Archive for category North America

Conversation with Abebe* by IRCT member center Survivors of Torture, International

*the client’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

Survivors of Torture, International (SURVIVORS) is the only accredited torture treatment center in San Diego, California and is one of the 18 IRCT-accredited torture treatment centers in the U.S. and Canada.  Since its inception 20 years ago, SURVIVORS has served over 2,000 clients from over 80 countries.  Torture survivors who go to San Diego become part of the SURVIVORS’ family, and many keep in touch long after they stop receiving treatment. Today, SURVIVORS’ current and former clients are going to school, starting their own businesses, working full-time, and becoming U.S. citizens. Here is a Q&A with a former client who shares his story and his successes that many other SURVIVORS’ clients ultimately achieve.

Question: Where are you from and why did you leave your home country?

Abebe: I am from Ethiopia. I fled because I was active in a political party against the corrupt government in power that was oppressing people and violating human rights. They imprisoned and tortured me and they killed many people. That’s why I left Ethiopia.

Q: What was it like when you first arrived here?

A: At the beginning it was very difficult because I didn’t have any documents and I was not able to work or study. I didn’t have a community and I only knew a few people. I was not stable financially. It was stressful. Q: How did you hear about SURVIVORS? A: I heard about SURVIVORS from my lawyer. She told me they could help me with some basic needs including a psychological and medical evaluation that would support my asylum case.

Q: What was it like being at SURVIVORS for the first time?

A: I just liked the place. It’s very peaceful and everyone was very nice and welcoming to me. I felt at home. I knew that I would be helped.

SoTI Hand holding

Q: What services did you participate in?

A: Besides the documentation for my case I went to counseling for three years; it was, of course, free of charge. I also went to group therapy where we painted, told stories, and learned to write. I was matched with a volunteer family. It was very nice for me. We used to go hiking and go to the beach. SURVIVORS also helped me get a scholarship to take a GRE preparatory course and pay for the test. Most importantly, they helped with basic needs like hygiene products and even food.

Q: Are you still in touch with the people you met at SURVIVORS?

A: Yes. My befriender and I exchange emails. And I constantly see SURVIVORS. When I became a U.S. citizen, even though I gave short notice, SURVIVORS came. Even my friends couldn’t come, but SURVIVORS was there for that big moment of my life.

Q: How long was it before you started to feel better and to feel like a part of the community?

A: At the beginning I felt very alone. After about a year and a half I got my work permit which made me more productive and helped me meet people. SURVIVORS helped me meet people too, so I became more relaxed and more focused. Now I’m studying to get my master’s degree in nonprofit management and leadership and SURVIVORS helped me find the program and information on how to apply.

Q: What are you doing now?

A: I worked as a case manager for three years assisting refugees and asylees. Right now I am focusing on school and I will graduate in May. I work part-time as an interpreter. I also volunteer for Casa Cornelia [a local public interest law firm] with interpretation to help other Ethiopians those who are asylum seekers.

Q: What are your goals for the future?

 A: Of course, I want to finish my education and find a job in my field in the United States. One day I plan to go back to Ethiopia to open a nonprofit because there is a lot of need for that. Otherwise, I’d like to work for the United Nations or an international organization.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A: I’d like people to know that the work SURVIVORS does is really amazing and a person like me has been helped to become productive. They are open-minded, trusting, and friendly, but also professional and help us and guide us to become the people we want to be. I still continue to feel like a part of the SURVIVORS’ community and I really enjoy it. Whenever I think about SURVIVORS I always feel safe. I hope and pray that the mission of SURVIVORS will spread all over the world so that they can help more people – people like me.

SoTI Tree

This blog is a re-print of the interview originally printed in SURVIVORS’ Newsletter, “The Survivor”, Volume 19, Issue 2 (November 2016).  Learn more about the work of SURVIVORS and support their work at


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Sanctuary and Sustenance: Photographing the journey towards a better life

The United States-Mexico border at San Ysidro, in the county of San Diego, is the busiest land border crossing in the western hemisphere. Every day, these people, who come in search of protection and a better life arrive in San Diego; one of the many cities that have seen an increase in refugees and asylum seekers.

