World Without Torture
The greatest threat to the fight against torture is apathy: that we silently accept that torture exists. We’ve created World Without Torture to keep the fight against torture high on the global agenda. World Without Torture has been established by the IRCT (International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims) – a global organisation with a membership of more than 140 rehabilitation centres in over 70 countries and with over 25 years' experience. The work of the IRCT is threefold: • Rehabilitation of torture victims and their families • Ensuring victims' access to justice • Eradication of torture Our vision is a world without torture. For more information please visit http://www.irct.org/
With its remote location – far away from war and conflict – New Zealand is rarely mentioned in discussions about refugee quotas and resettlement. But each year a small number of refugees arrive in the country, where they are welcomed by local rehabilitation centre Refugees as Survivors New Zealand (RASNZ) at the National Refugee Resettlement centre in Auckland.
We recently spoke with RASNZ CEO Ann Hood about the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in New Zealand, many of whom have fled torture and ill treatment, and how RASNZ is helping them overcome their trauma and settle in a new country.
As the CEO of RASNZ, Ann oversees 45 staff and 60 volunteers, providing newly arrived refugees with psychosocial and mental health assessments, brief therapeutic interventions and orientation to life in New Zealand.
RASNZ’s job is to ensure that refugees receive the psychological support they need to adapt to a new country and get the best start for themselves and their families. Something that is vital for those who have experienced torture and other forms of trauma. In addition, RASNZ also supports former refugees who continue to struggle with their traumatic past, despite the passing of many years.
WWT: The National Refugee Centre provides a wide array of health services to improve the physical and mental wellbeing of your clients. How do these services help vulnerable people to settle in a new country?
AH: We firmly believe that if the aim is for people to participate in society they need to be mentally and physically well. Otherwise, they aren’t able to learn the language, cope with a job or simply manage everyday life. The health aspect has to be addressed in order for people to live productive lives.
WWT: How does this work in practice?
AH: We have two clinical teams. One team is based at the Resettlement Centre, providing assessment and brief therapy. The other is based in the community in Auckland, covering the whole city, and is able to treat people over a longer period of time. For many traumatised refugees it is often down the track that they need support and treatment. Some don’t need our services for 10 years because they need to meet their basic needs first.
There is also a non-clinical community team mainly made up of former refugees. This team provides services within the community such as psycho education, introductory health programmes, support with education and employment and lots of engagement in activities. For young people we have the youth team with sports and mentoring programmes. For adults we run support groups, such as sewing groups for women and training in road codes and computer use.
WWT: We tend to often talk about refugees, but you also treat asylum seekers. As clients, how do they differ from refugees?
AH: When it comes to asylum seekers we tend to work with them particularly during the determination process as this is when they’re really struggling. Their future and fate is in the hands of the government. And they lose a lot of hope and faith during this process.
WWT: You actually worked at RASNZ as a clinical psychologist before taking a job elsewhere for 10 years. You returned last year as the CEO. How do you think the sector has changed since you first started working?
AH: I’ve seen a change in who are coming as refugees. New Zealand doesn’t take many people from Africa now, but focuses mainly on people from Burma, as well as refugees from Afghanistan and Colombia and asylum seekers from Sri Lanka. The government has also changed its policy on specific issues over time. Like now, New Zealand no longer accepts unaccompanied minors.
WWT: Speaking of the government. New Zealand has such a strong history of protecting human rights and an equally good refugee settlement programme so we were a bit shocked to find out that the country only takes 750 refugees every year.
AH: In general, there is an overwhelming support for refugees in the country and when the government recently announced that it would increase the intake of refugees, there were great expectations about the number. It is fair to say there was an outcry when the government announced it would only increase the intake from 750 to 1000 refugees. New Zealand takes a very small number of refugees but I think that its resettlement programme is well regarded and we provide a very good service and system. From the moment refugees arrive in the country they get New Zealand residency and have access to the full range of health services.
WWT: It sounds like an efficient system with a strong focus on health and rehabilitation. Does this mean that you have the backing and support you need or do you still face challenges?
AH: We constantly need more money and run at a deficit. My number one priority is getting resources, and not just resources but sustainable resources. We can only employ people for the amount of time that we have money. Regarding our services, there is also a great need for clinical training and various aspects of working with trauma victims. Our team need to be up-skilled, such as being trained in the Istanbul Protocol. We work closely with lawyers and doctors, but at the moment we don’t have any doctors in New Zealand – as far as I know – who are trained in Istanbul Protocol, so it’s crucial.
We are relatively small with just two services in New Zealand and New Zealand is pretty isolated. So sometimes it can feel like we are a long way from the action. I think it’s really important to get that international perspective and to understand not only what’s happening around the world in terms of refugee and asylum issues, but also how other organisations are working and how we can work more collaboratively and support each other. Basically to keep up to speed. I would like our organisation to be able to grow in terms of research and advocacy, but at the moment we just don’t have the resources.
