Posts Tagged civil society

Fighting Torture: Q&A with Jens Modvig


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.


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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Documentary delves into relationship between survivors and those who offer them treatment

Refuge (2)“More than one million refugees have come to the US, fleeing torture and political violence,” begins Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture, an outstanding new documentary from the Refuge Media Project.

The vast numbers are staggering, but what makes a greater impression in this stand-out documentary are the small, individual stories from survivors and those who offer them care and support as they resettle in the US.

Ben Achtenberg, project director at the Refuge Media Project and producer/director of Refuge, says the film – seven years in the making – came about as his general interest in healthcare and mental health issues drew him to organisations and healthcare providers that offer support to survivors in the US. Previously, he was nominated for an Oscar for the film Code Gray: Ethical Dilemmas in Nursing, which he produced and served as cinematographer. Mr Achtenberg also won the 2009 IRCT Film Competition for his 30-second public service announcement.

“During the same period, I had started contributing to organizations that work with survivors and, in particular, was receiving the newsletters of Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis and similar groups around the country, about their work with survivors. At some point, it clicked that this was the film I should focus on.”

The stories presented in the approximately one-hour film are diverse, from a physician from Guatemala to an older man from Liberia who wishes to move his daughter to the US. They have different stories of torture, different stories of migration to the US, but they have all sought refuge and have found their way to the various featured torture treatment programmes, many of which are IRCT members. (A full list of organisations featured in the film can be found on their website)

Through the stories of survivors, both devastating and inspiring, we take home still another call to action – that healthcare professionals will, in fact, see a survivor of torture during their work, and they need to know what to look for and how to approach it so that the person can receive appropriate care.

“People who have survived torture are living everywhere in our communities, though you may not know who they are,” says Mr Achtenberg. “If you’re in or going into a healthcare or human services profession, you will encounter torture survivors in your client population. How you deal with them can have an impact on their ability to thrive in their new communities.”

It’s a delicate and caring relationship between the health professionals – doctors, therapists, social workers – and the survivors of torture they treat. “It’s a doctor that can listen to you and make you feel like you’re a human being,” says one survivor in the film. Another describes a mural painted by survivors at a centre in Boston: “We come from our countries, swimming across and arrive here naked, but you pick us up and give us back what we have lost.”

This wonderful film offers a unique perspective into the world of torture survivors, their experiences and reservations opening up, and into the world of the care-givers, as they approach the formidable task of helping them recover their dignity and life.

For more information on the film, please visit To order a DVD of the documentary, email Ben at to inquire about pricing.

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Live from Yaounde: “We are all links in a chain”

Editor’s Note: Tessa writes from the IRCT’s Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Seminar taking place in Yaounde, Cameroon.

As we’ve mentioned before, work in nongovernmental organisations (NGO – another acronym we use with ease within this little world) can use a particular language and methods that don’t really reflect to the outside world their true meaning and impact. We speak of meetings and projects with an air of great importance, but often struggle to explain why? Why is a meeting, of all things, so important and why do we focus so much on them?

This has been one of the goals of this blog – to shed some light underneath the veil of NGO-ese and the NGO methods to explain clearly, what is the impact of our work.

One the IRCT’s projects, Non-State Actors (NSA) is one such project riddled with this problem of communicating why meetings are so important.

I am writing right now from one of these meetings. I’m in Cameroon at the Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Seminar, co-hosted by the IRCT and our member Trauma Centre Cameroon (TCC). This is my first time to attend one of these meetings, and I firstly feel so privileged to be here and meet so many people within the torture rehabilitation movement; but I also feel like I’m only now beginning to understand the impact of these seminars and meetings.

This seminar has brought together 31 representatives – psychologists, counsellors, directors of centres, and social workers – from torture rehabilitation centres from all over sub-Saharan Africa. There are people here from Chad, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and of course, our gracious hosts and ridiculously hard-working staff of TCC, among others.

The title of this five-day seminar is “Learning from each other.” Our goal in being here is to do just that – learn from each other’s respective experiences in rehabilitating torture survivors, gaining access to justice and preventing torture from happening in the first place.

But our first task was simply to make sure we were all OK. Working for a world without torture in sub-Saharan Africa can be a phenomenally difficult task, as one can imagine from the media. Torture here is undeniably prevalent, whether during military uprisings, former dictatorships, ongoing torture from police officers, or in post-conflict settings. And working for the rehabilitation of torture survivors can be both personally taxing for the individual and intimidating, as we have seen from the threats to human rights defenders around the world.

So, in bringing these 31 individuals together, we tried to address these issues. Presenters from various centres explained their strategies for safety as human rights defenders. Fidelis Mudimu, from Counselling Services Unit (CSU) in Zimbabwe, was among three staff members arbitrarily arrested and detained. He spoke about strategies to assess risks. For example, the greater impact of a centre’s work – bringing forth more perpetrators to account for their crimes, documenting that torture has taken place, empowering victims through rehabilitation – can of course increase the risks that human rights defenders face because they challenge the impunity of perpetrators. Knowing the impact of one’s work can keep that defender aware of when they might provoke a threat.

Taiga Wanyanja, coordinator of Mateso – Mwatikho Torture Survivors Organization in Kenya, spoke about ways in which human rights defenders can mitigate against risks. Keep abreast of not only the context in which one is working, but how it changes. Is there political unrest or upcoming elections, such as the situation in Kenya in 2008 that resulted in many incidents of torture? Make sure the office itself is safe – in a well-lit area and not isolated and easily attacked.

But human rights defenders need to be mentally safe in addition to physically safe. When working in the fight against torture, it is both understandable and a considerable risk that human rights defenders may become traumatised, burned-out or facing other mental health challenges because of the nature of their work. Secondary trauma – trauma that comes from hearing and witnessing the stories of torture and violence all day, everyday – is a problem among those in human rights work, perhaps particularly in anti-torture organisations.

So, back to meetings. What is the purposing of bringing forth all these people from all over the continent to learn these things? Because, as Fidelis said, “We are a chain. And we are only as strong as our weakest link.” It is critically important for the safety – both physical and mental safety – that everyone learns from each other. This is learning from both successes and failures, knowing what works and what doesn’t, in fighting torture within each country, context and community.

Tessa MollTessa is Communications Officer at the IRCT. The regional meeting, part of the NSA project, was funded by the European Commission.

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