Realizing the right to rehabilitation in Asia: perspective from India and the Philippines

The right to rehabilitation was adopted by the IRCT as its message for the 2013 International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, 26 June. IRCT member centres throughout the world, including Asia, have committed themselves to making this right a reality, to have the right realized on the ground. But what is the reality in Asia, and, in particular, what is the situation in India and how can we move forward?

These were some of the questions the regional meeting sought to address. The theme of this year’s IRCT Asian Regional Meeting held in Kolkata, India was the right to rehabilitation – the ground reality in Asia. Furthermore, the regional meeting was an opportunity for rehabilitation centres to share updates on the implementation of the right to rehabilitation in practical terms in their respective countries. It was co-hosted by the Centre for the Care of Torture Victims (CCTV) of India, which works in Kolkata and West Bengal.

From the nine countries[1] in Asia, in which there are almost 18 IRCT member centres, India is the only country that has not yet acceded to or ratified the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT), although it was signatory to the convention almost 15 years ago. Indeed India is the only democracy of South Asia that not yet signed up to UNCAT.

General Comment No. 3, published by the Committee Against Torture at the end of 2012, clarified points of Article 14 of the UNCAT: rehabilitation should be holistic, States have a financial obligation regardless of resources available, rehabilitation must be accessible at the soonest possible point after torture, and that torture victims have a right to choose their provider, be it nongovernmental organisations or the State providing services.

Providing holistic rehabilitation to survivors of torture can help heal the effects of torture and also help towards re-establishing damaged communities. The aim of rehabilitation is to empower the torture survivor to resume as full a life as possible within their families and their communities. However, while international law grants all torture victims a right to rehabilitation, this is not a reality in many countries through the world, including those in Asia.

If India has not ratified the UNCAT, then how do advocates push for the realisation of the right to rehabilitation without this particularly back of an international treaty? Dr Laifungbam Roy, President of the Centre for Organisation Research & Education and Director of Human to Humane Transcultural Centre for Torture & Trauma working in Manipur, provided some analysis of his thoughts during the key-note address at the regional meeting. He started by sharing with the audience some interesting views he had read in a paper presented by Emily Reilly at the Ninth Conference of the European Network of Rehabilitation Centres for Survivors of Torture (2010) that considered how various international laws (other than UNCAT) may ensure that survivors of torture can access specialist rehabilitation services/support they might require.

For example, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was cited as a possibly more effective legal basis for ensuring the right to rehabilitation for torture survivors than UNCAT. The reason given was that CRPD recognises the right to rehabilitation as an independent human right, rather than a part of more general measures of reparation or an aspect of the right to health. In addition, the address went on to elucidate that the right to rehabilitation in CRPD applies to all survivors of torture who can be categorized as persons with certain kinds of disabilities, without exception, unlike the right to rehabilitation in the Convention against Torture, which can be enforced only against a State that caused, consented to or acquiesced in the survivors’s suffering.

Looking at and learning from other existing legal instruments and frameworks is important given, as Dr Roy pointed out, that for many different reasons it is only a very small number of torture survivors who can in reality achieve their right to rehabilitation by legal means today. In summary, the recommendation from the first half of the keynote address was that the right to rehabilitation should not be interpreted solely within the framework of victims of torture only, but rather within a broader perspective of rehabilitation rights for many types of suffering and damage inflicted on individual person (s) or groups that includes victims of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment.

So what steps do advocates take in a different context – one where the UNCAT has been ratified, yet torture victims still do not have access to rehabilitation?

Though all of the other countries participated in the meeting have either signed up to or acceded to UNCAT, they also faced certain challenges. A representative from Indonesia stated that the government does not give them permission to conduct programmes in prison. Therefore, it’s very difficult to sensitize and raise awareness amongst police officers and others about the right to rehabilitation. Also the support needed from government officials is not forthcoming.

During the second day of the regional meeting, representatives from two member centres in the Philippines made a presentation on “Realizing the right to rehabilitation in the Philippines: ground realities”. In summary, they stated that in the Philippines what rehabilitation means is generally known, per se. But torture rehabilitation is a new idea for most. They went on to state that it’s difficult to convince the government that torture survivors need rehabilitation.

They also highlighted some dilemmas they encounter, such as the fact that torture survivors are both in the community and in the prison system, therefore requiring a different work approach from support organisations. Also given torture rehabilitation should be multidisciplinary and coordinated, they asked who would take the lead? Is it national or local rehabilitation?  In the final part of the presentation they proposed a new avenue for centres/countries to explore, which was to maximize the Convention on the Right to Persons with Disability as a pathway for torture survivors to claim their right to rehabilitation, as mentioned in the keynote address on the first day.

What the examples from the Asia regional meeting demonstrate is the need to deeply consider the country contexts in unearthing best approaches to ensuring victims have access to holistic and appropriate rehabilitation.


By Marion Staunton, Regional Coordinator for Asia


[1] Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh, India


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