Archive for category Latin America & the Caribbean
“When we work with persons who have been tortured or victims of violence without seriously questioning and denouncing the existence of this continuum of violence, we run the risk that our support can become yet another act of violence, even without intending so. And because of this, as professionals and as members of humanitarian organisations, it is necessary to develop an internal alarm system sensitive to this reality.”
In her post on the Hilton Prize Coalition website, youth psychologist Gabriela Monroy offers readers a glimpse into one of the projects currently being implemented under the Hilton Prize Coalition’s Collaborative Models Program. Coalition members Covenant House International and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) are working together to develop a comprehensive set of materials on issues related to trauma informed care. These materials will be used for training and as reference for healthcare workers and specialists to better understand the effects of trauma and how to approach traumatised youth.
(From Hilton Prize Coalition, by Gabriela Monroy)
I am a psychologist at La Alianza, Covenant House International’s (CHI) safe house for trafficked and sexually exploited girls in Guatemala. I am also the CHI regional coordinator in Latin America for the Hilton Prize Coalition’s Collaborative Models Program on trauma-informed care, which is being carried out by the IRCT and CHI. I was invited to attend the 10th International Scientific Symposium organised by the IRCT in December 2016 in Mexico City. When I received the invitation, I very much looked forward to the opportunity to learn from survivors of torture and those who work to support them. I knew I had much to learn and much to share. After three days of listening to the presentations and experiences from different countries, I began to realise that in many countries across the globe like mine, “normal” is similar to a war zone where death, torture, rape, abuse and abandonment of children is the norm and life is a continuum of traumatic events. The exception is a moment of human and humane interaction– which is what we strive to accomplish at La Alianza.
At La Alianza, young girls who are survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation find an environment that offers them the opportunity to finally be treated as human beings, in a dignified, respectful and non-violent way. For some of them, the violence in their lives has been so overwhelming that it can feel traumatic to be treated in such a humane fashion. Using a trauma informed care lens in my day-to-day work as a youth psychologist, I see, after some time of working with them, that the impact on their lives is visible. Society seems so surprised at the transformation that care, affection, and dignified treatment can produce. It is ironic because acting in a humane way should be the most common thing we do as humans, yet it still surprises us even more than the violence itself.
Every single presentation at the Symposium presented the testimonies and experiences of survivors on this continuum of violence and torture as examples of integrity and dignity. This simple reflection on my experience of this symposium hopefully will be a recognition and a homage to their courage and an expression of my respect for each one’s journey and all they have gone through.
When we work with persons who have been tortured or victims of violence without seriously questioning and denouncing the existence of this continuum of violence, we run the risk that our support can become yet another act of violence, even without intending so. And because of this, as professionals and as members of humanitarian organisations, it is necessary to develop an internal alarm system sensitive to this reality.
Also, we need to realise that best practices for dealing with survivors of torture and violence need to be based in respect for their day-to-day experience and respect for the ways they have survived, and if we can recognise this then we may be able to transform the norm that violence has become into the exception. This is my hope. I am grateful to the Hilton Prize Coalition for giving me the opportunity to be a witness to such courage.
About the Hilton Prize Coalition
The Hilton Prize Coalition is an independent alliance of the 21 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize — working together globally to advance their unique missions and achieve collective impact in humanitarian assistance, human rights, development, education and health. Through its three Signature Programmes — the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows Programme, the Disaster Resiliency and Response Programme and the Storytelling Programme – the Coalition is continually leveraging the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate new models for consideration.
For more information please visit their website.
The concept of collective memory can be used to provide psychosocial support to victims of torture, as well as reminding society of past atrocities. Professor Carlos Beristain, who is a physician, specialist in health education and doctor in psychology, believes collective memory can help survivors make sense of the trauma they have experienced.
“The memory of what happened hurts, because it brings torture victims’ experience into the present day. Yet it also demands that the victim regain their dignity. The key is the psychosocial support. For victims of torture and other human rights violations, memory can help create a social framework for recognising their experiences, which they often have to keep inside or hide in silence. Memory also contributes to insuring the same trauma never happens again.”
This is how Professor Beristain explains the power of victims’ memory when it comes to healing. Having worked with victims since 1988, he has seen first-hand how collective memory can help torture victims understand their experiences better.