The inspiring and shocking stories of some of these people have been captured by photographer Misael Virgen and were until recently on display at the La Mesa Library in San Diego.

The photo series focus on the journey from the points of entry to San Diego, beginning with the border and the airport. A collaboration between the organisation ART WORKS Projects and International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member Survivors of Torture, International (SURVIVORS), the photographs are San Diego’s version of the international project Sanctuary and Sustenance, which tells the stories of some of the more than 60 million people currently without a permanent home because of war or persecution.

“The images help us share several of the thousands of stories of newcomers to our community,” explains Niki Kalmus, Community Relations Manager of SURVIVORS.

SAN DIEGO, CA-NOVEMBER 09, 2015: | A Sudanese refugee is greeted by her family where they reunited at Lindbergh Airport in San Diego for the first time in years. At 23, she arrived with her two young boys. | (Misael Virgen/ San Diego Union-Tribune)

A Sudanese refugee reunited with her family at San Diego’s airport. Courtesy of Misael Virgen/ San Diego Union-Tribune

“We want San Diego to understand the long, arduous journeys our clients, refugees, asylum seekers, and all migrants make to rebuild their lives in our city. We also want to show that the lives these migrants lead are very similar to our own. The images Misael captured demonstrate how torture survivors’ lives are hardly different from the lives of you and me.”

SURVIVORS and ART WORKS Projects hope to raise awareness of the challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers, as well as of their resilience, to spark conversations about collective responsibility, welcome newcomers to communities, and encourage policy-makers to act in favour of fundamental human rights for refugees and asylum seekers.

“So far we have been able to reach many people who had never heard of SURVIVORS. The clients featured in Misael’s photography were excited to raise awareness about torture survivors, and came to see the exhibits when they were unveiled. One of the clients is highly involved with advocating for the rights of transgendered individuals, the reason she was tortured and forced to flee her home country,” explains Niki.

According to her, the exhibition, which was shown at La Mesa Library throughout the month of June, has inspired lots of visitors to get involved.

“Many of them now volunteer at SURVIVORS or have sought more information from us about how they can help torture survivors. Lots of people commented that they had no idea this was still an issue today, and especially not that it reached our community.”

Exhibition at Carmel Valley Library

The Sanctuary & Sustenance Exhibition in San Diego. Courtesy of SURVIVORS.

Sanctuary & Sustenance is a multimedia projection of photography, film, music, and words, launched on June 20, 2013 in honour of World Refugee Day in cities around the world.

Through photographs, moving graphics, and music, viewers have an opportunity to trace the journey of a family during the catastrophic events of displacement, on a path to sanctuary, and through the long process of rebuilding life in a new community. Across the world, it aims to raise the public consciousness of these issues and facilitate conversations about the collective responsibility to welcome refugees and encourage policy-makers to act in favour of fundamental human rights for refugees and asylum seekers.

Niki says that in San Diego, SURVIVORS does its best to educate the public about torture and its consequences.

“We raise awareness through community outreach such as this exhibit to let our community know that torture survivors are an underserved and often invisible part of the population. The most important thing we can do is simply understand that they are among us and spread the word about the important work of SURVIVORS and torture treatment centres throughout the world. We believe that by raising awareness about the existence of torture survivors in our very neighbourhoods we can create a more welcoming community.”

SURVIVORS is currently seeking other locations to show the exhibition. You can find out more about the Sanctuary & Sustenance project by clicking here, see more of the work from the exhibition by going to Misael Virgen’s website or get the latest news from SURVIVORS by following them on Facebook.

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Putting the spotlight on torture: 12 years since the IRCT won the Hilton Humanitarian prize

This month, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) will be in New York to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. The IRCT belongs to an exclusive group of non-profit organisations that have received the prestigious Prize and grant. As the group welcomes its 20th member, we look back to 2003, when the IRCT became only the eighth organisation to win the Prize.

For the Copenhagen-based umbrella organisation, the award could not have come at a better time. 2003 had been a very challenging year financially – not only for the IRCT, but for the whole torture rehabilitation sector. A time that mirrors the current situation unfolding across the globe.

