Across the globe there are many human rights defenders and organisations whose work has made an enormous difference to the fight against torture – yet we know very little about them and what they do. One such group is the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG), which consists of 35 of the world’s most eminent experts in the documentation and investigation of torture. Coming from 18 different countries, these experts have varied backgrounds ranging from forensic pathologists to clinical psychologists.
The objective of the IFEG is to use its members’ expertise as doctors, psychologist and psychiatrists to document and investigate torture and to secure justice for victims. As part of their work they go on documentation missions around the world, conducting physical and psychological evaluations of alleged torture victims. They also train health and legal professionals in how to document torture and help raise awareness among the public.
Dastan Salehi from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) recently spent a week with IFEG members Dr Maximo Alberto Duque Piedrahita and Dr Ana Deutsch on a mission in the Bolivian capital of La Paz. We asked Dastan to document the mission and as his pictures show, the work of the IFEG can take many different forms.
Dr Duque (left) and Dr Deutsch (right) spent one week in La Paz, Bolivia on a documentation mission, conducting physical and psychological evaluation on three people who allege they were subjected to torture in Bolivia.
Documentation missions are the bread and butter of the IFEG’s work. In a nutshell, they feature two IFEG experts (one medical doctor and one psychologist or psychiatrist) who travel to a particular country to conduct examinations on people who allege they have been tortured. This examination results in what is known as a ‘medico-legal report’, which seeks to medically and psychologically assess the correlation of the physical and psychological scars with the allegations of torture.
While in La Paz, the two experts delivered a workshop on the Istanbul Protocol, the key international instrument on the investigation and documentation of torture and ill-treatment. The workshop, which was hosted by local rehabilitation centre Instituto de Terapia y Investigacion (ITEI), looked at ways to improve effective documentation of torture and the obligations of health professionals to document and report cases of torture independently.
During the mission, the IFEG experts spent time with ITEI to share experiences and best practices and to discuss how they can best work together in the future to document torture.
The IFEG’s visit caught the attention of several local media outlets, which were all keen to interview them. In this one, Dr Duque appears alongside Andres Gautier, Lead Psychologist at ITEI, on the television programme Claroscuro con Angel Careaga to discuss the situation of torture in Bolivia and Latin America.
Dr Duque also met with journalists from Agencia de Noticias Fides Bolivia and was interviewed on Radio PanAmericana Bolivia to share his views on the situation in Bolivia, as well as to discuss the importance of the Istanbul Protocol.
Going on mission with the IFEG experts, Dastan Salehi quickly realised just how important their work is to the anti-torture movement and torture victims around the world.
“It was really inspiring to see Ana and Maximo at work. The way they spoke to and interacted with the victims and their families was just phenomenal. They didn’t treat them as just a case. They built rapport, shared and collaborated with them as people, and that was quite special.”
Each IFEG mission leaves behind a legacy of learning and inspiration, despite the difficult nature of the expert’s work; this was no different in La Paz.
A big thank you to Dastan for sharing his pictures with us. To find out more about the work of the IFEG click here.
Five and a half years on from the ousting of former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, the country remains in an unstable state, facing the threat of IS and political infighting. Gaddafi was killed in February 2011 and on this year’s anniversary of his death, interim president Abdul Jalil insisted his government had, “opened our arms to all Libyans, whether they supported the revolution or not”. Acknowledging this message of inclusion, let’s not forget the many people with links to Gaddafi who were targeted in the aftermath of the dictator’s death. One of these people is HH who was tortured by the police.
HH was just 18 when Gaddafi died and her family was one of many to be persecuted because of their connection to his regime. The fact that they also belonged to a minority ethnic group made their situation even more dangerous. Immediately after Gaddafi’s death HH and her family were threatened and harassed by the new authorities who wanted them to leave the country.
Her father was captured in 2014 and not released until 2016; she believes he was tortured during this time, though he never spoke about it. Soon after his release he was murdered on the street. After her father was taken away, HH was also arrested by the police and taken to prison. Over the course of a month, she was interrogated, sexually assaulted and beaten. Her head was shaved and she received death threats constantly. She was also forced to witness other family members being beaten.
Sadly, her story is far from unique. A UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report on Libya released in February 2016, found that killings and torture are being committed with impunity by “a multitude of actors – both state and non-state”.
HH was released a month later and knew she needed to leave the country if she was to survive. Along with a close relative she made her way to Croatia, but the trauma of what she had experienced made day to day life impossible. HH was referred to the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member centre Rehabilitation Center for Stress and Trauma (RCT) in Zagreb by the Red Cross.