Beristain started out by focusing on the diagnosis of injuries caused by torture and the analysis of medical reports of cases in the Basque Country and in other countries. “In 1989 I went to El Salvador to train lawyers, doctors, psychologists and social workers on the documentation of cases, medical aspects of psychosocial care for victims and strengthening the community against the risk of arrest and torture, since this was a systematic practice during the war,” he explains.
He knows only too well the consequences of torture and how it can affect entire communities. “In 1990 I went to Guatemala for the first time because other human rights organisations were interested in my work, even though there were no survivors in Guatemala because few political prisoners survived. Providing support to the relatives of disappeared persons and those killed in the massacres were the most important issues at the time. In Guatemala we learned about other forms of torture, such as acts of torture against the general public during the massacres and survivors who witnessed these acts, as well as the enormous impact of terror on Mayan communities.”
These experiences have reinforced his believe in the importance of collective memory. “It can especially help in expressing their experiences in a positive sense. Because it is not only the pain and what happened that is important, it is also their resistance to it and their fighting spirit.
“Many victims see their experiences reflected in the more global work of collective memory, reaffirming themselves as a person and letting go of the negative image they have of themselves that creates a stigma where they or others feel they deserved to be tortured.”
Beristain was part of the Interdisciplinary Group created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2015 that investigated the case of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa in Guerrero. A high profile case that attracted press attention from across the globe. He explains that, “Our work consisted of accompanying the victims, investigating the case and what happened the students, restoring a dialogue with the state and supporting them in analysing the reports and allegations about torture.”
Professor Beristain has been working with the relatives of disappeared persons in Mexico for several years. “Some of them have survived kidnapping, and all of them suffered from the impact of the torture of forced disappearances and the lack of a state response to these atrocities. During workshops we ran we made space to share, to cry and to try to understand what had happened, despite the pain of many participants,” he says.
“Through our work and support, many relatives have gone on to lead organisations, to have direct contact with the authorities, to review records or to take action, even in situations of repression or intimidation. The psychosocial support my colleagues and I have provided has played an important role in the development of these processes and organisations.”
Professor Beristain will speak about survivor participation in research and treatment planning at the upcoming IRCT International Scientific Symposium, which takes place in Mexico from 4 to 7 December. It is closely connected with collective memory and a topic that he feels strongly about. “Survivors should be involved from the start. Firstly, because torture victims are in a process of regaining the control of their lives on their own terms and their ability to make decisions and take an active role is fundamental. Secondly, because of their experiences. Although their memories might be fragmented or limited, they can provide the group with a more positive perspective and act as an example for others,” he says.
During a workshop with women survivors in Columbia, one of the survivors, who is also the leader of a women’s organisation, said, “It’s the first time in ten years that I stopped feeling guilty.” This was as a result of speaking with others in the group. We know that guilt can fill the space where the person tries to make sense of what happened and this guilt has a way of trying to take control of the situation, as well as having an enormous psychological impact on the person.”
While much progress is being made in the sector, Professor Beristain says more is needed to, “Help survivors face the consequences of their experiences, while reinforcing social ties and strengthening the social fabric of communities. In other words, it is not only a question of reducing suffering, but also contributing to the fight by tackling its causes. It is important to support victims and strengthen their psychological state and ability to integrate in society, as well as helping them to take their case to court and strengthen their ties with other victims so they can play an active role and not be the passive victim.”
“When I got out of jail, I stayed in my house for a year,” says Claudia. “I cried, and I suffered so much. I had had plans for the future with my partner, but when I got out of jail, he left me. I felt like the whole world had turned its back on me because I was a rape victim. During that time, I began to drink a lot, and I started to go to a lot of bars. I did many things I didn’t normally do. And then I realised that the government had tied me up for a moment. They laid the first stone of my destruction. But even with all of this, I said to myself, ‘I am still Claudia! I am still Claudia! I was raped, but this does not take away my dignity.”
These are the words of Claudia. She is one of the 45 women arrested by police in Mexico one morning in May 2006 at a market square where they sold flowers. Dozens were seriously injured, two people were killed and many of those arrested sexually assaulted. The women have never received justice for what they experienced and continue to fight the impunity of their perpetrators. They have become known around the world because of their fight for justice.