Some of the IRCT’s member centres were struggling to keep afloat and programmes were in risk of closing because of lack of funding. In Europe, a change in EU policy had led to an increased focus on the prevention of torture, while support and funding to the rehabilitation of torture victims had been decreasing.


The Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian grant enabled the IRCT to assist some of the rehabilitation centres in need, through the allocation of direct grants to rehabilitation centres and programmes in financial difficulties. In some cases, this was the difference between centres surviving or not.

Acknowledging the work of torture rehabilitation centres

The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is named after its founder, the late hotel entrepreneur who left the bulk of his fortune to the Foundation with instructions to use the funds to help the most disadvantaged and vulnerable throughout the world. Recipients of the Prize include SOS-Kinderdorf International, Médecins Sans Frontières, Heifer International and Operation Smile.

When the Foundation chose IRCT as the 2003 laureate, it put the spotlight on the widespread use of torture by governments, and recognised the extraordinary work performed every day by staff in rehabilitation centres and programmes for torture victims worldwide. Just as importantly, the Prize was a tribute to torture survivors and their families, and to the strength of human spirit they display in their determination to overcome the horror of torture to live in dignity.

At the time Mr Steven M. Hilton, President of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, said, “By addressing the unimaginable suffering of men, women and even children who have endured torture, IRCT personifies the purpose of the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, which is to recognise and support the work of organisations alleviating human suffering throughout the world.”

The IRCT won the 2003 Hilton Humanitarian Prize. (Courtesy of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation)

When asked about the impact of the award, then IRCT Secretary-General Dr. Jens Modvig explained that torture is not an easy subject to put before the public, but the Hilton award helped break this silence and remind us that we all have a responsibility to see that torture is eradicated and to help survivors of torture rebuild their lives.

Twelve years on, the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize continues to have a positive impact on the torture rehabilitation movement. Winning the award sent a clear signal to potential donors and foundations that the IRCT and its member organisations are worth supporting.

With this in mind, the IRCT is excited to attend this year’s prize ceremony and to welcome the 20th recipient into the prestigious list of winners. Given today’s global challenges facing many organisations in the humanitarian sector, the need for foundations like the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is greater than ever. Hopefully, the prize will once again raise awareness about the global need for humanitarian aid and the power of philanthropy, encouraging others to expand their support.


This year’s winner of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize will be announced at a prize ceremony in New York on 14 October.

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Six months on: The release of the CIA torture report

It has been nearly six months since the US Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on the CIA’s use of torture, attracting worldwide outcry and condemnation. We revisit that day in December last year when torture was featured by every news outlet around the world and look at whether the release of the report has actually changed anything.

Nearly six months since the Committee released its report on the CIA’s gruesome post-9/11 torture program, the findings in the 6,000-page report may seem like old news, but did it lead to any change? And what happened to those involved, including the politicians in office at the time, the interrogators and most importantly, the victims?

The report, released by the Committee’s Chairman Dianne Feinstein despite a last-minute plea from Secretary of State John Kerry and members of Congress not to release the information to the public, detailed the CIA’s extreme interrogation techniques used on alleged terrorists after the September 11th attacks. Soon after its release, a UN expert on human rights called for the US to live up to its international legal obligations and prosecute senior officials who authorised the use of torture.

However, it quickly became evident that the White House would not follow the human rights experts’ calls and pursue prosecutions that could prove to be politically explosive.

In fact, the New York Times recently revealed that many of those in charge of the CIA’s torture program had been rewarded with promotions, rather than being fired. The newspaper reported how the people whose names had been redacted from the Senate’s torture report to avoid accountability now run another CIA program under the agency’s Counterterrorism Center.

The only person being punished seems to be Alissa Starzak, a former lead investigator for the torture report, whose professional career is in jeopardy, with critics of the report, some of them senators, working hard on stalling her nomination as general counsel to the Army.

Starzak’s situation could not be more different from that of former US president, George W Bush and members of his administration. The Bush administration’s knowledge of the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques has long been a contested topic. Despite evidence that Bush in 2002 signed an executive order, which stated the Geneva Conventions did not apply to Al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects, there has been no further investigation into this because he as a former Head of State enjoys special immunity and cannot be prosecuted.