When she arrived at the centre she was suffering from depression, insomnia, nightmares and a loss of appetite. She also struggled to form relationships with people as she felt like she couldn’t trust anyone. She had physical injuries as a result of the sexual assault but like many victims of sexual violence, refused to speak about what she had experienced.
RCT Zagreb provided social, medical, psychiatric and psychological support to both HH and her relative – also a victim of torture. The centre found accommodation for both of them and staff worked hard to establish trust so they could start the treatment and help HH integrate in Croatia. She was enrolled in a language course and received help to search for a job.
Through her therapy she began to deal with her grief at losing her family and the promising future she once had in Libya, where she was an ambitious student. A year and a half later and thanks to the work of the RCT Zagreb staff life had become more manageable for HH. She left Croatia in 2016, hoping to find a better future in Germany.
While HH escaped the violence and left her life in Libya behind, an article in The Guardian suggests that many people are losing hope in the country. In the article, which was written around the time of the five-year-anniversary, one student who supported the revolution said, “Some people say they want to go back to the time of Gaddafi. I don’t. Where I want to go is out, out of the country.”
We’ve spoken with Ole von Uexküll who is the Executive Director of Swedish organisation the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, which each year supports a number of individuals and organisations through its award.
Established in 1980 by journalist and professional philatelist Jakob von Uexkull, the Right Livelihood Award aims to promote scientific research, education, public understanding and practical activities, which contribute to eliminating poverty and ensuring lasting peace and justice in the world.
The IRCT became a laureate in 1988, when it received the award for helping torture victims restore their lives and regain their health.
As the Executive Director of the organisation, Ole von Uexküll’s job is to lead and coordinate the work of the Foundation, which is headquartered in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, with an office in Geneva, Switzerland.
WWT: Can you tell us a bit about the Foundation and what its purpose is?
OvU: The Right Livelihood Award Foundation is a charity registered in Sweden. The Foundation’s principal purpose is to bestow the Right Livelihood Awards. Today, there are 162 Laureates from 67 countries. Yet, the support from the Foundation goes far beyond the prize. The Foundation invests a lot in press work and communication on behalf of its recipients – former and current Laureates. It also seeks to help protect and support Award Recipients who are at risk. In 2014, for instance, it organised a solidarity mission to Gaza to protest against the restrictions that 2013 Laureate Raji Sourani and his colleagues at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights face in exercising their fundamental freedoms and human rights in the Gaza Strip.
The Foundation tries to directly strengthen the network of its Laureates, whenever possible, through events, joint statements and petitions. Anniversary meetings, regional conferences and seminars, as well as cooperative events with other institutions, where Laureates are invited to their events, have become an important aspect of the Foundation’s network building and outreach work.
With the inauguration of the Right Livelihood College in 2009, the Foundation also furthered its work in capacity building and in making its Laureates’ knowledge more accessible.
WWT: What exactly does your role as Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation consist of?
OvU: My main tasks are strategy development, representation, financial management and research. I have evaluated candidates for the Right Livelihood Award in more than 35 countries around the globe.
WWT: The IRCT received the award in 1988. Do you think the fight against torture is as relevant today as back then?
OvU: Absolutely. Torture continues to be a global scourge across many parts of the world, particularly in the context of the “war on terror” and other international and national conflicts. There remains a need for institutions dedicated to outlawing torture, monitoring state commitments to renounce torture, and working with torture victims to provide them with legal, medical and psychosocial support.
WWT: You recently organised a seminar/debate at the Swedish political forum Almedalen on ‘Life After Torture’. Why did you chose this issue?
OvU: We felt that it was important for Swedish policy-makers to be informed about the unfortunate reality that torture remains a global problem, and together with our Laureate, the IRCT, we wanted to highlight the importance of working with torture victims to rebuild their lives. We wanted to use this forum to make the case that the important and innovative work that the IRCT and its partners are doing should be supported by governments as part of their efforts to promote human rights, development and the rule of law.
WWT: What has been the response so far?
OvU: We had a high number of participants in the seminar and some very good discussions during and after the seminar. In this regard, we are pleased to have put the issue of rehabilitation of torture victims in the realm of public debate in Sweden and will continue to work with the IRCT to inform people about their work.
WWT: What do you look for when finding new laureates?
