Archive for January, 2012

Global crime: The horror of child torture

A Google search on “child torture” today, the 31st of January 2012 yields headlines like these: Children tortured, killed during Syrian regime’s crackdown: UN; UN: ‘Numerous’ reports of child torture by Syria; UN: Syrian forces killed, tortured 256 children.

Torture of children is not a “new” thing, but a thing that rarely surfaces in such a clear form as in the news on Syria. The situation in Syria has attracted the attention of high-level segments in the international community – with good reason. Syria is in the hot spot, so hot that headlines have (finally) placed the words “children and torture” in the same sentence. In the world of international politics and policies, this connection is not a common sight – especially in headlines.

One of the aims of the IRCT’s ongoing project on children is to bring more attention to the fact that children are being tortured, and headlines like those on Syria make one want to grasp the opportunity to raise the issue: torture of children is not only happening in Syria but in many places of the world. Everyday. It needs to be said loud and clear and more and more. If not, I worry that we will not be able to address it for what it is.

This is not to say that no-one is saying anything about children being tortured – data on the torture of children exists (all PDFs). However, it is often drowned in a wider discourse on violence against children in which distinctions between child abuse and child torture are blurred. All violence against children is inexcusable and horrific, no doubt about that, but we need to call it what it is in order to better fight it. Violence against children in detention, care and justice institutions, and police lock-ups amounts to torture because these institutions are run by public authorities.

The controversy of placing the words children and torture in the same sentence makes the issue a delicate and difficult one to address – this also makes it difficult to fundraise for. It is alarming to say that children are being tortured. The uneven balance of power that exists between a torturer and the tortured becomes incomprehensible when imagining that the tortured is a child.

Children are in a developmental stage of their lives and have yet to develop the coping skills of adults. The threshold of pain and suffering in particular makes this horrific act, when committed against a child, all the more chilling. It is commonly held that the special vulnerability of children renders them more susceptible to the physical and psychological effects of torture. Younger children, in particular, have a lower threshold of pain; and physical or mental abuse may have a much more profound impact on the body and mind of a developing child than on an adult.

The deployment of a Special Representative on Violence Against Children in 2009 has generated new and needed attention to the scope of violence committed against children in the world of today. This said, a review of NGO reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded that the availability of information from NGOs on violence against children is “uneven“. There is need to improve the reporting of this crime. And it needs to happen now.

Children are also fighters and survivors – and children who have been tortured can overcome the horrors, if they receive proper and timely treatment. The main objectives of IRCT’s project on children and torture is to raise awareness of the fact we need to improve documentation on cases of child torture and to develop child-appropriate rehabilitation for child survivors of torture. Not least we need to prevent it from happening. In order to do this, we first need to recognize the awful truth: that it exists and is widespread.

  Line, a sociologist specialising in human rights, implements the research project on children and torture in Asia.


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(Not) “Only incompetent investigation officers believe in torture”

While the HRW reports a disastrous year for human rights in Pakistan, positive signals are arriving from Punjab. The province’s police have been instructed to stop torturing suspects in custody after the Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights took note of media reports of an ‘increasing trend of police torture’ in the province. Read the news here.

We welcome the news that the committee seem to have convinced the police to revise their investigation methods and concentrate on collecting physical evidence using forensic techniques rather than coercing suspects into making confessions. It also called for improvements in the recruitment and training of police and other law enforcement personnel.

According to the committee “Only incompetent investigation officers believe in torture”. Yet sadly, it’s not just incompetent police officers who torture. Despite being a gross violation of human rights, which has many times been proved inefficient, many prison officers and detention staff, military personnel, paramilitary forces, state-controlled contra-guerilla forces, and even some health and legal professionals still believe in it. Read more about who the perpetrators of torture are.

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Combatting torture in trying contexts

In Palestine and Israel despite tough conditions, skilled and hardworking organisations are working to combat torture

By Lars Døssing Rosenmeier

Just before the end of 2011, I visited the IRCT member centre the Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture (TRC) in Ramallah, Palestine. The visit was technically a “monitoring and coordination mission” under the European Commission-supported NSA project. TRC is a partner to this project that has now progressed into the third and final year.

What we call the ‘NSA’ is a project to improve the skills of 11 rehabilitation centres through exchange of knowledge between them and other IRCT member centres. If one centre excels, for example, in psycho-social rehabilitation or UN advocacy, they can share their knowledge and skills through seminars or other trainings.

