Research in action: giving evidence of ongoing torture in Sri Lanka to the UN Committee against Torture

I didn’t expect to find myself, after a little over a year at Freedom from Torture (formerly the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture), giving evidence to a special session of the UN Committee against Torture following our report on ongoing torture in Sri Lanka. As the researcher of the report I had the task of reviewing the clinical evidence documented in our medico-legal reports, physical and psychological, of FFT’s Sri Lankan clients who had been tortured since the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka in 2009. These cases revealed in distressing detail,  that a wide range of different forms of torture continue to be used in Sri Lanka with apparent impunity, and that severe suffering is being inflicted on victims leaving devastating psychological and physical consequences.

I was lucky enough, thanks to the support of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), to be able to present our evidence in person to the Committee at the special NGO briefing, held in advance of the public examination of the Sri Lankan government delegation. Although the briefing session was held in the formal and imposing headquarters of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, the Committee endeavoured to create an open dialogue. NGO representatives from different European states and from Sri Lanka highlighted their key concerns and the issues they hoped would be addressed with the government delegation and the Committee asked us questions to clarify the evidence we had brought to them.

The session, only an hour long, was over too soon for any of us to feel really satisfied, including some of the members of the Committee it seemed, as they stayed behind in their lunch hour to continue our discussions. The Committee Rapporteurs had attempted to manage our expectations of the public session to follow, saying that they would need weeks to do justice to the wealth of information in front of them and the issues of concern to be addressed with the Sri Lankan government, instead of the few hours they had.

I left feeling that our evidence had been well received by the Committee, detailing as it did specific torture allegations in forensic detail, albeit on the basis of anonymity for the protection of our clients. NGO colleagues also welcomed our report, saying that they hoped we would continue to make use of the incredibly rich resource of evidence contained in our medico-legal reports. Although the face to face session with the Committee was brief, being there in person clearly focused their attention on our written submission and provided me with the opportunity to answer their questions.

Freedom from Torture followed up with the launch of a public version of our report and a package of media work (including with Channel 4 and the Guardian) ahead of CAT’s open session with the Sri Lankan government to ensure that our concerns – and the Committee’s scrutiny – were highlighted publicly. We were then able to follow this with advocacy, targeting our own government whom we have called on to take action to ensure they are not returning Sri Lankan refused asylum seekers to a risk of torture. It made such a difference that IRCT was able to ensure the open session was available by live-streaming so that we – and our media contacts – were able to follow what was happening in real time.

Above all, I felt glad that that the testimony and evidence of the horrific experiences endured by our clients, who generously allowed us to make use of this information, could contribute powerfully to the efforts of those who are seeking to hold the government of Sri Lanka to account and most importantly to their efforts to prevent torture from continuing to be perpetrated there in the future.

A huge thank you to Asger from IRCT for all the advice and support in preparation for the CAT session and in Geneva!

Jo Pettitt,  Researcher, Freedom from Torture

  1. Leaps forward: a wrap up of the UN Human Rights Council’s annual session | World Without Torture

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