OvU: We look closely at not only the overall impact of the individual or organisation, but also whether the approach they use is pioneering. It is also important for us to see that the candidate’s life and work is a good example of ‘Right Livelihood’, i.e. living responsibly with a high degree of integrity. The typical Laureate is a courageous individual or organisation who has changed the “rules of the game” in a particular field, and has also demonstrated a practical solution to a global problem. Typical Laureates are role models; their work is transformational and they contribute to securing a just and sustainable world for future generations.
WWT: In addition to the monetary aspect of the prize, the Foundation also seeks to help protect and support those Award Recipients who are at risk. Why do you think this element of the prize is important?
OvU: For us, presenting the Award is the beginning of a life-long relationship we seek to have with Laureates, and we strive to continue to support their work as best as we can. We have estimated that one fifth of all our Laureates have been threatened because their work challenges powerful government and corporate interests. Since 2012, our protection programme, through solidarity visits, UN advocacy and strategic initiatives, has provided a degree of additional protection to our Laureates and strengthened their position in their country.
Additionally, we support our Laureates by giving them opportunities to meet each other at regional conferences, by sharing their achievements through our press and communications work, and by linking them to academic institutions through the Right Livelihood College – our university network with eight campuses on five continents. Several Laureates have observed that the solidarity provided by the Foundation and network of Laureates gives them the strength and confidence to continue persevering with their important work.
You can find out more about the Right Livelihood Award Foundation and its laureates by visiting its website.
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. You have probably already stumbled across this mouthful of a title or the somewhat shorter version UN Special Rapporteur on Torture in articles about torture and other human rights issues. But what do you actually know about this person? As the next Special Rapporteur will be appointed later this month, we thought it was time to find out more about the role and what it means to be a torture investigator working on behalf of the United Nations.
1. The role of the Special Rapporteur on Torture
The Special Rapporteur on Torture is often referred to as the UN’s anti-torture watch dog and in this function, the Special Rapporteur is the person responsible for informing and instigating political debates and decision-making processes at the UN.
The Special Rapporteur can undertake country visits to expose abuses, help the state being scrutinised improve its performance and report back to the Human Rights Council on the situation of torture in individual countries. Similarly, the Special Rapporteur receives allegations from people who are at risk and those who claim to have been tortured. He or she then submits these allegations to the country in question and begins a dialogue to resolve the situation.
The Special Rapporteur produces two thematic reports every year covering new ground in the fight against torture. These could be about developing the legal and practical understanding of themes relevant to the fight against torture, like the situation of torture and ill-treatment in a healthcare setting or the question of when solitary confinement is deemed torture.
Instead of being bound by a specific treaty, the Special Rapporteur is free to cover any thematic and country specific issue relevant to the fight against torture. This means that the mandate can be useful for civil society organisations working against torture in many different ways. For example, organisations can encourage the Special Rapporteur to visit their country to bring global attention to their domestic situation; or in the absence of functional judicial remedies, they can forward concrete cases to the Special Rapporteur, hoping to raise the case. They can also encourage and inform the drafting of thematic reports or invite the Special Rapporteur to speak at events, issue statements and take part in other public events.
2. Who is the current Rapporteur?
Argentinian human rights lawyer, professor and torture victim, Juan Méndez is the current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture – a role he took on back in 2010.
Mr Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defense of human rights and before joining the UN, he worked with organisations such as the Human Rights Watch, the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights in Costa Rica and the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame in the US.
Mr Méndez has also taught International Human Rights Law at Georgetown Law School and at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and he teaches regularly at Oxford University and the American University Washington College of Law.
3. 30+ years of reporting
Last year the mandate of Special Rapporteur celebrated 30 years of reporting on torture. The role was created by the UN in 1985 after the UN Commission on Human Rights decided to appoint an independent human rights expert who could examine questions relevant to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment worldwide.
Today, the mandate of Special Rapporteur is part of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures Mechanisms system.
4. How many Rapporteurs have we seen in 30 years?
If the mandate of Special Rapporteur on Torture was a club, it would be an extremely exclusive one. Juan Méndez is only the fifth person to be appointed Special Rapporteur.
Mr Mendéz took over from Austria’s Manfred Nowak who was the Special Rapporteur from 2004 to 2010 and like Mr Mendez himself, is a human rights lawyer.
Rewind to 1985. The first person to be appointed Special Rapporteur was the late Peter Kooijmans from the Netherlands who later became Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs and Judge on the International Court of Justice. In 1993, distinguished law professor Sir Nigel Rodley from the UK took over from Kooijmans before handing over the reins to Theo van Boven, a Dutch jurist and professor emeritus in international law, who was at the helm from 2001 to 2004.
