Peter Helmers (IRCT’s Head of Programmes) and I recently travelled to Manila, in the Philippines, to take part in the annual Asian regional seminar of IRCT member centres which, this year, focused on the subject of access to justice.
The Philippines is an apt country in which to discuss justice for torture survivors: its relatively new law on torture – supported by a set of implementing rules and regulations – positions the country as one of the most advanced in the region in the struggle against torture and attempts to prevent it. It provides an example for other countries to follow, and much of the credit for this advanced legal and regulatory framework goes to our Filipino member centres the Medical Action Group – hosts of the regional meeting – and Balay.
Access to justice for victims of torture can be a complicated area, but luckily, over the course of the seminar we had the opportunity to learn from those working in the field about what it means and how it can be achieved. Not only were our colleagues and friends from many Asian countries able to join the seminar, but several local NGOs enriched the learning experience for us all.
According to international standards, justice for victims of torture entails access to restitution, satisfaction, guarantee of non-repetition, compensation and rehabilitation. This means that victims should, to the fullest extent possible, have restitution to the status quo before torture happened; their suffering should be acknowledged and perpetrators should be punished by the law; they should receive the guarantee that no-one will ever torture them or anybody else again; they should receive financial compensation and they should receive medical and psycho-social rehabilitation.
That’s the theory anyway, but, what does this mean in practice? Well, this is where it can become complicated! Of course, international standards are recognized by all as the ones to follow, yet, they can be difficult to achieve in practice. Limits are imposed by the national socio-political context that differs from country to country and sometimes even within the same country.
One of the great influencing factors in accessing justice can be the presence of a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) which often balance the immediate needs of survivors with peace and confidence-building measures in post-conflict situations. Another important influencing factor identified was the possibility to file legal complaints in front of national courts. In some countries legal advocacy for torture victims is hindered by either fear of immediate retaliation or judicial complacency regarding crimes committed by police forces and / or the army.
Of course, the concept of justice has differing meanings across national and cultural boundaries. When we asked each other what justice meant, one of the participants wrote the following: social justice, spiritual justice, cultural justice, customary justice and collective community justice. What characterizes all of these is a strong community oriented approach which may reflect what some perceive to be the rather individualistic nature of many of the legal standards developed around the status of victim of torture.
Moreover, the very idea of who is ‘generally’ a victim of torture might influence the concept of justice. While the traditional image of the torture survivor is one of a political opponent, the torture survivor in Asia is often the worker, the farmer, the indigenous person, the person of low socio-economic status. Is then the concept of justice larger than the one many have focused on in the past?
Well…it’s certainly food for thought, and we look forward to furthering exploring with our Asian member centres, how the concept can be further developed as they continue their day-to-day work of helping torture survivors overcome the trauma inflicted on them.