As I had heard from other Secretariat staff before going to TRC (and can now personally confirm), TRC has a great management team leading a group of well trained psychotherapists. Therefore, TRC has not only taken part in NSA project activities aimed at building their own staff capacity, but has also been able to act as peer supervisors and trainers visiting other centres to share their experiences, knowledge and best practices on treatment and rehabilitation of torture survivors. The main objective of my visit was to discuss the project activities of the last two years and plan for the current.

When we visit our members, we also always try to visit current and potential donors as well as other international or local partners to strengthen existing relationships and build new ones. As the NSA project, of which I am the deputy manager, is mainly supported by the European Commission, it was only natural that I had a longer meeting at The Office of the European Union Representative to the West Bank and Gaza Strip to discuss both the work of TRC and the progress of the NSA project. I also met briefly with representatives of OHCHR and of the Dutch Foreign Ministry and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation as I was lucky enough to attend and even deliver a short speech at TRC’s celebration of the UN Human Rights Day. During this event, Palestinian Authority Minister of Justice Dr. Ali Khashan promised to facilitate better cooperation with local human rights organisations both in general and on specific cases. This was in dialogue with Samih Muhsen, of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, who in his speech had stated that Palestinian security personnel widely (to some extent even systematically) practice torture with impunity.

Most TRC clients are victims of torture or inhumane, cruel or degrading treatment at the hands of the Israeli occupation and the Israeli security forces, who are responsible for an overwhelming amount of severe human rights violations. Another important partner of the IRCT in the area is the Israeli NGO the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI). The IRCT and PCATI work together on cases of torture with IRCT providing (psycho) forensic expertise and documentation, and PCATI’s legal team pursuing cases of torture in the Israeli judicial system to bring perpetrators to justice and advocate for victims.

While meeting with PCATI in Jerusalem, I was fortunate enough to also join the legal team for a case in the Israeli Supreme Court. This case was also included in our FEAT project as part of the IRCT-PCATI collaboration on cases described above.

I sat in the benches as the legal team argued in front of the Supreme Court that a criminal investigation should be opened into the torture case, and that the State Attorney had failed to live up to his responsibility of properly looking into opening an investigation. Disappointingly for us and likely devastating for the victim, the court did not intervene. Instead the State Attorney Office’s decision to refer the assessment of whether or not to open an investigation to the Israel Security Agency (also known as the Shin Bet) internal investigator, rather than to look into the issue itself, was upheld. As a result, the case may only see a closed internal inquiry rather than an actual impartial investigation, which Israel is obliged to ensure under international law and which it has failed to ensure in this and every one of the over 700 other complaints of torture submitted in the last decade.

It is obvious that PCATI is doing very important and very difficult work as they must overcome obstacles placed in front of them by a politically biased judicial system, as is also the experience in many other countries where our centres or collaborating legal organisations pursue cases.

There are some common difficulties that face human rights work in Palestine and around the world that can be mitigated more easily. This includes a profound obstacle currently faced by not only TRC but also many other of our member centres in Europe, North America and around the world: a lack of funding for the provision of their rehabilitation services. It is painful to see that a well functioning centre such as TRC has in the last six months been hit hard by a batch of bad luck, with several key donors cutting down funding at the same time. The IRCT and its member centres are of course extremely grateful for any funding we receive, but we must also stress that the fight against torture and the rehabilitation of torture victims is too important to become a victim of budget cuts. The consequences for TRC as an organization is serious cuts in staffing for at least a large part of 2012, meaning that far less clients can benefit from their crucial services in this period.

I am confident that TRC will in the long term again function at full capacity, but in the meantime the untreated suffering is immense and it is worrying to see the funding difficulties facing well run rehabilitation centres of torture, as human rights work dealing with torture is especially difficult to fundraise for.

  Lars assists the membership team and serves as deputy manager of the NSA project. The NSA project is supported by the European Commission.

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No more shameful anniversaries – 10 years of Guantánamo

London protesters demand the closure of Guantanamo, which has been open 10 years today. Photo by casmaron through Creative Commons license.

Ten years ago today, the first detainees arrived in Guantánamo. Between now and then, the detention centre has become more than just a symbol of human rights violations, but the site of crimes of torture and arbitrary, indefinite detention. Look at the figures provided here by the American Civil Liberties Union, a US-based organisation that focuses on civil rights.

Compiled by the ACLU, source.

As such, we have released a statement condemning the prison, requesting its immediate closure, and the trying or release of the current 171 detainees (note: no detainees have been released in the last year despite almost 90 being cleared for release).