5. Who appoints the Special Rapporteur and for how long?
The UN Human Rights Council is responsible for appointing the Special Rapporteur on Torture.
The Council has a list of criteria for the selection and appointment of the Special Rapporteur, which includes the nominee’s expertise, experience in the field of the mandate, independence, impartiality, personal integrity, and objectivity. The Council also considers gender balance, geographic representation, and representation of different legal systems when appointing a new Special Rapporteur.
Finally, conflicts of interest, such as holding a position in government, will disqualify an individual from consideration.
Anyone from governments, regional groups operating within the UN human rights system, international organisations, non-governmental organisations, other human rights bodies, and individuals can nominate a candidate.
For the actual selection process, a group of members of the Human Rights Council review all applications and propose a list of candidates to the President of the Council who then appoints the next Rapporteur.
When appointed, the Special Rapporteur usually serves at least one three-year term.
6. Does the Rapporteur make a difference?
While states as such are not obliged to follow the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations following a visit, these visits are an important part of the UN human rights fact-finding and investigatory mechanisms. The Special Rapporteur and his reports are instrumental in shedding light on serious and otherwise forgotten human rights violations.
Late last year – as hundreds of thousands of refugees were passing through Serbia on their way to Western Europe – we spoke to Bojana Trivuncic, a psychologist and project manager at local rehabilitation centre International Aid Network (IAN), about helping refugees arriving in the country. At the time of the interview, IAN was the only organisation providing psychological support to refugees transiting the country. Now, 10 months on, we have caught up with Bojana to find out if the situation has changed and if IAN is still reaching out to refugees through its mobile team unit.
WWT: When we last spoke, your centre was providing medical first aid and psychological support to refugees in parks and shelters. Are you still doing this?
BT: Yes, we still provide these services in the parks near the bus station in Belgrade. Unfortunately, we have fewer resources now than last year. Since April this year we’ve only received emergency funds from the UNVFVT [United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture], allowing us to only work once a week.
WTT: We are so sorry to hear that. Are you still using the mobile unit despite lack of funding?
BT: Yes, the weekly visits are through our mobile team. The team consists of a medical doctor, a nurse and a psychologist. The nurse also acts as an interpreter because she speaks fluent Arabic. Sometimes we also have a Dari interpreter, but we don’t have enough funds to finance two interpreters for every visit.
WWT: It sounds like the lack of funding really has affected your work with refugees.
BT: Yes it has. We aren’t travelling to the north where we used to work due to lack of funds, but there is still a great need for our services in the parks in Belgrade.
WWT: The issue of refugees traveling through Europe is no longer front page news. Now the focus is on those who have made it to countries like Germany etc. What is the situation like for refugees in Serbia?
BT: The closure of the borders didn’t stop the refugees’ transit through Serbia towards the EU countries. However, their journey has become more difficult and uncertain, given that most of them decided to reach their destination with the help of people smugglers. I don’t know the exact number of refugees who are currently in Serbia, but approximately more than 2000 refugees or migrants are here, mostly waiting to go to Western Europe. Many of them pay smugglers to illegally cross the Hungarian border, but many of them have been ‘pushed back’ to Serbia from Hungary. In June, the number of refugees allowed to start the asylum procedure in Hungary was reduced to 15 per day at each border crossing. This means that many refugees are trying to enter the EU illegally with the ‘help’ of smugglers.
WWT: Where are the refugees coming from and do they talk about why they are fleeing their countries?
BT: In the parks, the majority are from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Morocco, etc. They are fleeing armed conflicts, terrorist attacks or looking for a better life. There are also refugees from Syria and Iraq fleeing war.
WWT: Have any of them been tortured or ill-treated?
BT: There are torture victims who have been tortured in the country of origin, but many of them have also been tortured in transit countries such as Bulgaria and in Hungary. Some of them, when illegally crossing the border to Hungary, have been beaten and returned to Serbia.
WWT: What kind of physical and mental condition are they in?
BT: Their health problems are acute mostly. During the warm weather, they had stomach problems such as diarrhoea. They also suffer from skin infections, pain in their legs and body, allergies, insect bites, etc. When we talk about mental problems, they usually focus on their last experience, which is often something bad, like a bad experience with smugglers or authorities in transit countries. They want to share with us their thoughts, feelings and their stories.
WWT: I can only imagine that they must feel incredible frustrated. Are they still hopeful of a better life?
