Fighting Torture: Q&A

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In our new Fighting Torture series, we speak with different people from various sectors and backgrounds who all work with and support survivors of torture in one way or another. What does their work mean to them and what are the biggest challenges in the anti-torture and rehabilitation movement?

To kick off our new Q&A series, we speak with Asger Kjærum from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) about his work as a human rights advocate, how dinner conversations at home shaped his interest in the health and human rights sectors and how torture is still prevalent in too many countries around the world.

Asger Kjærum

Q: What is your profession and where do you work?

I have a master of law from the University of Copenhagen and I am currently the acting director of advocacy at the IRCT. I am based at our offices in Copenhagen.

Q: How long have you worked with torture survivors?

Unlike the staff of our member organisations, I predominantly do not work directly with survivors. Instead, I spend most of my time working with our members to support them in doing more effective advocacy. I have done this since I started with the IRCT in May 2007.

Q: How did you end up in this sector? Was it something you specifically wanted to do or was it more of a coincidence?

I have grown up with health and human rights at the dinner table so in terms of evolution theory, my current work is kind of the logical conclusion of merging my mother and father. In 2006, I did and internship with an NGO working with the UN in Geneva and one of my main assignments was covering the work of the Committee against Torture. Two things that struck me was how prevalent torture was all over the world and how little attention was paid to its consequences. When I returned to Denmark, a friend pointed me in the direction of the IRCT where I applied for a student assistant position. In May 2007, I started working on one of IRCT’s documentation projects before moving on to our Geneva office and eventually back to Copenhagen where I am now based.

Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors where you are/or your home country?

I come from Denmark and while the country was officially declared a torture free zone by the former Special Rapporteur, Manfred Novak, that is not entirely true. Torture related issues in Denmark can be roughly split into three groups. Since the 1970s, Denmark has been receiving a substantial number of refugees and asylum seekers who have been tortured. While many victims receive excellent rehabilitation services in Denmark, there are still concerns relating to victims being excluded based on residence status and the lack of an effective system to identify and document torture victims among the larger asylum seeker population.

Another problem experienced in Denmark relates to the State’s response whenever credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment surface. While there are very few cases, the ones that do come up face significant obstruction in their path to justice. As an example, during the COP15 climate conference in 2009, an alleged international terrorist (mistaken identity) accused the police of ill-treatment while in custody.

After a year of “investigation”, the case was closed with the rather perplexing excuse that the police could not identify the officers involved. This can only be understood as an open admission that at a time where all the leaders of the world were in Copenhagen, the Danish police did not know who had an international terrorist in custody in the very same city. While the excuse put forward is never valid, the fact that no official was investigated either for ill-treatment or incompetence, illustrates how ineffective police oversight is, even in Denmark.

The final issue relates to treatment of persons in custody where Denmark is frequently criticised for excessive use of forced treatment and coercive measures against persons with psychosocial disabilities, pre-trial detention and solitary confinement.

Q: Can you describe a typical day in the office/field for you?

Most days are spent behind the computer or in internal meetings always accompanied by the IRCT’s world famous coffee, sparkling water and a piece of cake baked by one of my wonderful colleagues. When working outside the office, I usually find myself in workshops with our members or at meetings at the UN in Geneva. Unfortunately, the Geneva meetings are always accompanied by terrible coffee and dry sandwiches.

Q: What does your work mean to you?

Enabling people and organisations to help those who need it the most.

Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?

With the IRCT I was very actively involved in ensuring that the Committee against Torture’s General Comment 3 setting out the right to rehabilitation is as detailed and thorough as it is. I am very happy to see that the General Comment has become a reference point for the entire rehabilitation movement and that it is starting to be used as the standard, against which national laws and policies on rehabilitation are measured.
On the more personal level, it is incredible for me to work with individual health staff at our member centres and help them use their extensive health based knowledge about torture to become first class human rights advocates at home and at the UN.

Q: How has your sector/industry changed since you started?