CIA emblem

CIA emblem

According to international law, any person whose human rights have been violated shall have access to an effective remedy. But while the report details the use of various torture techniques, including rectal feeding, sleep deprivation and waterboarding, the US government has failed to compensate victims of the CIA’s programs.

In Cuba, the Guantanamo Bay prison camp continues to house victims of CIA torture despite President Barack Obama’s promise in 2013 to close it down. According to the organisation Close Guantanamo, 122 detainees remain there, although 50 of them were cleared to leave more than five years ago.

If the status quo of Guantanamo Bay is the symbol of anything, it is of the lack of political will to pursue justice and the apathy towards the victims and their families.

The international human rights organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently set up a petition urging the Obama administration to begin a “full criminal investigation” into torture techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency. HRW is one of several organisations that continue to be vocal in the fight for justice, but so far, their efforts have not brought about the change they were hoping for.

Back in December 2014, when she released the report, Dianne Feinstein said that CIA’s actions were a stain on America’s values, and while the report could not remove that stain, it was an important step to restore the country’s values and show the world that it is a just and lawful society.

Six months on, it is reasonable to question whether the US has restored its values. If you ask HRW and other human rights organisations, they will say that the victims and their families are still to experience the just and lawful society Feinstein referred to.

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Four famous supporters of the anti-torture movement and why we need more

In all corners of the world, there are people whose support for the anti-torture movement makes an enormous difference to torture survivors, their families and caregivers. Among them are some high profile individuals who are using their name and status to raise awareness about torture and to promote justice for torture victims. We highlight four of them and their actions, and look at why the movement needs more supporters like them.

It is not every day that a blog on torture includes a famous rapper, a retired bishop and a baptist minister, but that is nonetheless the case with our list of anti-torture supporters:

#1 Mos Def

The first on our list is American rapper and actor Mos Def, also known as Yasiin Bey. In addition to his music and acting career, Mos Def is a strong supporter of the anti-torture movement and he has taken unorthodox measures to raise awareness about torture and ill treatment. Most notably, he starred in a campaign video for human rights organisation Reprieve, in which he volunteered to be force-fed through the nose to bring attention to the force-feeding of 44 detainees on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay.

The video was released in July 2013 via the Guardian, and quickly went viral. In fact, it became the eight most viewed video in the history of The Guardian. But not everyone was a fan of the project. The following year, Mos Def, who lives in South Africa, was forced to cancel his tour in the United States after immigration refused his entry to the country.

#2 Desmond Tutu

Nobel Peace Laureate, Archbishop and human rights activist – Desmond Tutu’s many roles and achievements make others pale in comparison. A leading figure in the justice and racial reconciliation movement in South Africa, Desmond Tutu is also a strong advocate for a world free from torture.

Desmond Tutu (Courtesy of Joshua Wanyama, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Desmond Tutu (Courtesy of Joshua Wanyama, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Before retiring, he voiced criticism of serious violations of human rights, including Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe and the Israeli government’s mistreatment of Palestinians.

Desmond Tutu may be retired, but he is still involved in the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, which he founded together with his wife in 1998. He is also protector of IRCT member centre in Denmark DIGNITY, and continues to speak out against torture.

#3 Rev. Jesse Jackson

In addition to being a Baptist minister and former politician, Jesse Jackson is one of America’s most renowned civil rights activists. While many know him for his work with the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson has also been very vocal in ensuring justice for victims of torture. He has for years been a supporter of the many men who were tortured by Chicago police, led by former Commander Jon Burge, during the 1970s and 1980s. When the Mayor of Chicago recently issued an apology and proposed a $5.5 million reparations fund for dozens of torture victims, Jesse Jackson called for a “truth and reconciliation commission”, saying if it was good enough for South Africa it is good enough for Chicago.

Jesse Jackson (Courtesy of United States Mission Geneva, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Jesse Jackson (Courtesy of United States Mission Geneva, via Flickr Creative Commons)

“Because Jon Burge was in charge, he was the commander,” Jackson said. “He did not do this alone. Other police witnessed Jon Burge torturing these men.”