RASNZ has helped resettle United Nations quota refugees since 1995 and is one of just two services in the country providing treatment to refugees. Under international humanitarian conventions, the centre’s clinical team additionally delivers specialist mental health services for convention refugees and asylum seekers either in detention or with cases before the Refugee Appeals Authority. The centre has to date provided support to thousands of people.
Posted in Uncategorized on 18/07/2016
We are constantly being presented with stories about people being tortured across the world. But there have also been a number of victories for the anti-torture movement that show the fight against torture is one that is always worth fighting. We bring together five of the most powerful stories of success.
1. Yecenia Armenta Graciano
Mother of two Yecenia Armenta Graciano spent four long years in prison in northern Mexico, accused of murdering her husband and then tortured into signing a confession. For around 15 hours she was beaten, near-asphyxiated and raped until she signed the confession, while blind folded. No one questioned or checked her injuries and marks of torture and as time went on, her visible injuries faded and eventually disappeared.
After ongoing campaigning and pressure from several human rights organisations, the court allowed for two experts from the Independent Forensic Expert Group to examine Yecenia. The findings contradicted those of the Office of the Mexican Attorney-General, which said there was no evidence of torture. As a result, the court ordered the State Attorney to further investigate the case and Yecenia was finally released on 7 June 2016.
She has previously said: “Freedom is vital for any human being. Freedom helps us breathe, it helps us live fully. I also want to be free, free to be myself, just the way I am.” She can now finally embrace her freedom, and her children.
2. Jerryme Corre
29 March 2016 is now an historic date in the human rights history of the Philippines. It marks the date when a Philippines court made its first conviction under the country’s 2009 Anti-Torture Act. Bus driver Jerryme Corre spent more than four years in prison while on trial for crimes he has long denied committing.
While in custody Jerryme was brutally tortured by the police. He was electrocuted, punched and his life was constantly threatened. He finally received justice when the police officer involved was convicted and sentenced to a maximum of two years and one month imprisonment. The officer must also pay Jerryme damages amounting to 100,000 pesos. Another police officer faces the same charges but remains at large. The case gave the many human rights defenders working in the Philippines hope that things may be finally changing.
3. Omar Khadr
Omar Khadr spent almost all of his teenage years at Guantánamo Bay. In 2002, the 15-year-old Canadian, was captured by US forces during a firefight in Afghanistan. He was taken to Guantánamo, where he pleaded guilty to throwing a grenade that killed a US soldier, but later said he had only done so because he saw no other means of making it out of the notorious detention camp.
He was transferred to a Canadian jail in 2012 and 12 years and nine months after he was captured, was released on bail in May 2015. While in Guantánamo, Omar alleges he was frequently tortured, forced to stand in stress positions and prevented from sleeping for more than three hours at a time for 21 days. He remains the only child soldier to be prosecuted in a military commission for war crimes. Omar is currently studying to become an emergency medical responder and continuing the process to appeal his US war crimes convictions.
4. Rasmieh Odeh
Palestinian torture victim Rasmieh Odeh is accused of providing false statements on her immigration and naturalisation forms when applying for entry into the US. She checked “no” when asked whether she had ever been convicted but had been found guilty by an Israeli court of the bombing of an Israeli supermarket that killed two civilians in 1969. However, she denies she was involved in the bombings, saying she was tortured while in Israeli custody and forced to confess.
Having been originally convicted for immigration fraud in November 2014, Rasmieh’s conviction was overturned in February 2016 following an intervention from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and five other organisations, who argued that evidence of Rasmieh’s torture traumatisation should be admissible in the court’s determination of her ability to engage with the immigration process.
Her case now returns to the District Judge for a possible retrial in what could be a hugely positive step forward in how PTSD is understood and evaluated in torture related cases. In commenting on the case, IRCT Secretary General, Victor Madrigal-Borloz said, “Victims of torture can find it extremely difficult to speak about their experiences. Around the world, courts and administrative bodies are finally starting to recognise this fact and give consequence to it by ensuring that their processes reflect the specific psychological situation and needs of victims.”
5. African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights’ resolution on the Right to Rehabilitation
The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights’ resolution on the Right to Rehabilitation was a landmark development for the anti-torture movement. The resolution calls on state parties to the African Charter to implement domestic laws prohibiting torture and to include clear provisions on torture victims’ right to rehabilitation. It is the first resolution adopted by the African Commission focusing specifically on the importance of the rehabilitation of torture victims.
Importantly, it specifies that states should ensure that all victims of torture and their dependents are offered appropriate medical care, have access to appropriate social rehabilitation and are provided with compensation. The IRCT, in collaboration with a group of international, regional and national NGOs, was involved in the development of the resolution, which the Commission adopted in Banjul, The Gambia in May 2015.
Just as we have seen in previous years, creativity played a big role in marking this year’s 26 June campaign. Thousands of people across the globe joined the torture rehabilitation movement in showcasing both the resilience and creativity of survivors and caregivers alike.