In September this year, a little over 10 years since the event, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) filed an application with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in relation to their case. The Commission noticed the “existence of severe acts of physical and psychological violence, including diverse forms of sexual violence against the eleven women and rape in the case of seven women”.
This development is a milestone in the struggle of the Women of Atenco, as not a single person has been convicted of any crime related to the assaults. In 2013 the state partially admitted responsibility, but the Women of Atenco say it has failed to deliver justice as the federal forces involved in the assaults have never received sanctions.
In addition, after the events of 3 May the state initially prosecuted several of the women rather than the police officers involved. Five were imprisoned for a year or more, on charges such as blocking traffic. Achieving some sense of justice may go some way to helping the women overcome the trauma of their past. “I have not overcome it, not even a little. It is something that haunts me and you don’t survive. It stays with you,” says Maria Patricia Romero Hernández, one of the women, in a previous interview.
The IACHR had previously recommended that the state arrange full reparation for the victims, including providing them with medical and psychological treatment, continue its investigations effectively to “fully establish what happened, and to identify and punish the different grades of responsibility, from the material authors to other forms of responsibility”.
However, the Commission was not satisfied that the Mexican state followed its recommendations and has now stepped up its action by filing the application. A ruling made by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights would be binding, unlike the recommendations, and could create a judicial precedent that could prevent further sexual abuses by federal security forces.
The fact that the case is finally receiving the attention it deserves has not stopped the Women of Atenco from continuing to spread their message and two of them, Italia Mendez and Norma Jimenez, will be keynote speakers at the upcoming IRCT 10th International Scientific Symposium in December in Mexico City. The women will speak in a session on survivor participation in research and treatment planning and will share their experiences.
“We are those who did not surrender to the misogyny of the state, and rejected the place that perpetrators assigned to us. They tried to take our identity, but we responded by shouting our name out loudly and reclaiming our right to be. We are breaking paradigms, taboos and raising awareness about the stigmatisation of survivors,” says Italia.
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America and ongoing human rights violations have forced thousands of people to flee the country. Based in the capital, Tegucigalpa, IRCT member CPTRT offers relief and support to those affected by violence and torture.
For a country of less than 10 million, Honduras faces some big challenges. High rates of poverty and unemployment, as well as a poor human rights record have led to thousands of Hondurans fleeing their country. For those who stay, organised violence, rape and torture are real threats.
This is the harsh context, in which organisations like the Centre for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Relatives (CPTRT) operate.
Founded in 1995 by doctor, politician and human rights activist Juan Almendarez, CPTRT has become a leader within its field and a strong voice in the fight against torture. The centre employs a team of doctors, psychologists and social workers, as well as a group of volunteers.
Over the years, this team has successfully treated thousands of victims of torture and violence, but it is often a case of too much demand and not enough supply. CPTRT is one of just a few torture rehabilitation centres in Honduras, and as the national health system does not recognise torture as a health problem, there is little specialised treatment or rehabilitation available.
A paradox perhaps, given the many accounts of torture that CPTRT encounters. Gustavo N. Peña, Psychologist and Project Coordinator at CPTRT says the centre deals with many different types of victims, “from those who speak out against human rights abuses to the families of those in prison, students and those deprived of liberty”.
Since the army ousted President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, the country has struggled with violence and unrest. The majority of victims of violence are women, children and the young people as well as activists and political leaders. Women and children in particular are often vulnerable and easy targets for the perpetrators who are usually never punished.
To change this, holding perpetrators responsible is a key issue for the CPTRT. The centre is committed to fighting impunity and by providing technical and legal assistance, it does everything it can to help its clients get access to justice but this is not easy as many victims do not want to speak out.
“Fundamentally, torture contributes to the development of a widespread sense of insecurity and fear that paralyses citizens and stops them from demanding justice. The population prefers to keep silent about the abuses that it is subjected to,” says Gustavo N. Peña.
In addition to its legal and technical assistance, CPTRT looks at the physical, cognitive and emotional health of its clients, using medical, alternative and psychological treatment to individuals and their relatives. It also runs capacity building programmes with various community group
Looking at a recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO) on health worker-to-population ratio in Honduras, it is easy to see why CPTRT’s services are in demand.
