Archive for category Fighting Torture Q&A

Fighting Torture: Q&A with Jens Modvig

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

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

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Jens Modvig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: How has this work changed since you started?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What are your hopes for the future?

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

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

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

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Fighting Torture: Q&A with Alba Mejia

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

Alba Mejia is the Assistant Director of the Centre for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and their Families (CPTRT), in Honduras, a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. She tells us how securing funding for the sector continues to be a challenge and how the Honduran military, which runs the country’s prison service, is more focused on punishment and vigilance, rather than rehabilitation.

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Alba Mejia

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

I am a social worker, and hold a master’s degree. I am currently working at CPTRT where many of our clients are in detention, deprived of liberty.

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

I have worked with torture victims since 1995, which is the same year that CPTRT was founded.

Q: How did you end up doing this work?

This work is the culmination of activities I have been involved in throughout my life as a human rights defender. When I was young, I participated intensively in the fight for the rights of workers in the health and education sectors. I also worked in the defence of higher education students, where I observed how groups of young people were tortured when they were forcibly recruited into the military. That is why I got involved in the movement that fought to make military service voluntary rather than obligatory.

In addition, all my social engagement has been related to the prevention of violence against women and I actually founded the movement, “Women for peace/Visitación Padilla’, which I was involved in for 15 years. As part of my work with CPTRT, I have been in contact with people deprived of liberty and I have seen the consequences of torture on the bodies of victims. This is why I now feel committed to defending their rights.

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

Sometimes I run into people who have been deprived of liberty who I have interacted with during different workshops. When they see me they stop and greet me, they remind me of the experiences they have gone through and how the CPTRT’s support has positively affected their lives.

Q: How has this work changed you since you started?

This work has strengthened my convictions about the need to deeply engage in changing national and international structures, which are the cause of the exploitation, oppression and repression of those impoverished in the world.

Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors in Honduras?

At CPTRT, we refer to the people we work with as being ‘deprived of liberty’. Their situation is critical and they do not enjoy the full right to rehabilitation. Lack of access to education, health care and employment are also serious problems. These issues are further exacerbated due to overcrowded living conditions in prisons and detention centres. All of this constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, which is very close to torture.

Q: What is a typical day in the office/field for you?

In my management position, I regularly meet with my colleagues to co-ordinate meetings with state operators so we can maintain institutional communication with other organisations to handle and define strategies for dealing with torture cases.

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

The biggest obstacle is that unfortunately the government has delegated the administration of the penitentiary system to the military. If the possibilities for rehabilitation before were minimal, now they have been reduced even more because the military focuses on punishment and vigilance, rather than rehabilitation.

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

Globally, there is not enough funding for the rehabilitation of victims. This is then reinforced by the limited influence that can be exerted to ensure that states make funding available for the rehabilitation of torture survivors.

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?

Torture is an experience that stays with the survivors for their entire life. Regardless of how much therapy they receive, their brain will always remember the suffering and the horror of such a traumatic experience. Torture affects the behaviour of survivors and often does not allow them to be happy because they have to deal with many fears that stay with them for their entire lives.

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

By example. We should try to be defenders of human rights, both in the office and outside the office. Wherever there is injustice, we need to fight it and turn it into a positive change.

 

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Fighting Torture: Q&A with Tika Ram Pokharel

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

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.

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Tika Ram Pokharel

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.

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Fighting Torture: Q&A with Svetlana Popa

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In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people 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?

Svetlana Popa is a psychologist at IRCT member, the Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims “Memoria” in the Republic of Moldova. She explains the challenges facing the rehabilitation sector in Moldova and how many donors want to measure the impact of torture and the profile of perpetrators, forgetting that survivors cannot wait until a policy will be written and made available.

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

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Svetlana Popa

I am a psychologist and I work as a project assistant at the Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims “Memoria” (RCTV Memoria) in Republic of Moldova.

Q: How long have you worked on torture rehabilitation and human rights?

I have been a part of the anti-torture movement since 2014.

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

I was working as a psychologist and also teaching English at a local school when I heard about a job opening at RCTV Memoria, interpreting for a supervisor psychotherapist. I thought it was an amazing opportunity to combine my two passions – English and psychology. The work the staff members were doing fascinated me, so I decided to stay even after the supervisor psychotherapist had left.

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

There is no justice. No rehabilitation services are provided by the state. Torture victims have no future.

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

My typical day consists of lots of communication with stakeholders, writing reports, planning events, checking with other staff members on what they do and how can I support them, constantly looking for funds and collecting data and filling in the Data in the Fight Against Impunity (DFI) database. We are one of 32 rehabilitation centres that are part of the DFI project; collecting clinical data and integrating the documentation of torture at all stages of the rehabilitation process.

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

When, after four sessions, my first client came in smiling for the first time I knew I was doing the right thing.

Q: How has this work changed since you started?

In the last two years the overall situation has stayed the same. Regarding the work we do we started focusing on more creative ways of doing communication and advocacy and I hope it will make the situation better.