TPO Cambodia – Transcultural Psychosocial Organization
This year, TPO Cambodia organised an event together with torture survivors of the Khmer Rouge Regime at their headquarters in Phnom Penh. Survivors, TPO staff and other guests discussed the right to compensation and rehabilitation for the victims of torture. The event began with a guided meditation by one of the TPOs counsellors, Dr. Muny, and a TPOs technical advisor, who reminded the audience about the importance of the commemoration of this day and the development of rehabilitation rights for victims of torture.
In addition, in a symbolic act, TPO staff and survivors freed a dozen of caged birds on the TPO´s rooftop, follow by a speech of a survivor, Mr. Ith Udom, who shared some of his experiences and expressed how important the remembrance of this day is for him and other survivors.
DIGNITY – The Danish Institute Against Torture, Denmark
To mark the UN International day in Support of Victims of Torture, on June 24, DIGNITY held an event in the Kongens Have park in Copenhagen. Approximately 18.000 people joined the event and enjoyed music, food, drinks and talked with DIGNITY staff. Chinah, L.I.G.A, Kesi, The Eclectic Monkier and the kid-friendly show Pippelipop were among the performers who entertained throughout the day.
EATIP – Equipo Argentino de Trabajo e Investigación Psicosocial, Argentina
To commemorate 26 June, EATIP ran a clinical athenaeum and hosted a film screening of ‘The Look of Silence’, an Oscar-nominated documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer that examines the perspective of victims of torture, disappearances and Extrajudicial Killings in Indonesia. Afterwards, the centre organised a post-film debate among the participants.
As part of their 26 June activities, EATIPs staff also organised a photo contest ‘Miradas sobre la memoria y la resistencia’ – ‘Views on memories and resistance’, which is currently running for two months and will finish with a photo exhibition open for the public. The objective of this contest is to further commemorate 26 June and the 40th anniversary of the military civic coup in Argentina.
Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights, Iraq
In Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, Jiyan Foundation invited survivors to share their stories with politicians, human rights workers, therapists, lawyers and journalists, at a dinner event. After the dinner, there was a panel discussion, where the participants discussed how survivors could be helped more effectively. A press release in Kurdish, Arabic and English was also published, calling attention to the many people who were tortured by the Saddam regime and need our support.
In Kirkuk, Jiyan Foundation met with the Iraqi Council of Representatives and the Provincial Council to discuss the relevance of the work of the centre, and how civil society as well as the government can support survivors of torture more effectively and cooperate on these issues.
SURVIVORS of Torture, International, USA
A photo exhibition featuring SURVIVORS’ clients and the journeys that may take to rebuild their lives, ran throughout all the month of June at La Mesa Library in San Diego, California. SURVIVORS also held a client Healing Club with a drum circle provided by Resounding Joy and its annual Ice Cream Social. This event was an opportunity for the community to come together in solidarity with torture survivors, meet staff, volunteers, and partners, and write letters of hope to the clients detained at the detention centres.
STTARTS – Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assitance and Rehabilitation Service Inc, Australia
This year, Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Services (STTARS) invited Paris Aristotle AM, who is the CEO of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, Chair of the Settlement Services Advisory Council and advisor to the Australian Government on refugee and asylum seeker policy, to speak at the “Sustainable Rehabilitation for Survivors and their Communities” event at the University of Australia. At the event, Mr Aristotle spoke about how Australia can respond to the growing humanitarian crisis, which to date has led to the displacement of an estimated 18 million people in Syria alone.
He also reviewed current settlement issues within Australia. In his keynote address, Paris focused upon the most effective ways to “Support Life after Torture”, not only for the intake of 12,000 Syrian/Iraqi refugees displaced as a direct cause of the terrifying war and ongoing conflict within that region, but to highlight concerns for refugees living in Australia.
Advocacy Centre for Human Rights, Kenya
In Kenya, to mark 26 June, the Advocacy Centre for Human Rights teamed up with members of a local youth group, police officers from Kahawa Sukari police station, members of the local county commission and the administration police. The event culminated with a social forum, where the local youth group interacted freely with the police and participated in a football match. This was a very positive event as the local police has been accused of a number abuses against members of the community.
During the event dubbed ‘Support Life After Torture’, over 140 youths and 21 police officers gathered at Kahawa Sukari Estate to celebrate Life after Torture in remembrance of victims and survivors of torture, sexual violence, inhumane and degrading treatment and other related abuse under the police and helped create a common understanding to hold perpetrators accountable through community based advocacy.
What politicians and the public need to know about life after torture: An interview with Victor Madrigal-Borloz
For the first time, the International Rehabilitation Council for Victims of Torture (IRCT) will speak at the Swedish event Almedalen this July. The week-long forum, where political and non-govermental organisations come together, attracts more than 35,000 visitors to discuss relevant issues every year. IRCT Secretary-General, Victor Madrigal-Borloz is one of four panellists who will discuss the physical and psychological effects of torture at a seminar on life after torture. We spoke to Victor about his upcoming visit to Almedalen, what he hopes to get out of it and why he thinks that NGOs like the IRCT and its members need to start a dialogue with their local politicians.
Q: This is your first time going to Almedalen in Sweden. The event is an annual tradition that has connected politicians, political and non-governmental organisations and the public for more than 40 years, what do you expect to take away from it?