According to the WHO, there is an extreme shortage of physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists in the country with as little as 20.8 physicians per 10,000 population. And to make matters worse for the many Hondurans exposed to torture, most of the physicians do not have the knowledge to recognise torture or carry out rehabilitation of torture victims.
Juan Almendarez, Director of CPTRT has previously spoken about how, “The number of human rights violations by the military is rising, and the threat is greater and growing because military police operate with their faces covered and without visible identification, which fans impunity.” Gustavo N. Peña agrees that this culture of impunity is a challenge to eradicating torture in Honduras saying he believes that, “Torture is seen as a mechanism of investigation, as well as punishment”.
Today, CPTRT is a key player within the Honduran human rights movement and despite the daily challenges they face, centre staff continue to dedicate their lives to making a difference; as Alba Mejia, Assistant Director at CPTRT says, “Wherever there is injustice, we need to fight it and turn it into a positive change”.
Across the globe there are many human rights defenders and organisations whose work has made an enormous difference to the fight against torture – yet we know very little about them and what they do. One such group is the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG), which consists of 35 of the world’s most eminent experts in the documentation and investigation of torture. Coming from 18 different countries, these experts have varied backgrounds ranging from forensic pathologists to clinical psychologists.
The objective of the IFEG is to use its members’ expertise as doctors, psychologist and psychiatrists to document and investigate torture and to secure justice for victims. As part of their work they go on documentation missions around the world, conducting physical and psychological evaluations of alleged torture victims. They also train health and legal professionals in how to document torture and help raise awareness among the public.
Dastan Salehi from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) recently spent a week with IFEG members Dr Maximo Alberto Duque Piedrahita and Dr Ana Deutsch on a mission in the Bolivian capital of La Paz. We asked Dastan to document the mission and as his pictures show, the work of the IFEG can take many different forms.
Dr Duque (left) and Dr Deutsch (right) spent one week in La Paz, Bolivia on a documentation mission, conducting physical and psychological evaluation on three people who allege they were subjected to torture in Bolivia.
Documentation missions are the bread and butter of the IFEG’s work. In a nutshell, they feature two IFEG experts (one medical doctor and one psychologist or psychiatrist) who travel to a particular country to conduct examinations on people who allege they have been tortured. This examination results in what is known as a ‘medico-legal report’, which seeks to medically and psychologically assess the correlation of the physical and psychological scars with the allegations of torture.
While in La Paz, the two experts delivered a workshop on the Istanbul Protocol, the key international instrument on the investigation and documentation of torture and ill-treatment. The workshop, which was hosted by local rehabilitation centre Instituto de Terapia y Investigacion (ITEI), looked at ways to improve effective documentation of torture and the obligations of health professionals to document and report cases of torture independently.
During the mission, the IFEG experts spent time with ITEI to share experiences and best practices and to discuss how they can best work together in the future to document torture.
The IFEG’s visit caught the attention of several local media outlets, which were all keen to interview them. In this one, Dr Duque appears alongside Andres Gautier, Lead Psychologist at ITEI, on the television programme Claroscuro con Angel Careaga to discuss the situation of torture in Bolivia and Latin America.
Dr Duque also met with journalists from Agencia de Noticias Fides Bolivia and was interviewed on Radio PanAmericana Bolivia to share his views on the situation in Bolivia, as well as to discuss the importance of the Istanbul Protocol.
Going on mission with the IFEG experts, Dastan Salehi quickly realised just how important their work is to the anti-torture movement and torture victims around the world.
“It was really inspiring to see Ana and Maximo at work. The way they spoke to and interacted with the victims and their families was just phenomenal. They didn’t treat them as just a case. They built rapport, shared and collaborated with them as people, and that was quite special.”
Each IFEG mission leaves behind a legacy of learning and inspiration, despite the difficult nature of the expert’s work; this was no different in La Paz.
A big thank you to Dastan for sharing his pictures with us. To find out more about the work of the IFEG click here.
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.
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.