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

A lack of funding; rehabilitation is not supported by state authorities and the majority of donors keep measuring the impact of torture, its methods, and the profile of perpetrators and forget about the survivors who cannot wait until a policy will be written and made available.

Q: What are your hopes for the future?

My personal dream is that rehabilitation will not be necessary because we won’t have any victims of torture to support. Unfortunately this is only a dream, but I hope that someday states will take responsibility for acts of torture that have been committed and will start to provide torture survivors with the rehabilitation they need.

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?

Torture is a horrible act. It defines the most inhuman act that a person can do and by denying it we won’t make it stop happening. It is only by bearing witness to victims’ sufferings that we can end torture.

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

Start by getting more information about the rehabilitation movement in your home country, you will find plenty of information online. There are lots of things you can do – visit the rehabilitation centre in your area, volunteer, donate, speak up for victims’ rights, simply care!

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Fighting Torture: Q&A with Andrés Gautier

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In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people 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?

Up next in the series is Andrés Gautier, the co-founder of the Institute for Research and Therapy of Torture Sequels and State Violence (ITEI) in Bolivia. Andrés speaks about making the transition from working in a private practice to a rehabilitation centre and how torture not only affects the victim but also their family and the entire community.

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Andrés Gautier

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

I am a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst at the Institute for Research and Therapy of Torture Sequels and State Violence in Bolivia (ITEI).

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

Since 2001, so for 15 years.

Q: How did you end up doing this work?

I was working as a psychotherapist in a private practice in Switzerland and met and married a Bolivian refugee who is a psychologist. We had planned to go to Bolivia and happened to go to a seminar where there was a psychotherapist from the Service for Social Rehabilitation (SERSOC) in Uruguay, who spoke about the work they were doing with torture victims. We thought it made sense to run a similar project in Bolivia so looked into if a centre already existed. It didn’t, so we went back and founded one in 2001.

Torture is related to society. When I was a psychotherapist in Switzerland I was focused on individual harm, but working with torture victims is about social harm. When working with torture victims you are involved in society in a way you are never involved when you are working in a private setting. This can make some colleagues afraid. For me it is a fascinating situation. You have to go out from your private practice. You have to make denunciations and announcements and speak out against injustice.

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

When we founded the centre, most of our friends said torture is from the past, we’re a democracy now. But the reality is different. We had to treat victims of the dictatorship which ended in 1982. On the other side, the tradition of torture and ill treatment by the police and army has remained. The mentality remained. Nowadays torture is increasing.

It is recognised that there are flaws in the Justice system, but no action is taken and torture is routinely used to get a confession. There’s seldom use of scientific investigation methods, merely force. The presumption of innocence is seldom respected, so as soon as someone is detained they are exposed to ill treatment. It is also becoming more frequent for the police to demand a bribe, saying they will torture you if you don’t pay.

Q: What is a typical day in the office/field for you?

Life is unpredictable in Bolivia but my appointments with clients help to set some kind of routine that I try to keep, even though it is difficult. When I am in the office I have three to four appointments with clients each day. I also visit several prisons regularly. Every Monday I go to the prison for men and every Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon I visit the women’s prison and see three to five clients.

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?

It is an illusion to think that torture is something that can be forgotten. When there is one incident you can be sure that it is not isolated. The tendency to torture is there, it is contagious, like gangrene.

The torture victims are affected and their families are affected. Also the perpetrator, they become ill and develop sadistic tendencies. So the state becomes the first producer of delinquency.

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

These people are very important because they have the courage not to look away. These people are conscious of society. As one concentration camp survivor said, “It is not I that is ill, it is society that is ill”. When people support organisations like Amnesty International and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) financially or by being ready to hear and share what is happening this is important because the perpetrators or state want silence.

To break and sustain this broken silence is very important. We are very grateful to these people who feel solidarity with us.

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Fighting Torture: Q&A with Flutra Gorana

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In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people 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?

In the latest installment, we speak with Flutra Gorana, the Executive Manager at Centre Nassim, a project of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), which offers rehabilitation to victims of torture through multi-disciplinary professional support and case management. She speaks about how she first volunteered for an agency for refugees in 1999 and has been involved in human rights work ever since, the situation for torture survivors in Lebanon and how every single person who stands in solidarity with survivors can make a difference.

FlutraQ: How long have you worked in torture rehabilitation and human rights?

In 1999 I started to volunteer for a refugee resettlement agency. Ever since I have been working with NGOs. Also with victims of human trafficking, 100% of whom are survivors of torture. Prior to starting to work at CLDH – Centre Nassim in November 2015, I worked with disadvantaged youth in New York. It was a programme for young people from low socio economic neighbourhoods who didn’t finish high school. The idea was for them to graduate from high school and get a good job, not just a minimum wage job but a profession.

Q: How did you end up doing this work?