Almedalen is a very unique opportunity because it represents direct access to members of parliament, to politicians and to political thinkers. We’re hoping to bring the plight of torture victims into their minds and thoughts.
I also expect that we will be able to liaise with politicians who are interested in creating societies that offer more solidarity and are willing to show empathy and understanding of the plight of torture victims. Finally, I think it will be interesting to meet those who are fuelling irresponsible political discourse. Not only to understand their motivation, but also to expose them to the consequences of their narratives.
Q: You will be speaking at the ‘Life after Torture’ seminar. Life after torture can mean a lot of things. What exactly will you be speaking about?
I think our great advantage in every public narrative we create is that we ensure that victims and survivors of torture are the protagonists. As a representative of the movement, I can then surround their experience and political aspirations with an understanding of the structures that have been put in place. That way we can understand how these individuals’ aspirations can be met through law reform and public policy.
Q: One of the IRCT’s Swedish members Red Cross in Malmø will also be speaking at the event. Do you think it’s important to collaborate with or involve members?
We hope that when activities are carried out in any given country, the local IRCT member centre will play a leading role. This is very important because the members are the ones that actually have an overview as to how the political problems reflect their everyday life and they can identify the particular problems facing torture victims. We can bring the global strategy of the movement and try to connect with the local situation, but I think it’s essential to have the local member be the ones that tell us how this global strategy can connect with their local context.
Q: Do you listen to members or go to them for information to stay up to date with what’s going on around the world in terms of torture and rehabilitation?
I think our members are an important source of information and we always make sure to stay in touch with them and follow their work closely. It’s interesting though, because the way information moves has changed drastically. Now it happens instantaneously and through very efficient channels, which means people find out about major events at the same time.
For us, this becomes clear during major events and political processes where we’re able to carry out a lot of analysis ourselves. But where we can’t actually do without our members is when we need to understand the events that have an impact on them or how rehabilitation is affected by certain political conceptions. It’s very important to have this contextual understanding because sometimes the impact won’t be felt before two years from now, but you still need to take action today.
Q: Why do you think more and more NGOs participate in forums like Almedalen?
I think that forums such as Almedalen provide a unique platform for political and non-governmental organisations to get together to discuss relevant issues. I think many NGOs like the IRCT are hoping to not only contribute to the public debate, but to also put their cause back on the agenda of their local politicians.
Q: Since you started as Secretary-General for the IRCT in 2013, you must have seen and experienced quite a lot in terms of change in political commitment or attitude towards the fight against torture and the need for rehabilitation. Do you think the movement is better or worse off when it comes to political support and understanding?
The movement is becoming stronger in the sense that the strategy is becoming clearer. The commitment of the movement to give a voice to the victim is becoming clearer, as well as the movement’s commitment to being professional and accountable. But the context is becoming a lot more challenging. As already mentioned, irresponsible political discourses fuelling certain opinions that people have where refugees, who includes a significant proportion of victims of torture, are seen as undesirable.
These discourses also fuel the stigmatisation of certain groups in society. I think they make it very difficult for the movement to expect that there will be an acknowledgment of the needs of this group and they also create more difficult grounds for politicians to wholeheartedly support the movement. Finally, these discourses also provide perfect conditions for those who want to fuel hate, xenophobia and fear because it’s easier to draw on those unspoken connections.
Q: What can the IRCT and its members do to influence the political debate and to get the attention of local politicians?
I think it’s very important to maintain a core objective and ensure victims of torture have a visible presence and a voice. This is difficult because we do not have the prerogative to decide who wants to make their story public, but we do have the need and the responsibility to ensure that information about the damage created by torture and about the needs of the victims become very clear to the public.
Q: What about public support? Do we need to continuously raise the issue of torture among everyday people like me or do you think most people are aware of it and feel strongly about eradicating torture?
I don’t think there’s an awareness about the fact that torture occurs and I think that there’s very little awareness about the type of damage that it causes and how unjustified it’s when it’s used. I think there are subtle mechanisms in public discourse that make it easier for people to not realise that this is an everyday occurrence that affects children, the elderly, men and women everywhere.
But the reality is that it does happen and it happens frequently and the damage is horrendous. For that reason, there’s a need to insist on this point. One of the great determinants in public opinion is the media and also the entertainment industry. Today I think we’re plagued with images of torture in entertainment shows that make it very easy for people to think that this is something that may work. With this in mind, I think it’s very important to raise awareness about the issue.
Q: Finally, how do you think the IRCT has made a difference to torture victims around the world? And what are your hopes for the future?
I think the great contribution of the IRCT is to place rehabilitation and the needs of torture victims at the forefront of the narrative of international human rights. Before the movement took this very clear strategy, rehabilitation was seen as a charity or at best as a political reparation. The great contribution of the movement has been to create a framework that is considered to be part of a right or a series of rights.
I hope that in the future we will see a society that through embracing solidarity and empathy actively rejects torture because it doesn’t happen to others, it happens to “us”. It’s about acknowledging that torture victims are us rather than them. I think we can learn from experience and have an appreciation of empathy, whether it’s from getting to know each other or from reading and from renouncing fear and hatred.