Eight months ago, the future was finally starting to look bright for Yecenia Armenta Graciano. After spending more than two years in prison in the state of Sinaloa, having been accused of ordering her husband’s murder, a judge had ruled that Yecenia’s confession had been obtained through torture and therefore could not be used as evidence in the case. Her supporters saw the ruling as a victory for justice and hoped it would lead to her release. Yet Yecenia remains in prison today.
The picture Yecenia paints of her experience in July 2012 is one of torture, rape and threats. She alleges that plainclothes police officers arrested her not long after the murder of her husband, and tortured her for 15 hours.
During that time she says she was raped, tortured and threatened before she confessed to ordering her husband’s murder. Blindfolded, she signed the confession form. No one questioned or checked her injuries and marks of torture and she was imprisoned. As time went on, her visible injuries faded and eventually disappeared.
Various human rights groups have criticised the local authorities for dismissing Yecenia’s allegations and for protecting the perpetrators.
The criticism only grew louder when the Office of the Mexican Attorney-General conducted a medical and psychological examination of Yecenia concluding that there was no evidence of physical torture or mistreatment related to her allegations, and her psychological symptoms were not related to the allegations.
Then in early 2015, after carrying out examinations in accordance with the international standards set out in the Istanbul Protocol, two experts from the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) supported Yecenia’s claim that she had been tortured.
Based on these findings, the court ordered the State Attorney to further investigate the case and punish the perpetrators. To many, this was a sign that Yecenia would soon be free, but she is still behind bars, having spent more than three years away from her children.
In an Amnesty International Campaign demanding her immediate release, she wrote: “I’ve seen summers come and fade, people arrive at and then leave this place, and all the time my children are growing up, outside these walls. Three years of change and movement: but still I remain here. At times I must admit I’ve felt very tired, and defeated”.
Sadly, Yecenia’s story is not an isolated case. In May 2014, 11 female survivors of sexual torture launched the campaign “Breaking the Silence: together against sexual torture”, aiming to raise awareness of other cases of sexually tortured women. The women had been sexually tortured by a number of state forces, including the armed forces, the navy and the police, with many of them tortured into making false confessions for various crimes.
Human rights groups say that torture is rife in Mexico and is routinely used by the security forces to extract confessions or information. According to the “Breaking the Silence: together against sexual torture” campaign, Mexican women in particular are faced with a systematic pattern of sexual torture by state institutions that fail to provide the protection society expects of them.
Recently there have been some signs of action by the Mexican authorities to eradicate torture and combat impunity, but the number of convictions in cases of torture is low.
In the meantime, Yecenia is sitting in a prison cell in Northern Mexico, hoping that she will soon be reunited with her children. Her case is no longer with the State court of Sinaloa, but has been moved to the Supreme Court of Justice, where it is pending hearing.
After everything she has been through, human rights defenders remain hopeful that Mexico’s highest court will finally grant Yecenia her freedom.
In Yecenia’s own words: “Freedom is vital for any human being. Freedom helps us breathe, it helps us live fully. I also want to be free, free to be myself, just the way I am.”
To find out more or to sign Amnesty International’s petition to free Yecenia Armenta Graciano click here.
Despite great progress in the security over the past decades in Colombia, the use of torture is still systematic in the country.
In this blog, journalist and guest blogger Hannah Matthews, who lives in the Colombian capital Bogota, gives her view on the prevalence of torture and what attention needs to be given to the situation now to stop torture.
An almost invisible crime in the country, masked by the prevalence of extrajudicial killings and forced displacement, the issue of torture in Colombia deserves immediate international scrutiny.
It’s been one year since I moved to Bogota and, despite not witnessing torture first hand, I have encountered many human rights defenders who have spent time in prison under false charges of criminal or dissident activity.
Beyond the human rights field, social protest is criminalised at any available opportunity. Despite the peaceful nature of protests, tear gas canisters are frequently fired into the crowd and riot police adopt aggressive stances, igniting an otherwise peaceful demonstration.
Unfortunately my observations only support those made by the Colombian Coalition Against Torture, who outline how torture is used as a means of political persecution with the purpose of forcefully obtaining confessions or information, an discriminatory instrument of repression against social protest, or simply as a way to plant fear within Colombian society to prevent dissent against the authorities.