In 1999 it was a time when Kosovan refugees were coming into the US. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended and the war in Kosovo was going on. Because I speak both languages I was translating in a camp in the US receiving refugees. It’s a job where you go home and feel fulfilled. You can’t save everyone but can see the impact you have on each and every person.

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

One time I remember is when a family from Kosovo came to New York. I was helping with everything the agency provided. The old man in the family got up and gave me a big hug and said, “I don’t know where we would be without you”.

Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors where you are/area you’re involved with or your home country?

In Lebanon there is very little support for torture victims. There are only three agencies in the whole country. Now there are 1.3 million Syrian refugees in the country and more coming. The need is great and the resources and capacity don’t match the demand. 70% of our clientele are Syrian.

Q: What is a typical day in the office/field for you?

We have a very dynamic office. The staff are great. We have two psychologists, one social worker, an assistant, a doctor, a lawyer and a co-ordinator. We also have five lawyers that work mostly outside the office in prisons and detention centres. On the days when the psychologists and doctor are in we all need to be available because we know we will have an influx of clients. Sometimes it can be as simple as giving them extra clothes or food kits. I also do a lot of negotiation with UNHCR and other organisations to try and get refugees resettled. Then also a lot of report writing, financial management and staff management. It’s a mix of everything.

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

In Lebanon it is not recognised that torture exists or at least the government do not make any comments about it. This means there is no government support, so all the funding comes from outside organisations and foundations. This is the biggest challenge. The stigma around torture is also a challenge. Beneficiaries want to come to the centre when no one is around. We try to explain to them that it is not only torture victims who use our services and they don’t need to be ashamed. It’s also a challenge to ensure staff are safe.

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?

Torture is very much happening in many countries. What people need to understand, especially those who say it is needed, is that if a person is being tortured they will say anything to make it stop. It is not an effective way to interrogate someone. It humiliates the victims, destroys their life, their family’s life and society in general.

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

By voicing their opinion, in any discussion, even just around the kitchen table. By educating their family and friends that torture is wrong. Starting small can lead to bigger things. If they have the power to write to government officials and legislators they can do so. They can also support organisations that do this work, not only financially, sometimes moral support can mean more.

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Fighting Torture: Q&A with Guy Mulunda Kitwe

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In this 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?

For the third entry in our Q&A series, we speak with Guy Mulunda Kitwe, about his work as a psychologist at the SAVE CONGO Rehabilitation Centre, the legacy of rape and torture in the DRC and the ongoing struggle for funding.

Cropped13Q: What is your profession and where do you work?

I am a psychologist at the SAVE CONGO rehabilitation centre in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Q: How long have you worked with torture survivors?

I have worked with torture victims since 2003. I was initially working with USAID as a psychologist on a programme for abandoned children.

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

It was during the armed conflict in 1997. Many women and children experienced torture and mass violence and I just thought how come so many people are suffering from torture. It was then that I decided to work for the anti-torture movement.

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

Torture is widespread in the DRC. For many years the country was known as the centre of rape because of the violence against women. This continued for a long time and now we’re seeing the consequences. Women have had children as a result of the rape and for most victims the trauma continues. We have many clients who experienced torture a long time ago, but are only now seeking help at our centre. This is because the security in the country has improved thanks to the UN peacekeeping forces and a hardworking government.

In the DRC, there are still some rebel groups in the mountains and in the villages, but the number has gone down from 24 to just five to six groups. It is still a long process to treat victims of torture. We are the only centre in the DRC that is working specifically with victims of torture. Sometimes we receive clients referred to us by the UNHCR and UNICEF. We have a close working relationship with these and other UN agencies.

Q: What does your work mean to you?

For me, working with victims of torture means to respect human beings. My work has truly taught me to respect other people. It has also allowed me to progress/grow personally and professionally, especially in relation to increasing my knowledge and ability to working with people.

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

In 2000, many torture victims did not have access to rehabilitation. If, for example, they went to a hospital, they would not be given specific treatment. However, over the years, SAVE CONGO has built and developed a range of services. Now victims know where to go and other organisations, such as the hospitals know where to send victims. Another thing is training, which is something we are able to offer because of our work with organisations like the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). I am proud to say that we have supported more than 8,000 torture victims.

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

The change is that many organisations and hospitals are now involved in the fight against torture.

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

The lack of funding for rehabilitation centres. We are receiving more and more victims of torture, but sadly we do not have sufficient funding to do our job. This means that we have limited resources such as staff.

Q: What do you think needs to be done to make the right to rehabilitation a reality?

In the DRC, the state needs to take responsibility for all the people in the country and do everything in its power to support torture victims. At the moment, there is no national programme on torture and this is something that we really need.

Q: What are your hopes for the future?

My hope is that torture rehabilitation will be available for all victims of torture.

 

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Fighting Torture: Q&A

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

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

Asger Kjærum

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

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

Q: How long have you worked with torture survivors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What does your work mean to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What are your hopes for the future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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