The United States-Mexico border at San Ysidro, in the county of San Diego, is the busiest land border crossing in the western hemisphere. Every day, these people, who come in search of protection and a better life arrive in San Diego; one of the many cities that have seen an increase in refugees and asylum seekers.
The inspiring and shocking stories of some of these people have been captured by photographer Misael Virgen and were until recently on display at the La Mesa Library in San Diego.
The photo series focus on the journey from the points of entry to San Diego, beginning with the border and the airport. A collaboration between the organisation ART WORKS Projects and International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member Survivors of Torture, International (SURVIVORS), the photographs are San Diego’s version of the international project Sanctuary and Sustenance, which tells the stories of some of the more than 60 million people currently without a permanent home because of war or persecution.
“The images help us share several of the thousands of stories of newcomers to our community,” explains Niki Kalmus, Community Relations Manager of SURVIVORS.
“We want San Diego to understand the long, arduous journeys our clients, refugees, asylum seekers, and all migrants make to rebuild their lives in our city. We also want to show that the lives these migrants lead are very similar to our own. The images Misael captured demonstrate how torture survivors’ lives are hardly different from the lives of you and me.”
SURVIVORS and ART WORKS Projects hope to raise awareness of the challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers, as well as of their resilience, to spark conversations about collective responsibility, welcome newcomers to communities, and encourage policy-makers to act in favour of fundamental human rights for refugees and asylum seekers.
“So far we have been able to reach many people who had never heard of SURVIVORS. The clients featured in Misael’s photography were excited to raise awareness about torture survivors, and came to see the exhibits when they were unveiled. One of the clients is highly involved with advocating for the rights of transgendered individuals, the reason she was tortured and forced to flee her home country,” explains Niki.
According to her, the exhibition, which was shown at La Mesa Library throughout the month of June, has inspired lots of visitors to get involved.
“Many of them now volunteer at SURVIVORS or have sought more information from us about how they can help torture survivors. Lots of people commented that they had no idea this was still an issue today, and especially not that it reached our community.”
Sanctuary & Sustenance is a multimedia projection of photography, film, music, and words, launched on June 20, 2013 in honour of World Refugee Day in cities around the world.
Through photographs, moving graphics, and music, viewers have an opportunity to trace the journey of a family during the catastrophic events of displacement, on a path to sanctuary, and through the long process of rebuilding life in a new community. Across the world, it aims to raise the public consciousness of these issues and facilitate conversations about the collective responsibility to welcome refugees and encourage policy-makers to act in favour of fundamental human rights for refugees and asylum seekers.
Niki says that in San Diego, SURVIVORS does its best to educate the public about torture and its consequences.
“We raise awareness through community outreach such as this exhibit to let our community know that torture survivors are an underserved and often invisible part of the population. The most important thing we can do is simply understand that they are among us and spread the word about the important work of SURVIVORS and torture treatment centres throughout the world. We believe that by raising awareness about the existence of torture survivors in our very neighbourhoods we can create a more welcoming community.”
SURVIVORS is currently seeking other locations to show the exhibition. You can find out more about the Sanctuary & Sustenance project by clicking here, see more of the work from the exhibition by going to Misael Virgen’s website or get the latest news from SURVIVORS by following them on Facebook.
As the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, 26 June is a day when the world commemorates and honour torture victims, express solidarity and take action to support them with rebuilding their lives.
As this year’s 26 June approaches, we look at why this day is so important to victims, their families and communities and those who work every day to support life after torture and towards a world without torture. Here are five reasons why 26 June is important.
1. The world listens to victims of torture
It is a day where we can speak openly about torture and its devastating consequences without shame and without being met with suspicion. Many torture victims express that one of their main obstacles to rebuilding a life after torture is the lack of official recognition that torture takes place. This makes it difficult and often dangerous for victims to speak openly about what they have been through and the physical and psychological trauma they experience. The world actually listens to victims on 26 June.
2. The world unites to support victims of torture
While victims often feel isolated and that they must live alone with their experience and suffering, on 26 June, we all stand together in solidarity and support life after torture. Families, communities and supporters all join with victims to mark the 26 June. It is a crucial for victims to be reminded that while most states have ignored their obligation to torture victims, there are people and organisations all over the world who continue to try to succeed where the state fails.
3. The world demands that rehabilitation be funded
26 June is an opportunity to tell the decision-makers of the world that torture victims do need support and that they have an obligation to deliver. Torture happens in more than 140 countries all over the world according to Amnesty International. Torture victims often feel powerless, guilty and ashamed, triggered by the humiliation they have endured. The effects of torture reach far beyond the victims. They spread to their children and family who suffer similar symptoms with devastating impact on their lives. The global resources available to support victims to rebuild their lives are completely inadequate and do not meet the needs of millions of victims globally. On 26 June we can express this demand for change loudly and clearly.
