Archive for category Advocacy and Influencing Policy
Last month, the Turkish government fired some 4,500 court clerks, librarians and computer experts considered “dangers to the state”. The move, which is part of the government’s ongoing crackdown on alleged coup sympathisers, takes the number of public servants who have been dismissed to around 125,000. Adding to this, more than 40,000 people have been arrested since last year’s failed coup, while reports of torture and ill treatment have become commonplace in a country where respect for human rights and freedom of speech has been put aside.
Among the people who have been arrested since the attempted coup is Professor Sebnem Korur Fincanci who is the President of IRCT member centre Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT). Dr Fincanci was arrested in June 2016, along with two other prominent human rights defenders, Erol Önderoğlu and Ahmet Nesin, for taking part in a solidarity campaign to defend the independence of the newspaper Ozgur Gundem – a paper that is often critical of the government and aligned with Turkey’s Kurdish minority.
While international pressure helped secure their release 10 days after the arrest, the three human rights defenders are still facing charges under the country’s Anti Terror Law, pending an investigation into their alleged involvement in terrorist propaganda. If found guilty they could face up to 14 years in jail.
It is not difficult to see why President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government consider Dr Fincanci a threat. A leading figure in the anti-torture movement, she was one of the contributors to the development of the United Nations reference standards on the investigation and documentation of torture (the Istanbul Protocol) and she has conducted endless forensic investigations to expose torture in Turkey as well as other countries. All of these are achievements not appreciated by the government.
Now, with the government ramping up its crackdown, the number of cases of alleged torture and ill treatment in police detention has also increased. Speaking to a journalist from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, one woman explained how she was taking care of 13 people after all the men in the family had been arrested. Some of them had been tortured while in detention with one documenting the police beatings in a statement:
“They beat me on the soles of my feet, on my stomach, then squeezed my testicles, saying they would castrate me,”
Another man told the journalist about the torture that his 66-year-old father had endured while in prison. This included having his toenails pulled out.
Despite international outcry and condemnation, Turkey continues to tighten its grip and those who provide rehabilitation services to torture victims or help them with the forensic documentation of their cases continue to be seen as “dangers to the state”.
Several HRFT staff targeted
Dr Fincanci is far from the only HRFT staff who has been targeted by the Turkish authorities because of her anti-torture work. Other colleagues have also been arrested or dismissed from their public duties and in 2015, HRFT itself was fined approximately 30.000 EUR in connection with its work to support torture victims from the anti-government protests.
One of the staff targeted by the authorities is Dr Serdar Küni who was arrested on 19 October last year for no apparent reason and has been detained in Şırnak Prison since then. His first court hearing took place on 13 March, but Dr Küni was not released. Instead he is still in custody, waiting for his next hearing to take place on 24 April.
As for Dr Fincanci, Önderoğlu and Nesin, their trial has been postponed twice already, but a new court date has been set for next week. At the last hearing, Director of Governance and Policy at the IRCT, Miriam Reventlow made it clear that there is strong international support for all the human rights defenders currently on trial: “The IRCT, as part of the global movement for the rehabilitation of torture victims, continues to stand with Dr Fincanci, her family and other colleagues in solidarity and support at this challenging time.”
Dr Fincanci herself is despondent about the situation in Turkey and her pending trial:
“It is really one of the most difficult times for Turkey in any way. Torture is now common in detention centres, and conditions in prisons worsen every day,” she says. “As for my trial, we can never be sure, because this is also a period of unpredictability. Nevertheless, we are starting to see convictions in similar cases, such as postponed imprisonment of one year and three months and fines of 6000 Turkish Lira.”
We’ve spoken with Ole von Uexküll who is the Executive Director of Swedish organisation the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, which each year supports a number of individuals and organisations through its award.
Established in 1980 by journalist and professional philatelist Jakob von Uexkull, the Right Livelihood Award aims to promote scientific research, education, public understanding and practical activities, which contribute to eliminating poverty and ensuring lasting peace and justice in the world.
The IRCT became a laureate in 1988, when it received the award for helping torture victims restore their lives and regain their health.
As the Executive Director of the organisation, Ole von Uexküll’s job is to lead and coordinate the work of the Foundation, which is headquartered in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, with an office in Geneva, Switzerland.
WWT: Can you tell us a bit about the Foundation and what its purpose is?