#4 Rage Against the Machine, REM, Nine Inch Nails and others

The last one on our list is not just one person, but a group of musicians whose efforts we thought should be mentioned.

Upon discovering that their music had been used in interrogations of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, high profile musicians such as REM, Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor joined the Close Gitmo Now campaign.

Tom Morello (Courtesy of Thomas Hawk, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Tom Morello (Courtesy of Thomas Hawk, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Launched in 2009, Close Gitmo Now is a coalition of activists, artists and retired generals aiming to put pressure on US politicians to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.

Speaking out against Guantanamo Bay and the use of music as no-touch torture there, Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine said:

“Guantanamo is known around the world as one of the places where human beings have been tortured – from water boarding, to stripping, hooding and forcing detainees into humiliating sexual acts – playing music for 72 hours in a row at volumes just below that to shatter the eardrums. Guantanamo may be Dick Cheney’s idea of America, but it’s not mine. The fact that music I helped create was used in crimes against humanity sickens me – we need to end torture and close Guantanamo now.”

The need for more high profile supporters

While the support of well-known musicians or other high profile individuals alone is not enough, it can raise public awareness and influence the general debate. Guantanamo Bay is the prime example of this. Although the world’s most notorious detention camp still remains in operation, what goes on there never fully escapes public scrutiny.

Sadly, in other parts of the world, there are numerous cases of torture that will never receive even a fraction of the attention that Guantanamo Bay gets. Not enough people care. If torture victims had the support of a well-known name, they might be able to get the attention they need to bring the perpetrators to justice. The same goes for most torture rehabilitation centres that often struggle financially. Without this form of support, it can be difficult to attract potential donors or raise additional funds. One of the biggest challenges in the fight against torture is apathy. The support of famous people can make a difference.

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On the Forefront: Helping torture survivors in San Diego

WWT - Members series

At IRCT member centre, Survivors of Torture International (SURVIVORS) it is the little things that matter. Something as small as a bus ticket can mean the difference between treatment and no treatment for torture victims.

Staff at SURVIVORS treat many refugees and asylum seekers who have limited or no financial resources and support network. Getting to the centre is a big challenge for those who do not live nearby, especially because public transportation in Southern California is restrictive and challenging to navigate, even for those who speak the language and are familiar with the city.

Then there are the exorbitant costs of public transportation. One thing is to work out how to get there, another thing is to pay for the tickets.



Until now, SURVIVORS has been able to offer bus tickets or other help with transportation to any client in need, but a reduction in funding has forced the centre to make some tough decisions.

Sadly, SURVIVORS’ story is far from unique. Across the world, rehabilitation centres have seen a decrease in funding from donors focusing on immediate results over holistic rehabilitation.

Despite these challenges, the San Diego centre will continue to treat the same number of clients as before, but now the centre staff can no longer offer some of its most desperate clients help with transportation.

Demonstrating a medical examination.

Demonstrating a medical examination.

“While our financial situation won’t affect the number of clients that we’re treating, it will however impact many of our clients who are asylum seekers with little or no financial support. These clients rely on public transport to get to the actual center, but with less funds, SURVIVORS won’t be able to help pay for their bus tickets, as we used to,” says Executive Director of SURVIVORS, Kathi Anderson.

Kathi Anderson explains how one of the centre’s clients is a woman who is 6 month pregnant. Alone in a new country and without any support network, this small token has made a huge difference to her. Kathi Anderson is worried that if they do not continue to help her pay her bus tickets, she is not able to turn up for her treatment.

Since it opened in 1997, SURVIVORS has helped thousands of survivors of torture to recover from their traumas by offering them a range of services, including medical, dental, psychiatric, psychological, and social care.

Clients often prefer telling their stories in the kitchen.

Clients often prefer telling their stories in the kitchen.

The staff has seen first-hand how the number of refugees and asylum seekers in need of treatment is increasing. The many armed conflicts and humanitarian crises worldwide means that for the first time since the Second World War, the number of refugees and asylum seekers on a global basis has exceeded 50 million. This development has put enormous pressure on rehabilitation centres like SURVIVORS.

