coercion, or discrimination of any kind
- a public official or person in an official capacity (the perpetrator)
Torture is a thing of the past
Most people connect torture to the Middle Ages and some have visited medieval torture museums to learn about this ancient practice. Back then, torture was considered a legitimate way to extract confessions, punish offenders, and perform executions. It turns out, torture is not history. The IRCT network of torture rehabilitation clinics treated more than 100,000 victims of torture according to its last census. Amnesty recently reported that more than 140 countries around the world still use torture. And in many countries, police officers are ignorant about the fact that torture constitutes a crime under international law and humane alternatives to torture exist.
Torture is only used in war, in a few countries
There are constantly new cases of torture happening away from armed conflicts and war. As an example, police brutality or torture in detention are both serious problems in a great majority of countries. In fact, Amnesty International has in the past five years reported torture and abuse in more than 140 countries.
Torture victims are either criminals or terrorists
Anyone can be a victim of torture – children as well as adults, young as well as old, religious as well as atheists, intellectuals and the uneducated alike.
Nobody is immune, although members of a particular political, religious, ethnic group or minority are at higher risk of being targets of government-endorsed violence. Frequent victims include politicians, union leaders, journalists, health professionals, human rights defenders, people in detention or prison, members of ethnic minorities, and student leaders.
Another large group of victims are poor people. Poverty makes people vulnerable to abuses and leaves them without the ways and means of defending their rights.
Not all forms of torture are bad
Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person to obtain information, punish, intimidate or coerce is never justified. There is no such thing as one method being less harmful than the other.
All forms of torture are horrific violations of human rights – including beating, electric shocks, stretching, submersion, suffocation, burns, rape and sexual assault, isolation, threats, humiliation, mock executions, mock amputations, and witnessing the torture of others.
The consequences of torture — any torture — reach far beyond immediate pain and can leave long-term scars on the victims.
Around the world, conflicts and humanitarian crises result in migratory flows of millions of asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons every year. According to health professionals and researchers, as many as 35% of refugees worldwide could be victims of torture.
It used to be that those lucky enough to be near a torture rehabilitation centre were able to seek treatment, but in many places the number of victims of torture has now reached a point where the need for rehabilitation exceeds the services available.
To support victims of torture, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) last year adopted and promoted a policy on the Right to Rehabilitation in accordance with the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT) Comment 3.
The policy highlights the obligation of states to ensure that victims of torture have free and prompt access to rehabilitation services. Sadly, as the rehabilitation sector is facing a funding crisis, this commitment is more important than ever.
For many rehabilitation centres, the future is not looking bright. They operate in situations where their fate is continuously uncertain and because of a reduction in funding, some of them are even at risk of closing.
Yet, getting states to fully commit to the rehabilitation of victims of torture is not an easy task. This is something that becomes particularly apparent in countries where torture is carried out by the state, and where health professionals and rehabilitation service providers are constantly under threat.
Whether it is doctors being arrested and tortured simply for trying to save lives in Syria or rehabilitation centres in Latin America being exposed to threats and other intimidation tactics, it is clear that access to health and in particular, the right to rehabilitation is far from a reality in many parts of the world.
So how do we face these challenges?
An important step is to change the way that everyone from states and governments to the people they govern perceive torture and rehabilitation for torture victims. Those who believe that the practice of torture can be justified must be reminded that it is a serious human rights violation that can never be tolerated.
In addition, decision makers need to understand that rehabilitation should not be a service provided mostly by civil society organisations if and when international agencies and philanthropists decide to fund it. In fact, each and every state has a responsibility to ensure that torture victims everywhere have free and prompt access to rehabilitation services.
Without this change in attitude, political will and appropriate funding, we cannot guarantee that victims of torture receive the rehabilitation services they need.
And without offering rehabilitation to victims of torture, we are denying hundreds of thousands of people worldwide their last and only hope to reclaim their life and dignity, lost at the hands of perpetrators.
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.
Are you a human rights activist at heart whose New Year’s resolution is to voice your support for the movement, but never know when to do so? We have put together a list of significant human rights days worth adding to your 2015 calendar.
Throughout the year there are several days promoting human rights, many of which pay tribute to torture victims and those who have sacrificed their life fighting for justice. We have picked seven days that are all important milestones in the anti-torture movement.
24 March – International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims
In 2010 when the United Nations General Assembly chose 24 March as the day to honour the victims of gross and systematic human rights violations, the assembly had one particular person in mind. El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated on 24 March 1980 after speaking out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. Like so many others, he lost his life defending the principles of protecting lives, promoting human dignity and opposition to all forms of violence.
On this day, the world pays tribute to those who have devoted their lives to, and lost their lives in, the struggle to promote and protect human rights for all.