4. The world demands that rehabilitation be put on the political agenda
The world needs to know about the efforts that do take place to support life after torture. We know that rehabilitation helps victims recover from their physical and psychological trauma, we know that documenting torture helps victims seeking justice and recognition for the wrongs against them, we know that identifying and supporting torture victims among asylum seekers helps them get integrate in their host countries and we know that strong anti-torture legislation helps protect against and redress torture. We also know how to do all these things, but unless they are backed politically, their effect will be limited. 26 June is an excellent day to put political decisions-makers on the spot and demand the political action that is sorely needed in many countries.
5. The world takes action in emotional, creative and inspirational ways
Finally, 26 June is a day where we can all do something. Victims and their families can speak out, rehabilitation centres and others working to support victims can hold events and take political action to mark the day. We can do this on and off line, at events and gatherings, through cultural activities and by raising awareness in our communities. In previous years, organisations have run a diverse range of events, including conferences, picnics, seminars vigils, dance and music events, as well as theatre. Poster competitions, face painting, kite-making and musical performances involving children have showcased the creativity and diversity of the organisations involved.
26 June Campaign Kit
To support all these activities and more, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) has developed a new campaign kit. The kit contains material designed to support life after torture. To show your solidarity and support for victims of torture on 26 June, check out our campaign kit for inspiration.
Use the hashtags #SupportLifeAfterTorture and #26June on social media and use the logo to turn your profile picture into a message of solidarity. You can also read factsheets on lots of different topics and use them to raise awareness, read the global reading on the day or host a screening of Oscar winning film maker Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest movie, The Look of Silence. For more information click here.
To mark World Refugee Day we look back at our conversations with two European rehabilitation centres – both working tirelessly to provide much needed support and treatment to refugees who have fled armed conflict, violence and torture. Sadly, a number of rehabilitation centres across Europe have had their funding reduced, preventing them from treating traumatised refugees.
When Europe first experienced a rapid increase in refugees seeking protection within its borders, some countries rushed to reintroduce border control and tighten immigration laws. Razor-wire fences were constructed and the military deployed to prevent refugees from entering. However, at the same time, European NGOs worked tirelessly to provide support and relief to those who had made it to the continent and they continue to care for newly arrived refugees, many of whom are deeply traumatised.
Making a difference in Hungary
One of these NGOs is International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member centre the Cordelia Foundation, which is based in Budapest, Hungary. The centre offers psychiatric and psychosocial care to torture survivors. When we spoke to the centre’s Medical Director Lilla Hardi late last year at the peak of the European refugee crisis, she told us that many of the newly arrived refugees were in a bad state mentally.
“They are very exhausted and desperate,” she said. “I think aggressive manifestations in their behaviour might happen due to their traumatised and desperate state. This situation is another trauma contributing to their already unbalanced mental state and earlier traumatisation.”
Like other organisations in the country, Cordelia staff have travelled to the border between Hungary and Serbia to help refugees in detention.
“In one of the detention centres we met a Syrian family of 12 who had been transferred from the border that very day. The head of the family used to be a high-rank public service person in his country. They had witnessed the beheading of about 500 persons in their city,” said Dr. Hardi.
“All of the family members were seriously traumatised and showed serious symptoms of PTSD. One of them had lost a lower limb and had a temporary prosthesis; another suffered from diabetes and needed insulin urgently. We asked one of the nurses to monitor him and to give him the insulin that he had brought himself.”
Only one provider of psychological support in Serbia
In Serbia, local NGO International Aid Network (IAN) has been providing medical first aid and psychosocial support to refugees through a Mobile Team Unit in parks and shelters in Belgrade and at the Croatian border.
While many organisations provide medical and legal aid to refugees, IAN, which is a member of the IRCT, is the only one providing psychological support.
“At the moment we are working with refugees at the Berkasovo-Babska border crossing. At the beginning we worked in a park in Belgrade, which was the biggest informal gathering place of refugees, and in Principovac, a refugee shelter near the Croatian border,” said IAN psychologist and project manager Bojana Trivuncic in November last year.
“Some of them were tortured in the country of origin and during their transit in Iran and Bulgaria. In Syria for example, many refugees were tortured in some kind of prison by members of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The methods are brutal. Many of them told me that they were tortured with electro shocks. In Afghanistan, many refugees were tortured by ISIS or the Taliban,” explained Bojana.
“When basic needs are not satisfied, like food, clothes and shelter, a person cannot deal with emotions or trauma. For me it is ok to be there for them, to help them with their basic needs, and of course to be there for them if they want to talk, to share their problems and traumatic experiences, and to calm them if they are fearful.”
To support refugees we need more funding
The responsibility to provide rehabilitation to torture victims lies with the state. Yet in almost all EU countries, insufficient resources are being earmarked to provide specialised health services to vulnerable groups, including torture victims. This leaves rehabilitation centres to fill the gap.
“We know that a significant percentage of asylum seekers and refugees in the EU are torture victims and require access to rehabilitation services as early as possible. Our European member centres are doing their best to help as many people as possible, but sadly, many have had to cut their support services to torture victims due to a lack of funding,” says Miriam Reventlow, Director of Governance and Policy at the IRCT.