BT: Well, they are frustrated because they can’t cross the border legally and only a small number of people per day is allowed to start the asylum procedure in Hungary. One month ago a group of 100 refugees demonstrated and walked from Belgrade to the north of Serbia, close to the border to demonstrate and show their frustration with the fact that they cannot cross the border to Hungary.
WWT: You no longer travel to the border, but are you able to tell us what the situation is like there?
BT: The situation there is very bad. The refugees, including women and small children, live in tents in open air, in unhygienic conditions, close to one of the two so called “transit zones”, waiting to be allowed access to the asylum procedure in Hungary.
WWT: Previously you said the Serbian public generally had a positive reaction to the refugees. Do you think that is still the case?
BT: The issue of refugees is no longer front page news in Serbia like it isn’t in other European countries. In these parks where we operate, people are generally friendly towards migrants, or at least indifferent.
WWT: What about the Serbian government. Has it changed its stance on refugees?
BT: The borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria are still very much controlled by our authorities in order to prevent refugees crossing illegally. Since the law on asylum was established in 2008, 30 refugees have been granted asylum and 40 subsidiary protections in Serbia. In the first half of 2016, eight refugees have been granted asylum in Serbia and 14 refugees have been granted subsidiary protection. So the number is increasing and that is a good thing, but still the asylum procedures are very slow, and the integration programme is not very efficient. There is an absence of regulations facilitating integration of refugees.
WWT: Finally, is there a particular person or family whose story really affected you or was especially powerful?
BT: There are so many young boys who have left their families – so full of hope that they will find a better life somewhere in Europe and that they will be able to help their loved ones in their home country. For me it is very sad to know that they have such an uncertain future ahead of them and are not aware of it. They have been travelling for months. One boy was pushed back four times from the Hungarian border, one of the times he was beaten, and still he believes that something good is waiting for him in some European country… he is not giving up… it is so brave and so sad at the same time.
We would like to thank Bojana for taking her time to speak with us. You can find out more about IAN and the work they carry out by visiting their website.
In 2015, a record 1.2 million refugees applied for asylum in the EU, most of them fleeing from torture, violent conflict, persecution and repressive regimes in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Despite legal obligations to support torture victims applying for asylum, many European countries have failed to provide adequate reception conditions and treatment for the trauma caused by torture. One of these countries is France where, according to a new report, the absence of an early identification procedure is the reason for many of the problems experienced by torture victims seeking asylum.
“In our view the French authorities do not ensure that torture victims receive the necessary treatment for the damage caused by torture.”
This is how Director of Development at French rehabilitation centre Parcour d’Exil Jerome Boillat describes the current situation in the country. According to him, more can and should be done to help torture victims seeking asylum. His sentiments are echoed by a new report looking at the challenges faced by torture victims seeking asylum in the EU.
According to the report, released by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, the absence of an early identification procedure is at the root of many of the problems experienced by torture victims seeking asylum in France, as well as many other countries. Early identification could ensure that victims are provided with adequate housing and located in regions and cities where they can access rehabilitation services.
Yet, the country still has no specific assessment procedures or mechanisms that authorities can use to identify vulnerable applicants, aside from girls and women who have experienced female genital mutilation.
This means that many asylum seekers are housed in hotels through emergency schemes but there is also a worrying number of asylum seekers who end up homeless as local authorities and NGOs are unable to pay their hotel fees. Homeless asylum seekers have to rely on civil society or relatives for shelter.
Jerome Boillat says that, “Homeless torture victims find it particularly difficult to meaningfully engage in the rehabilitation process due to their extremely precarious situation. Although the French government aims to increase the number of asylum seekers housed in regular reception facilities to 55 percent by 2017, we are concerned that even this figure might not be achieved.”
Torture victims already struggle throughout the asylum process. They are unable to work and find it difficult to maintain and develop relationships with others because they cannot trust them or prefer to be alone. Although asylum applications in France have not increased as sharply compared to other countries in the EU, it is clear that the country is struggling to provide adequate care and meet basic needs like accommodation for refugees and torture victims.
The French authorities have been trying to improve the system over the last two or three years and have expressed a willingness to engage in dialogue with NGOs like Parcours d’Exil. However, with unrest continuing in several countries the refugee crisis shows no sign of easing. Torture victims who are not identified will continue to miss out on rehabilitation and be unable to process their asylum request unless changes are made quickly, as those in need continue to fall through the cracks in the system.
To read the report in full, click here.
Once again creativity played a big role in marking this year’s 26 June campaign, as organisations around the globe showcased the resilience of caregivers, survivors and their families and communities through a variety of creative events and activities.
The UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June is a day to honour victims of torture. For many, it is also a chance to celebrate the achievements of the movement and raise awareness that torture continues to exist in many places around the world.
Members of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) organised lots of different kinds of events, including activities for children, music and dance productions, theatre, conferences and vigils.
In Turkey, the SOHRAM-CASRA rehabilitation centre celebrated 26 June with a range of events for children, including a sack race and face painting. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Vive Zene centre raised awareness through street art, while on the other side of the world in Australia, Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Services brought their conference on “Sustainable Rehabilitation for Survivors and their Communities” to life with traditional music and dance performances.
26 June is the perfect occasion for torture survivors to showcase what they have learned by processing their trauma through theatre, movement and song; therapeutic approaches, which are becoming popular with more and more health professionals.
These are just a selection of some of the many creative events that took place this 26 June, as we were once again inspired by the originality and dedication of those involved in the anti-torture movement.
If you haven’t shared your photos and stories from 26 June with us yet, please do so on our World Without Torture Facebook page.
In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people from around the world and from a number of professions who work with and support survivors of torture. What does their work mean to them and what are the biggest challenges they see in the anti-torture and rehabilitation movement?
Alba Mejia is the Assistant Director of the Centre for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and their Families (CPTRT), in Honduras, a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. She tells us how securing funding for the sector continues to be a challenge and how the Honduran military, which runs the country’s prison service, is more focused on punishment and vigilance, rather than rehabilitation.
Q: What is your profession and where do you work?
I am a social worker, and hold a master’s degree. I am currently working at CPTRT where many of our clients are in detention, deprived of liberty.
Q: How long have you worked in torture rehabilitation and human rights?
I have worked with torture victims since 1995, which is the same year that CPTRT was founded.
Q: How did you end up doing this work?
This work is the culmination of activities I have been involved in throughout my life as a human rights defender. When I was young, I participated intensively in the fight for the rights of workers in the health and education sectors. I also worked in the defence of higher education students, where I observed how groups of young people were tortured when they were forcibly recruited into the military. That is why I got involved in the movement that fought to make military service voluntary rather than obligatory.
In addition, all my social engagement has been related to the prevention of violence against women and I actually founded the movement, “Women for peace/Visitación Padilla’, which I was involved in for 15 years. As part of my work with CPTRT, I have been in contact with people deprived of liberty and I have seen the consequences of torture on the bodies of victims. This is why I now feel committed to defending their rights.
Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?
Sometimes I run into people who have been deprived of liberty who I have interacted with during different workshops. When they see me they stop and greet me, they remind me of the experiences they have gone through and how the CPTRT’s support has positively affected their lives.
Q: How has this work changed you since you started?
This work has strengthened my convictions about the need to deeply engage in changing national and international structures, which are the cause of the exploitation, oppression and repression of those impoverished in the world.
Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors in Honduras?
At CPTRT, we refer to the people we work with as being ‘deprived of liberty’. Their situation is critical and they do not enjoy the full right to rehabilitation. Lack of access to education, health care and employment are also serious problems. These issues are further exacerbated due to overcrowded living conditions in prisons and detention centres. All of this constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, which is very close to torture.
Q: What is a typical day in the office/field for you?
In my management position, I regularly meet with my colleagues to co-ordinate meetings with state operators so we can maintain institutional communication with other organisations to handle and define strategies for dealing with torture cases.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector in Honduras?
The biggest obstacle is that unfortunately the government has delegated the administration of the penitentiary system to the military. If the possibilities for rehabilitation before were minimal, now they have been reduced even more because the military focuses on punishment and vigilance, rather than rehabilitation.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector in general?
Globally, there is not enough funding for the rehabilitation of victims. This is then reinforced by the limited influence that can be exerted to ensure that states make funding available for the rehabilitation of torture survivors.
Q: According to various surveys, many people do not think torture is such a big problem; that it is a thing of the past; or some even think that it is necessary. What would you say to them?
Torture is an experience that stays with the survivors for their entire life. Regardless of how much therapy they receive, their brain will always remember the suffering and the horror of such a traumatic experience. Torture affects the behaviour of survivors and often does not allow them to be happy because they have to deal with many fears that stay with them for their entire lives.
Q: And finally, many of us do care about torture survivors and victims. How can we support the anti-torture/torture rehabilitation movement?
By example. We should try to be defenders of human rights, both in the office and outside the office. Wherever there is injustice, we need to fight it and turn it into a positive change.