7 April – Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Rwanda Genocide
On numbers and timescale alone, the 1994 Rwandan genocide remains the largest of modern times. In 100 days, over 800,000 people were killed for being part of a different ethnic community. Hundreds of thousands civilians were also tortured and raped as the largest ethnic group, the Hutus repeatedly and mercilessly attacked the Tutsi population.
The mass killings began on 7 April, which is also the day that has been designated by the United Nations General Assembly as the Day of Remembrance of the many victims.
The aim with this day is to honour the many victims and to ensure that the world will never let history repeat itself.
4 June – International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression
On 19 August 1982, at its emergency special session on the question of Palestine, the United Nations General Assembly, decided to commemorate 4 June of each year as the International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression.
The purpose of 4 June is to acknowledge the pain suffered by children throughout the world who are the victims of physical, mental and emotional abuse.
20 June – World Refugee Day
For the first time since the Second World War, the global refugee figure has passed 50 million, the majority of whom live in developing countries.
Health professionals and researchers commonly estimate that between 4-35% of refugees worldwide have been subjected to torture.
For years, many countries and regions have been holding their own Refugee Days and even Weeks. One of the most widespread is Africa Refugee Day, which is celebrated on 20 June in several countries. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly decided that this day would also be celebrated as World Refugee Day.
26 – June International Day in Support of Victims of Torture
Since the first 26 June celebrations in 1998, the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture has undoubtedly become the most significant day for the anti-torture movement.
Torture is a crime under international law, but despite freedom from it holding the status as one of the few universally recognised human rights, torture is still widely practised. The consequences reach far beyond immediate pain, destroying the lives of many victims and their families. Yet, too often, the perpetrators are not brought to justice, resulting in more pain and suffering for the victims.
26 June helps us remind the world and ourselves that torture is serious crime and a human rights violation which must be investigated, prosecuted and punished. Every year, the IRCT marks 26 June with a host of events, making it the world’s largest anti-torture campaign.
25 November – International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women
Women’s activists have marked 25 November as a day against violence since 1981. This date came from the brutal assassination in 1960 of the three Mirabal sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic, on orders of Dominican ruler Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961).
Globally, violence against women remains rampant, with up to 35 per cent of women having experienced some form of violence.
Women are often more vulnerable to violence and discrimination than men and sexual abuse such as rape becomes a weapon of war in armed conflicts. 25 November not only commemorates the Mirabal sisters, but also serves as a reminder to all of us that it is time to end this global pandemic of violence against women.
10 December – Human Rights Day
Human Rights Day is celebrated by the international community every year on 10 December. It commemorates the day in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
10 December is a key day for organisations like the IRCT that use the day to cast a light on important human rights issues, including torture, through various events such high-level political conferences and cultural events and exhibitions.
Have any day to add to the list? Write us a comment.
For a full list of official UN days click on this link.
Despite suffering arrest, beatings and forced push-ups on the burning hot concrete of a Thai military camp, Hasan Useng is not entitled to remedies and reparations for this torture.
That’s the ruling made by a Provincial Court in Thailand on 7 October 2014, one which received condemnation from the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Reporting on the case, Amnesty International explain the ruling was made to prevent remedy to Hasan Useng because the military coup in May 2014 annuls Thailand’s Constitution, specifically Article 32 which assures reparations for victims of torture.
It is not the allegations which are necessarily disputed. It has been well-documented that Hasan Useng was arrested at his house in Narathiwat province. He was taken to the Inkhayuthaborihan Military Camp in Pattani province where “military personnel allegedly kicked him and ordered him to do several hundred push-ups and jumping jacks on the hot concrete in his bare feet,” according to Amnesty International.
What Hasan is being denied is rehabilitation and redress due to a pointless, inconsistent technicality.
Despite the ruling from the Thai courts, the government still has obligations under international law – specifically the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) – to provide redress and rehabilitation to victims of torture, even in a time of martial law.
What this ruling indicates is that Thailand is exploiting the military coup as a way to ignore ongoing torture allegations.
“The Hasan Useng decision highlights the concrete damage to human rights protections in Thailand resulting from the military coup, and the fact that it is now virtually impossible to hold security forces legally accountable for their actions,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, reporting to Amnesty International.
As already expressed by Amnesty and other human rights organisations Thailand should take immediate measures to ensure all persons alleging torture and ill-treatment should have an opportunity for prompt and effective investigation into their claims, as well as full access to rehabilitation and legal routes in their case.
To read the full article on Amnesty International’s site, click this link.
Lying on the eastern Black Sea coast, lying north-west of Georgia and the Caucasus mountains and south-west of Russia, there is an area which does not exist as a country to many except to most of those who live there.