The naval base and prison, which sits on less than 120 square kilometers of land at the southern tip of Cuba, is more than just a symbol of the continued human rights violations of the United States, but the site of “continuous crimes of torture and ill-treatment amounting to shocking human rights concerns,” says IRCT Secretary General Brita Sydhoff.

As today marks 10 years after the first detainees arrived at the base, the IRCT joins other organisations and human rights defenders around the world in calling for the closure of Guantánamo Bay, and either trying detainees or releasing them.

Despite President Obama’s pledge to close the infamous prison, two years have passed since his deadline, and there is no indication from authorities or Congress that they will do so. Instead, on 31 January 2011, Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which included an amendment that authorized indefinite detention.

“Rather than make good on his promise to close Guantánamo, the NDAA has codified the abhorrent practices in place for the last 10 years,” Sydhoff says. “This anniversary, the ongoing arbitrary detention of prisoners, and the complete lack of accountability for the crimes committed within the last decade speak to the failure of the U.S. and the Obama administration to live up to their human rights obligations.”

“No more unfortunate anniversaries should pass before the U.S. affirms its commitment to human rights, closing the doors on Guantánamo and bringing the perpetrators of crimes committed there to justice.”

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Seeking justice

Take courage friends; the road is often long, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high. But deep down, you are not alone.

Watch this video featuring a TED Talk from Karen Tse, a human rights lawyer from a fellow anti-torture organisation International Bridges to Justice.

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To get to the truth, there needs to be reform

If you have been following the sprawling UK inquiry into detainees rendered during the so-called ‘war on terror’, you may have noticed the announcement this Friday that Abdul Hakim Belhadj, a former Libyan rebel leader who just last month announced he would take legal action against the UK government for his alleged torture, would not take part in the inquiry.

He says the inquiry lacks sufficient powers  “to get to the truth of Britain’s involvement” in abuses. We agree.

The IRCT has joined other human rights organisations, two former UN special rapporteurs on torture, and other international experts in calling for reform of the UK ‘Detainee Inquiry’:

We contend that fundamental problems plague the inquiry, thus, leaving it open for a lack of credibility.
“Without substantial changes, it will not get to the truth of Britain’s involvement or ensure such abuses do not occur again,” the letter states.

Read our entire statement here, and the open letter to UK Prime Minister Cameron here (PDF).

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#torture: Do you mean it?

Editor’s Note: The following contains brief descriptions of torture methods.

Logging onto to Twitter, I pull up the search tab for all Tweets marked with #torture. Some describe the upcoming trials of Bahrain police officers for torture; some link to news stories on rendition. But by far the majority of them feature some variations of the following:

Lying in bed counting down the minutes until I have to actually get up. #torture

Rain + wind #torture

I’ve been putting my alarm on snooze for a minute since half 6?! And managed to fall asleep every minute just to be woken up! #torture

When your feet are freezing and you have to take a hot shower. #torture

Of course, people are apt to hyperbole on Twitter, and it’s not uncommon to hear the word ‘torture’ used colloquially to simply mean an uncomfortable experience. On Twitter, more often than not, ‘torture’ simply means getting up early.

Misuse of the term ‘torture’ is rife in the media, too. Reading the daily clippings – sent to us by email through a search of the word ‘torture’ – part of my job is to search and filter the results to send out to our member network and the staff at the Secretariat. I search for stories regarding incidences (or circumstances that may lead to) torture, as defined by the United Nations:

… Torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

So what would a Tweet look like from a torture victim?

Lying on a cold floor, in a cell 1X1 meter, haven’t been allowed to sleep for 8 days #sleepdeprivation

Water + covered face + reclined + feel as though I’m drowning #waterboarding

I’ve been forced to stand in an extremely bright room, loud music played for weeks, completely alone #longtermisolation #solitaryconfinement

When your feet are bull whipped #falanga #torture

When government officials, often police or prison guards in places of detention, inflict such violent and painful acts, many that leave long-lasting mental and physical damages to the victim, this is torture. It’s done often to extract confessions, obtain bribes, retribution, or simply because someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Misuse and exaggerated use of this term simply muddles it’s true meaning and the horrible experiences behind it.

  Tessa is communications assistant, focusing on social media and the women and girls projects.

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2011 – We look back at a year of human rights

Happy New Year, to all our readers from World Without Torture.

As we look to start 2012, we would like to take a moment to look back at 2011 – the events, revolutions, human rights defenders, and victorious moments that shaped us and will undoubtedly shape this upcoming year.

Note: These are in no particular order. Click any photo for slideshow view.

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