Participation vs. Paternalism: Collecting and sharing survivor testimony

Many may have noticed that in the two weeks leading up to the 26 June, we shared daily stories from the survivors of torture.

These stories came to us through our member centres – the more than 140 rehabilitation centres worldwide that treat victims of torture and their families. As experiences of torture and rehabilitation are a particularly delicate subject (for a multitude of reasons, but foremost is the autonomy of survivors, their privacy and concerns of re-traumatisation), we wanted to share how we go about balancing these concerns with the belief that sharing stories can be effective in rehabilitation.

Recently, staff of the IRCT Secretariat sat down to update our policy on collecting and sharing torture survivors’ testimony. Most of us would agree that survivor participation is a cornerstone of effective torture rehabilitation services, but it can be a difficult task finding this right balance between safeguarding the mental and physical health of survivors and respecting their autonomy.

While testimony can be a powerful way to give a voice to survivors in the anti-torture movement, it can carry significant mental and physical health risks. During the meeting, the doctors in the room worried openly about the re-traumatisation of survivors and reducing the risk of harm from government retaliation.

Lawyers in the room added concerns over how to make sure that survivors freely give their permission at all stages of collection and use of their stories. Members of the communications team saw personal testimony as an important way of introducing the voices and experiences of survivors in to the anti-torture discussion, but were keen to avoid sensationalising stories.

With all these concerns, collecting and publishing testimony of survivors seems like a scary proposition. But from our experience at the IRCT, we’ve seen that many torture survivors want a forum to publicly share their experiences and participate in the anti-torture movement even where it places them at risk of future violations. So our biggest obstacle was designing a policy that took our presumptions and fears out of the equation and provided a consistent method for us to realistically assess the dangers, provide accurate information to survivors and trust that survivors themselves are the best experts on their experiences, values, preferences and approach to risk.

After going through many versions, we ended up with a procedure that hopefully guides us through the process of equipping survivors with the right information for informed consent, and a providing a flexible way to evaluate the context, safety concerns, and wishes of the survivor when deciding how to use a story.

There are of course still many challenges and a fair amount of debate over the most responsible way to collect and publish survivor stories, but what’s clear is that sometimes the most valuable service we can offer is simply a platform for survivors to make their voices heard.


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  1. #1 by Ben Achtenberg on 04/08/2012 - 01:42

    I am a filmmaker working on a documentary, “REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture,” which includes interviews with a number of survivors. Some of the folks at IRCT are familiar with this project. I would be very interested in learning more about your policies and procedures for protecting survivors who agree to tell their stories, as it is obviously something I have to deal with in my work as well. Thanks.

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