With its remote location – far away from war and conflict – New Zealand is rarely mentioned in discussions about refugee quotas and resettlement. But each year a small number of refugees arrive in the country, where they are welcomed by local rehabilitation centre Refugees as Survivors New Zealand (RASNZ) at the National Refugee Resettlement centre in Auckland.
We recently spoke with RASNZ CEO Ann Hood about the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in New Zealand, many of whom have fled torture and ill treatment, and how RASNZ is helping them overcome their trauma and settle in a new country.
As the CEO of RASNZ, Ann oversees 45 staff and 60 volunteers, providing newly arrived refugees with psychosocial and mental health assessments, brief therapeutic interventions and orientation to life in New Zealand.
RASNZ’s job is to ensure that refugees receive the psychological support they need to adapt to a new country and get the best start for themselves and their families. Something that is vital for those who have experienced torture and other forms of trauma. In addition, RASNZ also supports former refugees who continue to struggle with their traumatic past, despite the passing of many years.
WWT: The National Refugee Centre provides a wide array of health services to improve the physical and mental wellbeing of your clients. How do these services help vulnerable people to settle in a new country?
AH: We firmly believe that if the aim is for people to participate in society they need to be mentally and physically well. Otherwise, they aren’t able to learn the language, cope with a job or simply manage everyday life. The health aspect has to be addressed in order for people to live productive lives.
WWT: How does this work in practice?
AH: We have two clinical teams. One team is based at the Resettlement Centre, providing assessment and brief therapy. The other is based in the community in Auckland, covering the whole city, and is able to treat people over a longer period of time. For many traumatised refugees it is often down the track that they need support and treatment. Some don’t need our services for 10 years because they need to meet their basic needs first.
There is also a non-clinical community team mainly made up of former refugees. This team provides services within the community such as psycho education, introductory health programmes, support with education and employment and lots of engagement in activities. For young people we have the youth team with sports and mentoring programmes. For adults we run support groups, such as sewing groups for women and training in road codes and computer use.
WWT: We tend to often talk about refugees, but you also treat asylum seekers. As clients, how do they differ from refugees?
AH: When it comes to asylum seekers we tend to work with them particularly during the determination process as this is when they’re really struggling. Their future and fate is in the hands of the government. And they lose a lot of hope and faith during this process.
WWT: You actually worked at RASNZ as a clinical psychologist before taking a job elsewhere for 10 years. You returned last year as the CEO. How do you think the sector has changed since you first started working?
AH: I’ve seen a change in who are coming as refugees. New Zealand doesn’t take many people from Africa now, but focuses mainly on people from Burma, as well as refugees from Afghanistan and Colombia and asylum seekers from Sri Lanka. The government has also changed its policy on specific issues over time. Like now, New Zealand no longer accepts unaccompanied minors.
WWT: Speaking of the government. New Zealand has such a strong history of protecting human rights and an equally good refugee settlement programme so we were a bit shocked to find out that the country only takes 750 refugees every year.
AH: In general, there is an overwhelming support for refugees in the country and when the government recently announced that it would increase the intake of refugees, there were great expectations about the number. It is fair to say there was an outcry when the government announced it would only increase the intake from 750 to 1000 refugees. New Zealand takes a very small number of refugees but I think that its resettlement programme is well regarded and we provide a very good service and system. From the moment refugees arrive in the country they get New Zealand residency and have access to the full range of health services.
WWT: It sounds like an efficient system with a strong focus on health and rehabilitation. Does this mean that you have the backing and support you need or do you still face challenges?
AH: We constantly need more money and run at a deficit. My number one priority is getting resources, and not just resources but sustainable resources. We can only employ people for the amount of time that we have money. Regarding our services, there is also a great need for clinical training and various aspects of working with trauma victims. Our team need to be up-skilled, such as being trained in the Istanbul Protocol. We work closely with lawyers and doctors, but at the moment we don’t have any doctors in New Zealand – as far as I know – who are trained in Istanbul Protocol, so it’s crucial.
We are relatively small with just two services in New Zealand and New Zealand is pretty isolated. So sometimes it can feel like we are a long way from the action. I think it’s really important to get that international perspective and to understand not only what’s happening around the world in terms of refugee and asylum issues, but also how other organisations are working and how we can work more collaboratively and support each other. Basically to keep up to speed. I would like our organisation to be able to grow in terms of research and advocacy, but at the moment we just don’t have the resources.
RASNZ has helped resettle United Nations quota refugees since 1995 and is one of just two services in the country providing treatment to refugees. Under international humanitarian conventions, the centre’s clinical team additionally delivers specialist mental health services for convention refugees and asylum seekers either in detention or with cases before the Refugee Appeals Authority. The centre has to date provided support to thousands of people.