With NGOs struggling to help the record high number of refugees, it is clear that European leaders have to come together to offer to commit to ensuring that refugees who have been subjected to torture can fully recover from their past trauma and be able to find a new path of life in their host country. If not, we risk that thousands of refugees are left untreated.
“European countries all have a responsibility to ensure that there is enough funding to provide rehabilitation to victims of torture, and we need them to take this responsibility seriously,” says Miriam Reventlow.
In February 2014, the world was shocked to learn about the “Wheel of Torture”, a sadistic game being used inside the Philippine National Police Provincial Intelligence Board (PIB), a secret detention compound in Biñan, Laguna Province, Philippines.
The “game” is played when a police officer spins the roulette-style wheel, which lists different methods of torture, to determine which punishment they should receive. These include “30 seconds of hanging” and ”20 seconds of beatings”. The PIB was shut down after a visit from the Commission on Human Rights Region IV Office and more than 40 detainees complained to the authorities that they had been subjected to the Wheel of Torture.
LC is one of the detainees who was tortured for months. Once he was taken to a small hut inside the PIB and forced to drink water contaminated with dog faeces. Another time, two of his toenails were almost taken out with pliers and officers poured alcohol and gasoline over him and threatened to set him on fire. LC says one of the guards was, “looking for a lighter but could not find one at the time.”
RA is another one of the victims. He was beaten with the handle of a dustpan, a piece of wood, a steel baseball bat, a plastic chair and their fists and feet. He was also electrocuted, blindfolded, and repeatedly gagged.
Despite the many complaints and the fact that 25 cases were filed, only four remain pending and no police officers have ever been convicted. IRCT member in the Philippines, the Medical Action Group (MAG) has provided rehabilitation services and legal referrals to many of the torture victims held at the PIB. MAG documented a total of 27 clients out of 41 who were initially interviewed. The others did not want to be documented.
MAG says that it is both sad and disappointing that out of 25 cases, the local human rights office in-charge of the case has filed, only four remain pending. “Some clients have died during the process and some withdrew their complaints and took the side of the alleged perpetrators as a result of threats and intimidation.”
LC is still one of MAG’s clients and continues to suffer from nightmares. He feels extremely angry and upset whenever he thinks about what happened at the PIB, but the scars from his beatings and burns make it hard to forget.
MAG was due to have a meeting with the local human rights office, along with the Central Human Rights Office about the cases in May. However, it was cancelled because of the presidential elections and no new date has been set. “It is all too common that cases like this are never heard and reported. With medical and psychological help and support, we can heal the wounds of the survivors but they may never get back to the place they were before they were tortured. This particular case reminds us that torture can never be justified in any circumstance,” says MAG.
The Philippine Government passed an Anti-Torture law in 2009 but human rights groups say things have been slow to change. However, there is some cause for hope, as on 29 March 2016, a Philippine court made a historic ruling in which a police officer was convicted of torturing a bus driver to confess to crimes he denies he committed. It was the first conviction under the 2009 Anti-Torture Act.
The Philippines is now in a period of transition with newly-elected President Rodrigo Duterte having spoken openly about his hard stance on law and order. The future is unclear for the country but for the victims of the wheel of torture the past cannot be forgotten.
Since 1987, 28 May has marked International Day of Action for Women’s Health. Today is an opportunity to remind governments and the general public alike that women’s health matters. Many female victims of torture struggle with lifelong physical and mental health problems as a result of their experiences and the type of torture inflicted on them because of their gender. We share the story of NB, a survivor of sexual torture from the Central African Republic, to show that the respect, protection, and fulfillment of the human rights of women and girls, including their sexual and reproductive rights is always worth fighting for.
In March 2013 the Central African Republic (CAR) was in turmoil. The Séléka, an alliance of rebel militia factions had overthrown the government and were starting to target the Christian population, murdering people and ransacking and destroying their houses.
At the time, NB was happily married with four children but after a run in with rebels that were renting a house from her husband, her family suddenly found themselves as targets. They fled their village but NB decided to return to their house to get their identification documents before they left the country for good.
She was captured by Séléka rebels looking for her husband. They beat and repeatedly raped her for several hours. Then they ransacked the house, before leaving her in a state of shock. She eventually made her way to her parents’ house and then joined her husband and children and they fled to Cameroon.
NB is one of the many female victims of sexual violence during the CAR conflict, a time when disorder reigned and rape was used as a weapon. In late 2013 Amnesty International researchers reported that they had spoken to many women in the capital Bangui, who reported having been raped by Seleka soldiers. Most of these women and girls did not want to be interviewed for fear of being identified or stigmatised.
In Cameroon NB tried to make a life for her family, despite receiving no medical or psychological care after her ordeal. Eventually other CAR refugees told her and her family about the Trauma Centre in Cameroon (TCC), a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Victims of Torture. They were assessed and received psychological services, including individual therapy, group therapy and family therapy.
Even with the much-needed support they got from TCC, NB and her husband struggled to keep their relationship going. Things became even harder when she was diagnosed with HIV, contracted when she was raped. In many cases in countries, such as the CAR and DRC Congo, HIV-positive rape victims are dying because they cannot afford antiretroviral medication.