I think the IRCT movement has moved through stages of democratisation and integration. When I started, I saw an emerging democracy with challenges in ensuring coherence between governance, secretariat and members and between individual members. What I see now is an increasingly democratic and integrated movement where governance, secretariat and membership is more in accord. From the members I meet, I also hear a growing interest in the membership taking collective action on global issues of common interest, such as how to ensure that the rehabilitation sector is sufficiently resourced to meet the expectations of all victims.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the sector/industry?

In most countries, demand for rehabilitation services by far outstrips the supply. And behind this discrepancy lies unimaginable suffering for individuals, their families and communities.

Q: What are your hopes for the future?

In the rehabilitation movement we are very good at seeing the individual person behind numbers, legal provisions, etc. I believe that if we continue to learn from and empower these individuals, we can do three things to narrow or eliminate the gap between supply and demand and the human suffering behind. We can learn from victims’ experiences to improve the quality and effectiveness of our services; we can work with victims to better illustrate the significant negative impact on individuals and communities of not rehabilitating people and thereby convince others to support or join our efforts; and we can work with victims to advocate against torture to prevent it from happening in the future. This would be a significant contribution towards eradicating torture from the planet.

Q: According to various surveys, many people do not think torture is such a big problem; that it is a thing of the past; or that sometimes it is necessary. What would you say to them?

I would suggest that they look at what is happening in prisons in Brazil, Nigeria and the Philippines, mental hospitals in Serbia, asylum seeker processing centres in Nauru, or clinics for “gay conversion therapy” in the US. I would also suggest that they speak with an actual victim of torture and hear about his or her experience. If that does not change their mind, I do not know what will.

We need to get back to an understanding that torture is fundamentally a “barbaric act deprived of humanity” rather than “a violation of laws x, y, and z” and if we get there, I am not sure that we will be having the necessity discussion. Just like no one is arguing for the reinstitution of slavery to deal with the financial crisis. Unfortunately, many human rights advocates and much of the international community tend to talk about torture in terms that completely fail to reflect the nature of the act. One way of changing this in discussions with States is by contrasting torture with acts that are evidently less severe. For example, the UN Committee against Torture has contrasted States’ criminal sanctions for torture with those imposed for stealing a chicken.

Q: And finally, many of us do care about torture survivors and victims. How can we support the anti-torture and the torture rehabilitation movement?

Any private individual can do a couple of things to help us eradicate torture. First, you can help us increase the resources available for rehabilitation by private donation or by encouraging your government to donate to any of the organisations that provide rehabilitation services either directly or through re-distribution mechanisms. By a rough estimate, the annual redistribution of funds to rehabilitation centres in the developing world totals less than 10 million USD and grants to individual organisations are often as low as 5.000-10.000 USD. In comparison, one new fighter jet costs around 140 million USD.

Second, you can encourage your government to take responsibility for the rehabilitation of torture victims on its territory and any person the State has tortured now or in the past wherever they are. In most countries in the world, the rehabilitation services that do exist are run by non-governmental organisations and are not funded by the State that tortured the victims they treat. Even when dictatorships become democracies they rarely take much responsibility for the acts of the past and never at the scale of the suffering they caused. It is high time that this changes.

Finally, we can all change the way we speak about torture in order to not dilute the term from the very severe acts it is meant to describe. It is not torture when your son cannot sleep or your wife will not let you go out with your buddies. Torture is electrocuting children, keeping persons chained to a bed for weeks, making more than 100 prisoners spend 23 hours per day inside a shipping container in the Brazilian heat for months, or making a person think he is about to die from drowning 140 times. Many criticise the former Bush administration for starting a global snowball of legalisation of torture. But in my view, the great tragedy is the fact that it amplified an already existing global trend of public apathy about torture. Changing that starts with the way we speak about it.

To follow the work of Asger Kjærum and the IRCT you can go to http://www.irct.org or find the organisation on Facebook or Twitter.

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