On 27 September 1993, 21 years ago this month, a Russia-backed campaign began to displace and kill Georgian settlers in the Abkhazia region following the takeover of the now-capital city of Sukhumi. Approximately 250,000 Georgians were displaced and 30,000 were killed in the ethnic cleansing campaign across the region.
To mark the occasion and to remember the atrocities that took place, the IRCT published a story on Vaja – a former soldier in the war whose trauma led to drug abuse which, in turn, led to imprisonment and torture.
At the start of September, we reflected on how much of a trigger for the War on Terror the events on September 11th 2001 were, and how the prevailing treatment of terror suspects must not be forgotten even amidst the sadness of the memorial day.
While not direct victims, thousands of complaints, pictures, stories and court cases regarding torture have been seen and heard since 9/11 as the US continues to fight terrorism.
So while 9/11 is rightly marked by remembrance for the dead and the profound impact it had on America, we took time to also remember those who suffered, and are still suffering, from torture perpetrated under the guise of national security.
Following a successful 2014 campaign, the IRCT is launching the 26 June Global Report, providing a summary of this year’s commemorations and an insight into the many events and activities organised by torture rehabilitation centres and other organisations around the world.
A total of 110 organisations from 63 countries joined the campaign, making it the biggest 26 June campaign yet. Five years ago, that number stood at 45. The report includes an event summary from each organisation as well as colourful photographs throughout, giving the reader a chance to visualise some of the 26 June activities.
This year’s theme “Fighting Impunity” was emphasised through peaceful demonstrations, press conferences, concerts, radio shows, panel discussions and many other events. Reaching thousands of people across the globe, the IRCT and the participating organisations sent a message of support to survivors of torture and a clear call to end impunity.
Second story from the IRCT focuses on the upcoming European Regional Meeting in Zagreb, Croatia.
The topics under discussion in the meeting will include Croatia’s obligations on providing rehabilitation for torture survivors and the regional priorities for the delivery of rehabilitation services in the region. The definition of holistic rehabilitation that underpins General Comment 3 to the UN Convention against Torture, will be debated, as will the question of survivors’ involvement in the rehabilitation process.
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.
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.
To read her observations on the topic just click this link.
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Lying on the eastern Black Sea coast, lying north-west of Georgia and the Caucasus mountains and south-west of Russia, there is an area which does not exist as a country to many except to most of those who live there.
Abkhazia and its state of recognition is a key issue in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. Formed out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union through the 1980s and into the nineties, Abkhazia is recognised as an independent state only by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, the partially recognised state of South Ossetia, and the similarly unrecognised Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh regions.
To the United Nations Abkhazia is part of Georgia – a part which Georgia has no control over despite the government of Abkhazia operating, in exile, in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
This conflict over recognition, and the geographic area as a whole, is now decades old. The War in Abkhazia, which began in 1992 and ended in military defeat of the Georgian army in 1993, granted independence of Abkhazia but also paved the way for the mass ethnic cleansing of Georgians living in Abkhazia.
On 27 September 1993, 21 years ago this week, a Russia-backed campaign began to displace and kill Georgian settlers in the Abkhazia region following the takeover of the now-capital city of Sukhumi. Approximately 250,000 Georgians were displaced and 30,000 were killed in the ethnic cleansing campaign across the region.
“The war was horrifying,” says Vaja today in a story published by the IRCT. “I saw so many people die, and so many of my friends were hurt. Two of my friends died in my arms during the time I served. The trauma made me unstable and became too much for me, so I turned to drugs. This landed me with a prison sentence in 2005.”
Despite efforts for peace in 1994, the situation remains tense and no resolve has been found. There is still damage from the war and from the genocide which has caused chronic trauma in the minds of many. For Vaja it is not just challenging to overcome wartime trauma but also the trauma which evolved from post-war torture.
While Vaja’s psychological trauma was obvious, physical torture was not apparent throughout the war or its aftermath. Four-and-a-half years in a Georgian prison changed that.
“I was beaten several times. I was beaten so hard, even in my first week in the cell, that my forehead was crushed,” Vaja decribes.
“The crushing sound of my forehead cracking was so loud. All I remember was blood pouring from my skull. I had been in war – I had seen fights, conflict, pain and death. But I had not seen anyone enjoy taking pleasure in causing pain. It was frightening to witness.”
Released in 2013, some 2,800 days after his original alleged four-year sentence, Vaja is still struggling with his wartime flashbacks and his torture.
“To this day I have flashbacks and nightmares, not just about my time in the war, but about my time in the prison during that period,” Vaja explains.
“But my experiences still trouble me. It will live with me my whole life.”
