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.