OvU: The Right Livelihood Award Foundation is a charity registered in Sweden. The Foundation’s principal purpose is to bestow the Right Livelihood Awards. Today, there are 162 Laureates from 67 countries. Yet, the support from the Foundation goes far beyond the prize. The Foundation invests a lot in press work and communication on behalf of its recipients – former and current Laureates. It also seeks to help protect and support Award Recipients who are at risk. In 2014, for instance, it organised a solidarity mission to Gaza to protest against the restrictions that 2013 Laureate Raji Sourani and his colleagues at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights face in exercising their fundamental freedoms and human rights in the Gaza Strip.
The Foundation tries to directly strengthen the network of its Laureates, whenever possible, through events, joint statements and petitions. Anniversary meetings, regional conferences and seminars, as well as cooperative events with other institutions, where Laureates are invited to their events, have become an important aspect of the Foundation’s network building and outreach work.
With the inauguration of the Right Livelihood College in 2009, the Foundation also furthered its work in capacity building and in making its Laureates’ knowledge more accessible.
WWT: What exactly does your role as Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation consist of?
OvU: My main tasks are strategy development, representation, financial management and research. I have evaluated candidates for the Right Livelihood Award in more than 35 countries around the globe.
WWT: The IRCT received the award in 1988. Do you think the fight against torture is as relevant today as back then?
OvU: Absolutely. Torture continues to be a global scourge across many parts of the world, particularly in the context of the “war on terror” and other international and national conflicts. There remains a need for institutions dedicated to outlawing torture, monitoring state commitments to renounce torture, and working with torture victims to provide them with legal, medical and psychosocial support.
WWT: You recently organised a seminar/debate at the Swedish political forum Almedalen on ‘Life After Torture’. Why did you chose this issue?
OvU: We felt that it was important for Swedish policy-makers to be informed about the unfortunate reality that torture remains a global problem, and together with our Laureate, the IRCT, we wanted to highlight the importance of working with torture victims to rebuild their lives. We wanted to use this forum to make the case that the important and innovative work that the IRCT and its partners are doing should be supported by governments as part of their efforts to promote human rights, development and the rule of law.
WWT: What has been the response so far?
OvU: We had a high number of participants in the seminar and some very good discussions during and after the seminar. In this regard, we are pleased to have put the issue of rehabilitation of torture victims in the realm of public debate in Sweden and will continue to work with the IRCT to inform people about their work.
WWT: What do you look for when finding new laureates?
OvU: We look closely at not only the overall impact of the individual or organisation, but also whether the approach they use is pioneering. It is also important for us to see that the candidate’s life and work is a good example of ‘Right Livelihood’, i.e. living responsibly with a high degree of integrity. The typical Laureate is a courageous individual or organisation who has changed the “rules of the game” in a particular field, and has also demonstrated a practical solution to a global problem. Typical Laureates are role models; their work is transformational and they contribute to securing a just and sustainable world for future generations.
WWT: In addition to the monetary aspect of the prize, the Foundation also seeks to help protect and support those Award Recipients who are at risk. Why do you think this element of the prize is important?
OvU: For us, presenting the Award is the beginning of a life-long relationship we seek to have with Laureates, and we strive to continue to support their work as best as we can. We have estimated that one fifth of all our Laureates have been threatened because their work challenges powerful government and corporate interests. Since 2012, our protection programme, through solidarity visits, UN advocacy and strategic initiatives, has provided a degree of additional protection to our Laureates and strengthened their position in their country.
Additionally, we support our Laureates by giving them opportunities to meet each other at regional conferences, by sharing their achievements through our press and communications work, and by linking them to academic institutions through the Right Livelihood College – our university network with eight campuses on five continents. Several Laureates have observed that the solidarity provided by the Foundation and network of Laureates gives them the strength and confidence to continue persevering with their important work.
You can find out more about the Right Livelihood Award Foundation and its laureates by visiting its website.
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. You have probably already stumbled across this mouthful of a title or the somewhat shorter version UN Special Rapporteur on Torture in articles about torture and other human rights issues. But what do you actually know about this person? As the next Special Rapporteur will be appointed later this month, we thought it was time to find out more about the role and what it means to be a torture investigator working on behalf of the United Nations.