Exacerbating the situation for SURVIVORS is the news that a nearby government-run detention centre for immigrants is moving to a new facility, doubling its size. Being the only rehabilitation centre in the area, the centre fears that it will be forced to turn away immigrants with nowhere else to go.

When asked if there are any alternatives nearby for those torture victims they will not be able to help, Kathi Anderson replies:

“The nearest rehabilitation centre is in Los Angeles which is a 3 hour and 76$ train ride each way. I can’t imagine that there are too many refugees who can afford this or have the mental strength to get on that train.”

To find out more about SURVIVORS, visit their website

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New rehabilitation models are taking culture seriously: treating Cambodian survivors in the USA

Four years was all Cambodian dictator Pol Pot and his regime needed to murder 1.5 million people. From 1975 to 1979, starvation, torture, disease and overwork mainly contributed to the deaths that affected the well-being of the entire country.

torture journal

The upcoming edition of the Torture Journal will cover topics related to torture and rehabilitation.

Today Cambodians still come to terms with the Khmer Rouge regime, one which is still being brought to justice, most recently with the life sentences of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, two figureheads of the regime.

For the survivors, justice only does so much. For many their families are destroyed and those who tortured them have already escaped punishment throughout the majority of their lives.

Now, ahead of the upcoming edition of Torture Journal, we hear from a different project in the USA which is helping Cambodian torture survivors there overcome their past through rehabilitation.

The Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma’s Cambodian Health Promotion Program uses health professionals from psychiatry, nutrition, mental health and biomedicine fields to implement group sessions with 126 survivors of torture to help them move on from their past.

The torture survivors themselves are instrumental to their own recovery with much of the onus on each survivor equipping themselves with power and knowledge to resume their lives, under the facilitation of the health professionals and other group members.

Groups discuss their past, their present and, with hope, their future. Heightened healthcare is promoted through Cambodian culture running alongside traditionally western health concepts; depression and sleeping patterns are discussed to analyse the effects these have on the body; the benefits of physical activity in promoting good mental health are explored; and the benefits of good nutrition are outlined also, all within the context of Cambodian cuisine.

What the project attempts to do is to empower victims of torture to improve their own physical and psychological wellbeing without prescribing the correct ways to look at things – at every stage the cultural traditions of Cambodia are synthesised with evidence-based medical developments.

The study documents that survivors of the genocide generally report worse health conditions than those who were not affected by the Khmer Rouge regime. It is estimated that over 50 per-cent of the survivors were tortured, which has led to chronic health conditions.

Across the four-year health promotion group, improvements were reported across the group of survivors in healthcare, health behaviours, sleeping patterns, self-confidence and depression.

Only seven per-cent rated their health-state as poor after the conclusion of the project, down 13 per-cent since the survivors were surveyed at the inception of the project. Incidences of daily nightmares were only reported by three per-cent of the group (down 10%) and self-confidence issues dropped by over 20%.

Projects such as this show the positive impact of rehabilitation. Whether it is in a community setting, a medical setting or otherwise, targeted, tailored rehabilitation has life-changing results.


To read the full report click this link.

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Doctors who do harm. What will happen to those who designed the torture methods?

Amidst the CIA taking the central role as the perpetrator for the torture committed under the ‘War on Terror’, one particular question has been forgotten: what will happen to the people who actually designed the torture methods?

CIA emblem

CIA emblem

Recent spin and simplification lumps the CIA as the overwhelming perpetrator of all the torture against terror suspects. Without understating CIA’s role in this — CIA operatives mercilessly implemented the torture techniques documented today in the upcoming CIA torture report and through the continued allegations emerging from those victims who survived CIA ‘black sites’ in particular — it must be remembered that the network involved in the torture of suspects is far-reaching.

Behind the torture is a methodology, a design to break even the most resilient individual. Behind the design is calculated thought, professionally planned actions that inflict the maximum level of pain and suffering while minimising identifiable scars and traces.

And behind this thinking are doctors.

It has long been documented by a range of media outlets that US military doctors were complicit in the design of torture methods, clearly violating their ethical, medical and legal codes as health practitioners.

A report from the Taskforce on Preserving Medical Professionalism in November 2013 states that after 9/11, health professionals aligned with the military and intelligences authorities participated in the production and implementation of “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and torture of detainees”.