But the Colombian context is infinitely more complex than that. With so many different state and non-state actors in the mix, all torturing with different aims and purpose, complicated dynamics further convolute victims’ access to justice. The simple dichotomy between government and guerrilla groups, right and left, good and bad, that the international community continues to propagate is too simple and runs the risk of masking important issues and human rights violations that occur across the spectrum.
Due to the widespread fear and high risk associated with denouncing cases of torture, impunity reigns with very few cases ever being fully investigated or tried. Human rights defenders and other entities who speak out against the government are under constant threat of persecution and mistreatment, as are those who express their dissent through peaceful protest. The most recent and shocking examples of this could be seen in the police treatment of farmers and students marching in the agrarian strikes of this year and 2013. In 2013 at least 800 protesters were badly injured by the public security forces and 15 people were killed. Last year over 3,000 people were arrested during social protests.
Despite the ratification of the various human rights treaties, including the Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, rights to freedom of expression and freedom from torture are not respected, protected or fulfilled in Colombia. Colombia has still not ratified or applied the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT).
“Torture continues to be generalised and systematic in Colombia. It is perpetrated by the Public Force, by the paramilitaries and by the guerrillas, but the party principally responsible for these acts is the state,” said Isabelle Heyer, a member of the Colombian Jurists Commission.
This coalition has recorded instances of torture over the years in Colombia and has concluded that while the majority of cases continue to be committed by security forces, right wing militias and demobilized paramilitary groups are also at the heart of many incidences. Over 90% of the incidences of torture the coalition recorded between 2001 and 2009 were attributed to Colombian state forces, with less than 10% attributed to rebel guerrilla forces.
Current President Juan Manuel Santos has promised this year will see the signing of a historic peace agreement between the government and the most notorious guerrilla group, the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces). There is hope that this will establish a reconciliation process, but the country waits with baited breath. This process, if established, will be the tip of a huge iceberg in terms of restoring true justice and human rights principles, something very much needed for this war-torn country.
According to the Colombian Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science, 1,913 people presented signs of mistreatment between 2010 and 2014, 345 of which were women. Torture and inhuman and degrading treatment remain most common amongst the Colombian prison population.
Sexual violence against women and girls is one of the most pervasive modes of torture, with Ms. Heyer from the Colombian Jurists Commission calling it “an habitual, systematic and invisible practice, which enjoys impunity in the majority of cases and whose principal perpetrators are soldiers and police.”
Among the prison population, organisations have expressed their concern about the high levels of psychological torture within prisons, with some inmates experiencing a serious lack of access to fresh running water, sufficient hygiene facilities and medical attention, as well as being subjected to verbal abuse and mistreatment from the prison guards.
All of this torture and ill-treatment though is no recent phenomena. Forty years of internal conflict, coupled with the state’s misuse of power and crackdowns on social and political opposition, means torture in Colombia remains a pertinent issue indeed. Improvements are scarce and unprogressive and any real access to justice or rehabilitation has not been assured.
Yet much of the world goes on regardless. Perhaps Colombia is too far removed from the lives of others, or simply too unknown. But it cannot go on like this forever. More needs to be done to end torture in the country. Today.
To find out more about what the IRCT is doing in Colombia through member CAPS, click this link.
Through more than 140 rehabilitation centres across the globe, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) is the largest international network against torture, providing rehabilitation, justice and hope to victims of torture all over the world.
Although under the same umbrella, each of these organisations is unique and operates in a variety of contexts. There are centres working around the clock to deal with humanitarian crises – such as Restart in Lebanon, or the Institute for Family Health in Jordan, which are currently struggling to respond to the challenging influx of Syrian refugees, many of them victims of torture, and groups working with the victims of long past dictatorships, such as those of Latin America in in 1970s.
There are also centres focused on healing entire communities through group therapy and counselling in places where armed conflict created deep societal wounds, and centres who are working with victims of terrible, and often covered-up, state torture, in countries usually assumed democratic and free from torture.
The range of focus areas is vast and, to counter this, so are the different methods of rehabilitation: there are traditional methods of rehabilitation, from psychotherapy and counselling, to group projects focused on rebuilding a community; there are innovative programmes such as yoga sessions which offer physical solutions to long-term pain; storytelling classes and artistic events across centres allow survivors of torture to express their pain in a personal and enlightening way; and projects such as the natural growth project, run by Freedom From Torture, which allow survivors of torture to find their place in the world by reconnecting them with nature and society.