1. The role of the Special Rapporteur on Torture
The Special Rapporteur on Torture is often referred to as the UN’s anti-torture watch dog and in this function, the Special Rapporteur is the person responsible for informing and instigating political debates and decision-making processes at the UN.
The Special Rapporteur can undertake country visits to expose abuses, help the state being scrutinised improve its performance and report back to the Human Rights Council on the situation of torture in individual countries. Similarly, the Special Rapporteur receives allegations from people who are at risk and those who claim to have been tortured. He or she then submits these allegations to the country in question and begins a dialogue to resolve the situation.
The Special Rapporteur produces two thematic reports every year covering new ground in the fight against torture. These could be about developing the legal and practical understanding of themes relevant to the fight against torture, like the situation of torture and ill-treatment in a healthcare setting or the question of when solitary confinement is deemed torture.
Instead of being bound by a specific treaty, the Special Rapporteur is free to cover any thematic and country specific issue relevant to the fight against torture. This means that the mandate can be useful for civil society organisations working against torture in many different ways. For example, organisations can encourage the Special Rapporteur to visit their country to bring global attention to their domestic situation; or in the absence of functional judicial remedies, they can forward concrete cases to the Special Rapporteur, hoping to raise the case. They can also encourage and inform the drafting of thematic reports or invite the Special Rapporteur to speak at events, issue statements and take part in other public events.
2. Who is the current Rapporteur?
Argentinian human rights lawyer, professor and torture victim, Juan Méndez is the current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture – a role he took on back in 2010.
Mr Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defense of human rights and before joining the UN, he worked with organisations such as the Human Rights Watch, the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights in Costa Rica and the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame in the US.
Mr Méndez has also taught International Human Rights Law at Georgetown Law School and at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and he teaches regularly at Oxford University and the American University Washington College of Law.
3. 30+ years of reporting
Last year the mandate of Special Rapporteur celebrated 30 years of reporting on torture. The role was created by the UN in 1985 after the UN Commission on Human Rights decided to appoint an independent human rights expert who could examine questions relevant to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment worldwide.
Today, the mandate of Special Rapporteur is part of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures Mechanisms system.
4. How many Rapporteurs have we seen in 30 years?
If the mandate of Special Rapporteur on Torture was a club, it would be an extremely exclusive one. Juan Méndez is only the fifth person to be appointed Special Rapporteur.
Mr Mendéz took over from Austria’s Manfred Nowak who was the Special Rapporteur from 2004 to 2010 and like Mr Mendez himself, is a human rights lawyer.
Rewind to 1985. The first person to be appointed Special Rapporteur was the late Peter Kooijmans from the Netherlands who later became Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs and Judge on the International Court of Justice. In 1993, distinguished law professor Sir Nigel Rodley from the UK took over from Kooijmans before handing over the reins to Theo van Boven, a Dutch jurist and professor emeritus in international law, who was at the helm from 2001 to 2004.
5. Who appoints the Special Rapporteur and for how long?
The UN Human Rights Council is responsible for appointing the Special Rapporteur on Torture.
The Council has a list of criteria for the selection and appointment of the Special Rapporteur, which includes the nominee’s expertise, experience in the field of the mandate, independence, impartiality, personal integrity, and objectivity. The Council also considers gender balance, geographic representation, and representation of different legal systems when appointing a new Special Rapporteur.
Finally, conflicts of interest, such as holding a position in government, will disqualify an individual from consideration.
Anyone from governments, regional groups operating within the UN human rights system, international organisations, non-governmental organisations, other human rights bodies, and individuals can nominate a candidate.
For the actual selection process, a group of members of the Human Rights Council review all applications and propose a list of candidates to the President of the Council who then appoints the next Rapporteur.
When appointed, the Special Rapporteur usually serves at least one three-year term.
6. Does the Rapporteur make a difference?
While states as such are not obliged to follow the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations following a visit, these visits are an important part of the UN human rights fact-finding and investigatory mechanisms. The Special Rapporteur and his reports are instrumental in shedding light on serious and otherwise forgotten human rights violations.
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.
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.
Defending human rights in Russian republic Chechnya is not without its risks. Local IRCT member the Committee to Prevent Torture has been the target of endless acts of violence, discrimination and harassment because of its anti-torture work. Just last month, a group of journalists and a couple of the Committee’s staff were beaten up by masked men and the organisation’s offices were broken into. Despite international human rights organisations calling for a proper investigation, the perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice.