NB is one of the lucky ones, as she continues to get treatment from TCC. She and her husband are still together and the family is part of an income-generating scheme. As a result can pay their rent, take care of basic needs and their children can go to school. Without it they would struggle to survive.
NB’s story shows there are still many places in the world where basic health services are not available or inaccessible, often affecting women and children the most. The psychological effects of the trauma that sexual violence causes are ignored or gender inequalities make it more difficult for women to access medication for diseases like HIV. Sexual torture affects victims’ health and identity, as well as their relationships with family and friends.
International Day of Action on Women’s Health is a day to remember women like NB. Her story shows that survivors of sexual torture need support to rebuild their lives and that women’s mental and physical health should always be safeguarded.
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?
Tika Ram Pokharel is a Legal Officer at the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) Nepal, based in the capital Kathmandu. He tells us about how post-conflict Nepal is struggling to overcome a past where torture was commonplace and how many of his clients who receive free legal aid become more aware of their rights and take on the fight for other victims’ rights.
Q: How long have you worked on torture rehabilitation and human rights?
I have been working on torture rehabilitation and in the human rights sector since 2002.
Q: How did you end up doing this work? Was it something you specifically wanted to do or was it more of a coincidence?
Having observed many injustices in society, I was motivated to study law at college. It was at a time when the Maoist conflict was at its peak, and torture and other human rights violations in custody and prisons were rampant. As a result, the number of cases of torture in Nepal increased dramatically.
After witnessing the ‘real’ practice of law, I was encouraged to work on the rehabilitation of victims of torture. Furthermore, I attended an International Rehabilitation Council for Victims of Torture (IRCT) funded workshop on torture in Nepal in 2002, which increased my desire to work for and with torture victims. Hence, I ended up working as a legal aid lawyer for TPO Nepal.
Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors where you are/or in your home country?
Nepal is suffering from a post-conflict situation. At the time of the conflict, from 1996 to 2006, thousands were victims of torture and other human rights violations. Despite government claims that torture has been eradicated since the conflict ended, the reality is that torture has become routine in custody or prisons. Torture has not stopped, the methods have just changed. Even though Nepal is a party of the Convention against Torture (CAT), torture has not been criminalised in the country.
Impunity is rampant and not a single perpetrator has been punished in a case where they were accused of torture. Generally, confessions made by torture victims have been taken as evidence in court. As a result, innocent people have been victims of miscarriages of justice. There is no state provision of rehabilitation for victims of torture nor a national preventive mechanism. Hundreds of thousands of victims still live without reparation and justice.
Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?
In the beginning, torture survivors were treated in hospitals like those with medical problems. Survivors didn’t get any legal aid services so cases were not properly documented and they could not access rehabilitation services. Nowadays, the documentation process is hassle-free and we carry out medico-legal documentation in a number of hospitals in Nepal.
This medico-legal documentation helps the survivor seek justice at national and international level, which helps them through their rehabilitation process. TPO Nepal has developed a range of services. Now most survivors know where to go for rehabilitation and other organisations know where to send them. Many survivors receive free legal aid and are more aware and better educated about their rights.
In my experience, at the beginning torture survivors hesitate to speak about their rights. After receiving our services, including psychosocial counselling, they speak without hesitation. Some are ready to fight torture and injustice for the rest of their lives.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector?
The biggest challenge we face is a lack of funding because there is no support from the state. We completely rely on international donors for all funding. Torture survivors are discriminated against by the state and society. Rehabilitation requires a sufficient budget and it is very challenging to provide services for all torture survivors with such a limited budget.
Furthermore, there is no proper legal provision regarding the rehabilitation of torture survivors and government institutions are always unwilling to support rehabilitation. The court and National Human Rights Commission have already recommended some cases to the government where the survivor should receive compensation but they pay little attention. Most victims come from poor economic backgrounds and many lose their jobs after torture.
Finally, the opinion of the general public is also a challenge, as they think that when the police arrest someone torture is acceptable and they have no sympathy for the victim.
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?
The Nepali government and some of the political parties have said time and again that, “Torture and other human rights are a thing of the past, they should not go to the court”. Ultimately the government and political parties want impunity for perpetrators in Nepal. Yet, torture destroys the personality of the survivor and is directly related to a person’s dignity, hence it cannot be forgotten easily. Torture does not only destroy the life a single person but their entire family and society as well. It creates negative consequences for the entire nation.
Q: What are your hopes for the future?
I do have hopes! The new Nepali constitution, introduced in 2015, declared that torture will be punishable, but a comprehensive law is needed to implement this provision. I hope Nepal will get this law in the near future and rehabilitation and justice will be available for all victims of torture.
If the international community could put pressure on the Nepali government it would help us greatly. Also, we have no support at the national level, so need long-term financial support from the international community so our services can reach all torture survivors. Lastly, torture is generally accepted by society. People are not aware of psychological torture and its consequences. We need a long-term awareness-raising programme that can change their minds.