Fighting Torture: Q&A with Jens Modvig

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In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people from around the world and from a number of professions who work with and support survivors of torture. What does their work mean to them and what are the biggest challenges they see in the anti-torture and rehabilitation movement?

Jens Modvig was unanimously elected as the Chair of the UN Committee against Torture in April 2016. He has worked in the torture rehabilitation sector for more than 20 years, from his time as a medical doctor to his current role as Director of the Health Department at DIGNITY, the Danish Institute Against Torture. We find out what challenges he has faced in his new role and how the Committee relies on having close relationships with civil society.

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Jens Modvig

Q: How long have you worked in the field of torture rehabilitation and human rights?

I started working for RCT (Rehabilitation and Research Centre) /IRCT (International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims) – RCT is now DIGNITY – in 1994 so it has been more than 20 years. It has been a great privilege for me to use my professional background in such an important field. I do not think that many people are as blessed as I am to have such a meaningful occupation.

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

When I am in DIGNITY, I mainly work with matters related to medical knowledge of torture. This could be drafting or reviewing research papers or manuals for health professionals. When I am in Geneva for sessions of the Committee against Torture, we are in session all day, considering reports from state parties through an interactive dialogue with a delegation from the country in question.

These sessions are public and webcasted. During this session, which unfortunately prevents me from attending the IRCT Scientific Symposium in Mexico, we consider reports from Sri Lanka, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Monaco, Ecuador, Namibia, Finland and Cabo Verde. In between sessions I have meetings, internal or with ambassadors from countries being considered, or I prepare for the next day.

In the field, I most often engage in training or awareness sessions to build capacity or raise awareness of the problem of torture and the need to prevent torture and rehabilitate victims.

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

In a recent meeting in Ghana organised by the Convention against Torture initiative, initiated by the governments of Chile, Denmark, Indonesia, Ghana and Morocco, representatives of Kenya and Uganda explained that they had engaged in large legislative processes to have anti-torture legislation in place, and in both instances, this was prompted by recommendations by the Committee against Torture after consideration of these two countries.

Another example is when NGOs have assisted the Committee with a country review, for instance, by submitting a shadow report or having a private meeting with the Committee ahead of the public meeting, in some cases the NGOs fear reprisals once the session is completed. In such cases, I may issue a public warning to the state party delegation that such measures are unacceptable and will be reacted to immediately. In these cases I believe that the NGOs are just a tiny bit more secure, just as they often solicit and appreciate such messages from the Committee.

Q: How has this work changed since you started?

I think the anti-torture movement in general has been much better organised, and the professional level of fighting torture has increased considerably.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector?

The biggest challenge is to get state parties to the Convention against Torture to assume their responsibilities laid down in article 14 of the Convention, i.e. the right to rehabilitation. If they did, we would not have the symptomatic problem of funding difficulties for the rehabilitation centres, and the sector would thrive, to the benefit of the victims.

In this regard, the IRCT Scientific Symposium a unique opportunity for the movement to take stock of its scientific achievements. In my opinion, scientific achievements are of great importance to the movement and give strength and legitimacy to the anti-torture movement as a whole, but are also a way of creating respect and maybe even protection for the individual NGOs that deal with torture victims.

In addition, it is clear that the right to rehabilitation is not enforceable in all state parties to the Convention against Torture and a lot needs to be done in this respect. The Committee is certainly working on this during its dialogue with state parties, but I believe that state representatives who will participate in the Symposium will obtain a much deeper understanding of why rehabilitation is needed and necessary and why states should ensure that the right to rehabilitation is available to all victims of torture.

How important is the CAT’s relationship with civil society organisations?

The Committee against Torture relies on close collaboration with civil society, particularly in the field of alternative reporting. If we only had the official government reports available when carrying out our country reviews, we could easily be left with an incomplete or even wrong picture. Civil society organisations like IRCT members often provide crucial information to the Committee, often based on statistics derived from their clinical work with survivors of torture; and the IRCT plays a crucial role in supporting its members and facilitating their dialogue with the Committee.

Q: What are your hopes for the future?

Obviously I hope that the anti-torture movement, both the civil society based and the intergovernmental work gains much more strength and awareness so that we in fact are able to effectively fight torture.

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 some even think that it is necessary. What would you say to them?

Try to imagine yourself in a situation where you were unjustly accused of terrorism. What would be important to you?

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