Speaking up against human rights violations in Russia comes at a price most people are not willing to pay. Non-governmental organisations critical of the government are being targeted and persecuted on a regular basis. International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member and local NGO, Committee to Prevent Torture (CPT), has had its office in the Chechen capital, Grozny set on fire and broken in to, while its staff and founder are repeatedly harassed and intimidated.
Last month’s brutal attack on CPT staff and a small group of journalists, investigating human rights abuses in the region, attracted the attention of rights groups and media outlets around the world. According to the IRCT, these attacks reflect a reality where human rights defenders and journalists are systematically targeted because of their work.
Offices have been raided, activists have been arrested and organisations fined. In some cases, prominent human rights defenders have even been killed, with no one charged with their murders.
This level of impunity in not only Chechnya, but all of Russia is of great concern to local and international rights organisations. In its periodic review of Russia, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) brought up reports from several non-governmental organisations of the widespread practice of torture in Russia and the lack of genuine efforts by the government to investigate the vast number of allegations of such crimes.
In Chechnya, the perpetrators of the attacks against CPT and the journalists are still free despite the spokesperson of President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov, calling the attacks “absolutely outrageous” and encouraging local law enforcement to “take the most effective measures to find the perpetrators, in order to ensure the safety of human rights defenders and journalists”. But even with Moscow condemning the attacks, there is nothing to indicate that they will stop.
In an interview with The Guardian, the leader of the organisation Igor Kalyapin said: “We won’t have anyone staying the night in Chechnya any more, it’s clearly too dangerous. If they can attack me, a member of the president’s human rights council, outside the poshest hotel in the city, then it’s clear that there are no limits. But we can’t pull out altogether. We all have to take a risk. There is no choice. We have two or three court hearings a week there. As long as people want our help there, we will have a presence there.”
The events of last month make it clear that the public need organisations like CPT to continue their work in a country where human rights violations are widespread.
The Committee to Prevent Torture is currently one of more than a hundred Russian NGOs that have been labelled as a ‘foreign agent’ by the government. In 2012, the Russian parliament adopted the law, requiring NGOs to register as “foreign agents” if they engaged in “political activity” and received foreign funding. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), in Russia “foreign agent” can be interpreted only as “spy” or “traitor,” and there is little doubt that the law aims to demonise and marginalise independent advocacy groups. Groups that a court has found responsible for failing to register as a “foreign agent” may be fined up to 500,000 rubles (over US$16,000), and their leaders personally – up to 300,000 rubles (approximately $10,000).
(Source: Human Rights Watch)
On 17 February the last remaining centre for the treatment and documentation of alleged torture victims in Egypt was ordered to close by the Egyptian authorities. The reason given was that the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture had ‘breached unspecified health ministry regulations’. But critics say that the order is part of a sweeping crackdown on human rights organisations and defenders in the country.
At a news conference, the Nadeem Center’s director Aida Seif el-Dawla called the decision to close the centre politically motivated.
“This is a political decision and it’s coming from the cabinet that represents all the actors that are keen on the survival of this regime, despite the oppression and the torture that the Egyptian people are living through on a daily basis.”
The regime that Aida Seif el-Dawla is referring to is that of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Since al-Sisi took office in June 2014, repression and shrinking of the public space has only increased, targeting the entire spectrum of human rights organisations, professional and labour associations, political activists, journalists and media.
In its 2016 World Report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that authorities have effectively banned protests and imprisoned tens of thousands—often after unfair trials. According to the report, National Security officers commit torture and enforced disappearances, while many detainees die in custody from mistreatment.
Despite the constitution forbidding torture and the abuse of detainees, the practice is widespread in Egyptian prisons. In 2014 British newspaper The Guardian revealed that since July 2013, at least 400 people had been tortured and held outside of judicial oversight in a secret military prison.
The Nadeem Center is a private, politically independent organisation that is known around the world for speaking out against torture and other human rights violations. It is the centre’s work to document torture in particular that the authorities see as a great threat to the survival of the regime. Just last December the centre and other civil society organisations announced they were able to document 625 torture cases in Egyptian prisons. Allegations that the authorities continue to deny.
Meanwhile, international rights organisations, including the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) have come out in support of the Nadeem Center and Aida Seif el-Dawla.