Today Vaja overcomes his trauma of war and torture thanks to assistance from IRCT member the Georgian Center for Psychosocial and Medical Rehabilitation of torture Victims (GRCT). Their help has aided him in owning a café and becoming a leader for archaeological expeditions.
“The journey to overcome torture is tough, but you can learn to live life to the fullest and move past your experiences,” Vaja concludes.
Despite great progress in the security over the past decades in Colombia, the use of torture is still systematic in the country.
In this blog, journalist and guest blogger Hannah Matthews, who lives in the Colombian capital Bogota, gives her view on the prevalence of torture and what attention needs to be given to the situation now to stop torture.
An almost invisible crime in the country, masked by the prevalence of extrajudicial killings and forced displacement, the issue of torture in Colombia deserves immediate international scrutiny.
It’s been one year since I moved to Bogota and, despite not witnessing torture first hand, I have encountered many human rights defenders who have spent time in prison under false charges of criminal or dissident activity.
Beyond the human rights field, social protest is criminalised at any available opportunity. Despite the peaceful nature of protests, tear gas canisters are frequently fired into the crowd and riot police adopt aggressive stances, igniting an otherwise peaceful demonstration.
Unfortunately my observations only support those made by the Colombian Coalition Against Torture, who outline how torture is used as a means of political persecution with the purpose of forcefully obtaining confessions or information, an discriminatory instrument of repression against social protest, or simply as a way to plant fear within Colombian society to prevent dissent against the authorities.
But the Colombian context is infinitely more complex than that. With so many different state and non-state actors in the mix, all torturing with different aims and purpose, complicated dynamics further convolute victims’ access to justice. The simple dichotomy between government and guerrilla groups, right and left, good and bad, that the international community continues to propagate is too simple and runs the risk of masking important issues and human rights violations that occur across the spectrum.
Due to the widespread fear and high risk associated with denouncing cases of torture, impunity reigns with very few cases ever being fully investigated or tried. Human rights defenders and other entities who speak out against the government are under constant threat of persecution and mistreatment, as are those who express their dissent through peaceful protest. The most recent and shocking examples of this could be seen in the police treatment of farmers and students marching in the agrarian strikes of this year and 2013. In 2013 at least 800 protesters were badly injured by the public security forces and 15 people were killed. Last year over 3,000 people were arrested during social protests.
Despite the ratification of the various human rights treaties, including the Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, rights to freedom of expression and freedom from torture are not respected, protected or fulfilled in Colombia. Colombia has still not ratified or applied the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT).
“Torture continues to be generalised and systematic in Colombia. It is perpetrated by the Public Force, by the paramilitaries and by the guerrillas, but the party principally responsible for these acts is the state,” said Isabelle Heyer, a member of the Colombian Jurists Commission.
This coalition has recorded instances of torture over the years in Colombia and has concluded that while the majority of cases continue to be committed by security forces, right wing militias and demobilized paramilitary groups are also at the heart of many incidences. Over 90% of the incidences of torture the coalition recorded between 2001 and 2009 were attributed to Colombian state forces, with less than 10% attributed to rebel guerrilla forces.
Current President Juan Manuel Santos has promised this year will see the signing of a historic peace agreement between the government and the most notorious guerrilla group, the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces). There is hope that this will establish a reconciliation process, but the country waits with baited breath. This process, if established, will be the tip of a huge iceberg in terms of restoring true justice and human rights principles, something very much needed for this war-torn country.
According to the Colombian Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science, 1,913 people presented signs of mistreatment between 2010 and 2014, 345 of which were women. Torture and inhuman and degrading treatment remain most common amongst the Colombian prison population.
Sexual violence against women and girls is one of the most pervasive modes of torture, with Ms. Heyer from the Colombian Jurists Commission calling it “an habitual, systematic and invisible practice, which enjoys impunity in the majority of cases and whose principal perpetrators are soldiers and police.”
Among the prison population, organisations have expressed their concern about the high levels of psychological torture within prisons, with some inmates experiencing a serious lack of access to fresh running water, sufficient hygiene facilities and medical attention, as well as being subjected to verbal abuse and mistreatment from the prison guards.
All of this torture and ill-treatment though is no recent phenomena. Forty years of internal conflict, coupled with the state’s misuse of power and crackdowns on social and political opposition, means torture in Colombia remains a pertinent issue indeed. Improvements are scarce and unprogressive and any real access to justice or rehabilitation has not been assured.
Yet much of the world goes on regardless. Perhaps Colombia is too far removed from the lives of others, or simply too unknown. But it cannot go on like this forever. More needs to be done to end torture in the country. Today.
To find out more about what the IRCT is doing in Colombia through member CAPS, click this link.