We are constantly being presented with stories about people being tortured across the world. But there have also been a number of victories for the anti-torture movement that show the fight against torture is one that is always worth fighting. We bring together five of the most powerful stories of success.
1. Yecenia Armenta Graciano
Mother of two Yecenia Armenta Graciano spent four long years in prison in northern Mexico, accused of murdering her husband and then tortured into signing a confession. For around 15 hours she was beaten, near-asphyxiated and raped until she signed the confession, while blind folded. No one questioned or checked her injuries and marks of torture and as time went on, her visible injuries faded and eventually disappeared.
After ongoing campaigning and pressure from several human rights organisations, the court allowed for two experts from the Independent Forensic Expert Group to examine Yecenia. The findings contradicted those of the Office of the Mexican Attorney-General, which said there was no evidence of torture. As a result, the court ordered the State Attorney to further investigate the case and Yecenia was finally released on 7 June 2016.
She has previously said: “Freedom is vital for any human being. Freedom helps us breathe, it helps us live fully. I also want to be free, free to be myself, just the way I am.” She can now finally embrace her freedom, and her children.
2. Jerryme Corre
29 March 2016 is now an historic date in the human rights history of the Philippines. It marks the date when a Philippines court made its first conviction under the country’s 2009 Anti-Torture Act. Bus driver Jerryme Corre spent more than four years in prison while on trial for crimes he has long denied committing.
While in custody Jerryme was brutally tortured by the police. He was electrocuted, punched and his life was constantly threatened. He finally received justice when the police officer involved was convicted and sentenced to a maximum of two years and one month imprisonment. The officer must also pay Jerryme damages amounting to 100,000 pesos. Another police officer faces the same charges but remains at large. The case gave the many human rights defenders working in the Philippines hope that things may be finally changing.
3. Omar Khadr
Omar Khadr spent almost all of his teenage years at Guantánamo Bay. In 2002, the 15-year-old Canadian, was captured by US forces during a firefight in Afghanistan. He was taken to Guantánamo, where he pleaded guilty to throwing a grenade that killed a US soldier, but later said he had only done so because he saw no other means of making it out of the notorious detention camp.
He was transferred to a Canadian jail in 2012 and 12 years and nine months after he was captured, was released on bail in May 2015. While in Guantánamo, Omar alleges he was frequently tortured, forced to stand in stress positions and prevented from sleeping for more than three hours at a time for 21 days. He remains the only child soldier to be prosecuted in a military commission for war crimes. Omar is currently studying to become an emergency medical responder and continuing the process to appeal his US war crimes convictions.
4. Rasmieh Odeh
Palestinian torture victim Rasmieh Odeh is accused of providing false statements on her immigration and naturalisation forms when applying for entry into the US. She checked “no” when asked whether she had ever been convicted but had been found guilty by an Israeli court of the bombing of an Israeli supermarket that killed two civilians in 1969. However, she denies she was involved in the bombings, saying she was tortured while in Israeli custody and forced to confess.
Having been originally convicted for immigration fraud in November 2014, Rasmieh’s conviction was overturned in February 2016 following an intervention from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and five other organisations, who argued that evidence of Rasmieh’s torture traumatisation should be admissible in the court’s determination of her ability to engage with the immigration process.
Her case now returns to the District Judge for a possible retrial in what could be a hugely positive step forward in how PTSD is understood and evaluated in torture related cases. In commenting on the case, IRCT Secretary General, Victor Madrigal-Borloz said, “Victims of torture can find it extremely difficult to speak about their experiences. Around the world, courts and administrative bodies are finally starting to recognise this fact and give consequence to it by ensuring that their processes reflect the specific psychological situation and needs of victims.”
5. African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights’ resolution on the Right to Rehabilitation
The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights’ resolution on the Right to Rehabilitation was a landmark development for the anti-torture movement. The resolution calls on state parties to the African Charter to implement domestic laws prohibiting torture and to include clear provisions on torture victims’ right to rehabilitation. It is the first resolution adopted by the African Commission focusing specifically on the importance of the rehabilitation of torture victims.
Importantly, it specifies that states should ensure that all victims of torture and their dependents are offered appropriate medical care, have access to appropriate social rehabilitation and are provided with compensation. The IRCT, in collaboration with a group of international, regional and national NGOs, was involved in the development of the resolution, which the Commission adopted in Banjul, The Gambia in May 2015.