Despite the differences, these organisations share an aim: to create a world without torture.
Over the coming weeks we will be focusing on particular torture rehabilitation centres from across the globe, giving an insight into how they operate and the work they complete on a daily basis.
Every week we shall turn our attention to a different centre and showcase how the centres and programmes work within varying national and local contexts, with different target groups, and use a range of methods to address the effects of torture on individuals, families and communities.
Torture has far-reaching consequences. Rehabilitation too has a far-reaching impact, one which can assist a person, a family, a community, and even a region, in moving on from their past and into a pain-free life once more.
Join us from next week as we go behind-the-scenes of the centres.
This month has seen us fighting torture in the dental chair, calling for prompt investigations of torture in Ukraine, and welcoming a new member centre to the IRCT.
Below are a selection of the most popular stories from World Without Torture over the past month. Simply click the pictures and links to read the relevant piece.
Odontology and documenting torture
The most popular post this month focused on the increasingly sophisticated methods of torture exercised today, notably those which aim to go undetected by torturing the teeth of a victim.
But for the past 20 years, odontologists at the University of Copenhagen have been documenting the cases of torture they have seen so there is a better understanding of the increasing number of torture methods which aim to be impossible to identify.
Torture – coming to a cinema near you
With documentary The Act of Killing receiving an Oscar nomination – and fellow torture network Freedom From Torture discussing latest torture-themed film The Railway Man in the Guardian newspaper – we looked at just how realistic torture is being portrayed by the film industry today.
IRCT calls for investigations into reports of torture in Ukraine
As the anti-government protests in Ukraine continue, so do reports of state torture against protestors in the capital of Kiev.
With the help of a local newspaper in Kiev, the IRCT issued a statement calling for thorough and proper investigations into the torture claims. The IRCT continues to monitor the situation as it develops.
Calls to protect IRCT members in Bolivia and Mexico
Further calls of safety and investigation came from the IRCT this month to ensure the safety of staff across two centres in Bolivia and Mexico.
The Institute for Research and Therapy of Torture Sequels and State Violence (ITEI) in Bolivia reported a series of intimidating phone calls and death threats which have been present for almost three months now, and are calling on state officials to assue the necessary safety of human rights defenders at the centre – particularly in light of the robbery of the centre director (read more here).
In a similar vein, there have been concerns from IRCT member Colectivo contra la Tortura y la Impunidad (CCTI) that their staff are being defamed and targeted by the state. The IRCT called for the safety of the centre and for the necessary prosecution of those responsible for the alleged intimidation.
Working alongside the media to end torture
Another extremely popular blog this month came as an accompaniment to the publication of the stories of two torture survivors in Al Jazeera English (iPad edition). The stories of Damchoe and ‘AK’ – from Tibet and Armenia, respectively – explore two entirely different reasons for torture in two contrasting locations, but both stories follow their incredible path to recovery even in the face of extreme adversity.
Thanks once more to Al Jazeera English for working with us. If you have an iPad, you can download the magazine by clicking this link.
Helping Syrian refugees in Jordan
The conflict in Syria has created a huge refugee crisis, with almost 2.5 million refugees pouring into neighbouring countries. Jordan has accepted the bulk of the refugees – over 800,000 of them – and IRCT member Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) has been documenting the healing processes of these refugees from their branch inside Jordan.
However there have been some positive developments over the refugee crisis, notably the UK’s decision to accept Syrian refugees as soon as possible.
New IRCT member welcomed
The IRCT welcomed new member the Kirkuk Centre for Torture Victimsbased in northern Iraq. It is the second IRCT member in the country and will provide treatment to all victims of torture, particularly important with the influx of Syrian refugees to the region.
The centre has already helped around 2,000 victims of torture, over half of whom are women and children.
Also this month
We heard from IRCT Regional Coordinator for Europe, Mushegh Yekmalyan, about his recent trip Montenegro to report on the progress human rights defenders are making surrounding torture prevention in the Western Balkans.
Australia’s tough stance on migrants arriving by boat was featured once more, particularly as the policy as been hailed as a victory – all the while ignoring the human rights of the people the policy punishes.