The IRCT, which has a membership of more than 150 torture rehabilitation centres across the world, including the Nadeem Center, released a statement calling for action and intervention.
“The Egyptian authorities have a duty to protect and promote the work of human rights defenders; any state hoping to be regarded as democratic must abide by the rule of law and respect for human rights. We will continue to be concerned with this situation until it is fully solved,” said Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the Secretary-General of the IRCT.
In the statement, the IRCT also emphasised the importance of the centre being able to provide treatment to victims of torture, warning that without it, torture victims would have nowhere to go.
Other organisations are pointing to the fact that the closure of El Nadeem Center would constitute an unprecedented violation of the right to freedoms of association and of expression, as well as a dramatic threat to civil liberties, with thousands of political prisoners behind bars, all virtually threatened with systematised acts of torture. Despite the pressure, the Egyptian authorities have showed no signs of budging.
Yet the Nadeem Center refuses to give up, saying that, “If both the clinic and the centre are closed, we shall continue to release our reports and we shall continue to help victims of violence and torture as long as we are doctors and as long as this state insists to use torture as a means of oppressing its citizens.”
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.
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.
The use of riot police, the construction of a 175 km razor-wire fence and threats of deportation. These are just some of the harsh measures taken by the Hungarian government to curb the influx of refugees entering the country. Meanwhile, Hungarian NGOs are providing much needed support and relief to the refugees who have made it to the country. One of these NGOs is IRCT member centre the Cordelia Foundation, which is based in Budapest. The centre offers psychiatric and psychosocial care to torture survivors. We spoke with the centre’s Medical Director Lilla Hardi about travelling to the Hungarian border to help out at the front line.
“We have seen a huge number of refugees at the railway stations in Budapest and have heard that the situation at the border is really catastrophic and chaotic.”
In an email, Dr. Lilla Hardi explains why she and 11 colleagues from the Cordelia Foundation rehabilitation centre decided to travel to the border between Hungary and Serbia last month. They made two trips to assess the refugee situation and to offer their support to those in need of rehabilitation services.
On their first trip they were denied access to the refugees. However, on their second trip they managed to treat a number of people each day.
According to Dr. Hardi, most of the refugees she saw seemed to be doing relatively well physically, but suffered from serious mental health problems as a direct result of the traumatising events they had experienced.
“Many of the newly arrived refugees were in a very bad state mentally. They were very exhausted and desperate,” she writes. “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.”
Empirical studies by the Chamber of Psychotherapists in Germany echo this assessment, suggesting that at least half of the refugees coming to the country have mental health problems because of the trauma suffered in war or during their dangerous escapes. An even bigger number of these refugees have been subjected to human rights violations, including torture, says the Chamber.
In the ongoing political debate, there seems to be hardly any focus on early identification of torture victims among newly arrived refugees and no coordinated response schemes are available. Currently, the work carried out by the Cordelia Foundation and other organisations in support of traumatised refugees is largely done on a voluntary basis. This shows how urgent the need is for States to acknowledge their obligation and provide the resources and mechanisms to support and protect victims of torture.
However, in Hungary, the government’s response to the crisis so far has been to close off a railway track used by tens of thousands of refugees to enter the European Union on foot. This is all part of its crackdown on refugees coming from Serbia.
Personally, Dr. Hardi did not experience any hostility from Hungarian police, but she notes how strange it is to see police officers wearing masks and gloves. “They wear them in the belief that it prevents them from getting ‘contaminated’,” she explains.
The fact that Hungarian police officers find it necessary to wear masks and gloves to protect themselves from disease and contamination illustrates the general lack of compassion for the refugees coming to Europe and the lack of understanding there is for what many of them have been through.
“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,” writes 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.
The team from the Cordelia Foundation also alerted the local authorities to the fact that the family needed help.
“We introduced them to our local therapist and our psychiatrist who is in charge of our clients on a weekly basis. She has been taking care of the family since then. We immediately wrote a short medical report on their state ordering them to be released as they belong to the vulnerable group. However, the authorities did not release them. Instead they extended their stay in detention by another 30 days.”
With the situation in Syria unchanged and other armed conflicts continuing to disrupt the Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan region, hundreds of thousands are left with no other choice than to flee war, violence and human rights abuses, torture being one of them.
When asked what she thinks will happen, Dr. Hardi replies:
“Nobody knows. The situation is permanently changing.”