Posts Tagged dignity
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.
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?
The Russian government has once again been criticised after introducing a new law that allows any foreign or international NGO to be declared “undesirable” and to be shut down. The law is the latest attempt to limit the impact of human rights organisations that are deemed anti-government. Adding to this, local and international NGOs continue to be targets of intimidation and discrimination.
Three staff from the Danish rehabilitation centre, Danish Institute Against Torture (DIGNITY) were fined and expelled from Russia while on a recent mission to provide technical assistance on trauma rehabilitation and prevention of torture. Their work with a Russian human rights organisation, the Committee Against Torture (NGO CAT) had been publicly announced, and despite having secured visas they were found to be in violation of Russian visa regulations.
DIGNITY and NGO CAT are both members of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and their aim is to support and treat survivors of torture. A mission that many governments value. Yet, in Russia, NGO CAT is one of many civil society organisations facing increasing hostility.
The Russian government recently introduced a new law that makes it possible to ban foreign NGOs and prosecute their employees, who risk up to six years in prison or being barred from the country. The law is the latest step in a series of restrictions on civil society, NGOs and human rights defenders.
In 2012, the Russian parliament adopted a new law that required NGOs to register as “foreign agents” if they engaged in “political activity” and received foreign funding. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), in Russia “foreign agent” can be interpreted only as “spy” or “traitor,” and there is little doubt that the law aims to demonise and marginalise independent advocacy groups.
NGO CAT are among the organisations labelled a foreign agent, and the centre fears that it could be forced to close down unless a court removes the tag. But as the Russian president Vladimir Putin seems set on imposing more restrictions on independent organisations and civil society, a removal of the tag is highly unlikely.
For NGO CAT, anti-NGO laws are not the only means of intimidation that the organisation is worried about. In December last year, the office of NGO CAT initiative, Joint Mobile Group (JMG), based in the Chechen capital Grozny was set on fire in what appears to be an act of intimidation by local authorities. The following day the police visited the provisional premises of NGO CAT and, for no apparent reason, seized the centre’s mobile phones, computers and CCTV cameras and held two staff members for several hours. Prior to the fire, NGO CAT staff had been receiving threatening phone calls and text messages.
Sadly, the story of NGO CAT is far from unique. Human rights groups and defenders are continuously subjected to acts of intimidation and threats. Offices have been raided, activists have been arrested and organisations fined. In some cases, prominent human rights defenders have even been killed, with no one charged with their murders.
Back in Denmark, the three DIGNITY employees remain puzzled as to why they were expelled, but the whole process leading up to their expulsion has revealed a flawed justice system allowing for false witness statements and documents.
Most of the international community have expressed their concern about the treatment of human rights defenders in Russia, and rightly so. For NGO CAT, the stakes are high. As the anti-NGO laws increase the pressure on the organisation, its future is uncertain. The only thing that seems certain at this point is Russia’s determination to repress NGOs.
On 3 June, a group of people broke into NGO CAT’s regional office and apartment in Grozny. According to NGO CAT’s regional coordinator Oleg Khabibrakhmanov, the group arrived late in the morning as part of a protest rally. Khabibrakhmanov said his colleagues in Grozny called police immediately but none arrived.
The men were seen to be smashing furniture, computers and destroying paper files and folders. Some of them brought an angle grinder and eventually broke through to the adjacent apartment where temporary staff of NGO CAT were working.
Only 15 minutes from Copenhagen’s city centre lies a library that, despite a collection that makes others pale in comparison, remains a well-kept secret.
The DIGNITY Library holds the world’s most extensive collection of published documents on torture and related subjects. In fact, the library boasts more than 40,000 items, ranging from books and articles to journals and images.
“We probably receive around one hundred new items each month,” says the library’s documentalist, Ion Iacos. “On top of that, we also monitor around 300 bibliographical sources on a regular basis so there is plenty of material for our visitors.”
The DIGNITY Library is open to the public and visitors are very welcome to use its modern facilities.
“We have study areas, media rooms and user terminals that are all free to use,” explains Mr Iacos.
While most visitors are researchers, PhD students or people with a special interest in the anti-torture movement, schoolchildren also stop by to learn about specific areas within human rights and work on assignments.
“We have had 13-year old schoolchildren doing research on child soldiers in Africa. It was great to see how passionate they were about this topic and even better to be able to help them with their research,” says Mr Iacos.
There is no doubt that Mr Iacos himself feels strongly about human rights and that he sees the library as an important resource and knowledge hub for those wanting to do research or simply just learn more about the anti-torture movement.
Having worked there for 15 years, he still enjoys helping visitors find the right material and he hopes to receive even more publications from researchers and authors around the world. After all, as he says, “libraries are all about centralising knowledge and it is a place for you to have your voice heard.”
To find out more about the DIGNITY Library or to book an appointment go to: http://www.reindex.org/RCT/rss/Portal.php
Nobel Laureate and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu once said: “Humanity needs organizations like DIGNITY that decade after decade carry out risky, uphill, and often unrecognized work towards a world free from torture.”
More than three decades since its foundation, the arduous journey has made DIGNITY a prominent force in the global fight against torture.
The history of DIGNITY and the IRCT are intimately related — in fact, the two organisations were one at the inception. It was only in 1997 that the two organisations went separate ways, responding to a growing need for global support in the rehabilitation of torture victims.
Today, DIGNITY is famed for its extensive research on torture and its effects. DIGNITY also holds the world’s largest collection of documents on torture and related subjects, with more than 30,000 items. These credentials make DIGNITY “the most famous torture rehabilitation center in the world”, according to former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Manfred Nowak.
“In addition to providing hundreds of torture survivors from all world regions with medical, psychological, social and other forms of rehabilitation, DIGNITY is a leading research and documentation center on the methods of torture and its effects on human beings,” he said.
DIGNITY’s main client base are refugees in Denmark who have survived torture. Although potential patients need a residence permit in Denmark and a referral from a physician, the centre offers rehabilitation to people who have been exposed to torture, organised violence or other severely traumatising events such as war and political persecution.
These patients often suffer from flashbacks, sleep disorders and nightmares, isolation, concentration and memory difficulties, among others, making their integration into Danish society much harder.
But, since its foundation 32 years ago by Dr Inge Genefke, DIGNITY’s mission spread far beyond Denmark and the clinical services needed in Copenhagen. The centre works in places such as South Africa, India, Tunisia and Jordan aiming at reducing the effects of torture or preventing the use of torture and organised violence.
With its dedicated group of over 80 experts – and its roots deep in the movement – DIGNITY will go much further.
If you want to learn more about DIGNITY join them on 30 October in Copenhagen’s main square Rådhuspladsen. Outlandish and several other music bands will be performing on the ‘DIGNITY DAY’ to mark the organisation’s 32nd anniversary. DIGNITY will also present their yearly prize to a person who has made a remarkable contribution to the fight against torture.