A waterboarding demonstration by US Navy veteran Joe Tougas. Waterboarding was one of the torture methods doctors helped develop with the CIA (picture used under Flickr creative commons licence courtesy of  Isabel Esterman)

A waterboarding demonstration by US Navy veteran Joe Tougas. Waterboarding was one of the torture methods doctors helped develop with the CIA (picture used under Flickr creative commons licence courtesy of Isabel Esterman)

Yet many of these doctors will simply never face trial. Regardless of whether doctors were coerced or tricked into the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ processes, justice still needs to be served.

It’s a concern echoed by Vincent Iacopino, Senior Medical Advisor for Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and member of IRCT’s Independent Forensic Expert Group, in a recent letter to the Editor of the New York Times.

“Before lawyers wrote memos distorting the definition of torture, psychologists worked in concert with interrogators to develop methods intended to exploit the vulnerabilities of detainees and to inflict physical and mental pain,” says Mr Iacopino in the letter.

He continues: “As detainees suffered — and in some cases, died — health professionals routinely failed to report, document or stop the abuse.”

In doing so, they betrayed the core ethical principle of health professionals: do no harm. They also did not question their role. Apathy is apparent in the instance of US psychologist James Mitchell, who was instrumental in designing the torture techniques. Speaking in April 2014 he said the following:

“I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best that I could.” (quoted in Russia Today)

It is the Milgrim experiment CIA-style: the infamous study which showed people are far more likely to inflict pain on another human being if someone in perceived higher authority delivers the orders.

This is wrong and shocking. The doctors who are meant to heal contributed to the harm.

When the truth about the CIA torture methods comes to light, hopefully perpetrators will be brought to justice. Those who inflicted the pain must be punished for their crimes and victims, who are still alive, should be directed to the appropriate channels of rehabilitation and redress.

Yet punishment needs to extend beyond those ordering the torture and those following the orders. Behind the programme against human rights are doctors who designed the methods. These people are perpetrators too.

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Legislation to end torture in the USA

In our latest blog we meet IRCT’s Elena Cálix from Honduras, who is currently an intern at the IRCT European Affairs Office in Brussels. In line with her work, Elena tells us about legislation related to justice and rehabilitation for torture victims in the United States.


IRCT’s Elena Cálix

The funding of rehabilitation services poses a continuous challenge for the IRCT and its member centres. Moreover, the unwillingness of states to comply with their obligations, leave NGOs struggling to acquire sufficient funding to provide the necessary rehabilitation to victims of torture. As I started a desk study about prospects for funding rehabilitation services for torture victims in Europe, I first had to take a look at what other regions are doing in this respect. In this piece, I would like to share some particularities I have found about the United States (U.S.).

In the international arena the United States is seldom related positively to the word “torture”, especially in light of the very public torture cases perpetrated in name of the “war on terror” or the ongoing violations that have been taking place for years in Guantanamo Bay. Nevertheless, it is not all negative when it comes to the U.S. and torture; there are positive features within their legislation that deserve a mention with regard to justice and rehabilitation of torture victims.

ATCA and TVPA: Tools to Bring Perpetrators of Torture to Justice

For over 30 years, a foreign victim of international crimes – including torture – has been able to seek redress in United States federal courts and obtain civil remedies under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), created in 1789. Although there is little known about the reasons for the creation of this law (the word torture is not once mentioned), after nearly 200 years of disuse, it was used for extraterritorial jurisdiction in cases of torture in 1980 with the landmark case Filartiga v. Peña-Irala.

The list of cases filed under the ATCA since then includes lawsuits against former heads of states, other government’s officials, military personnel, members of death squads, and even corporations.

Furthermore, in 1991 the U.S. Congress adopted the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), a legislation that provides the right to bring a lawsuit specifically to victims of torture and extrajudicial killings. Unlike the ATCA, the TVPA actually provides an actual definition of torture and it applies not only to aliens exclusively, but also U.S. citizens victimised by torture in foreign countries.

An example of a successful case brought under the ATCA/TVPA is Jean v. Dorelien, a case against a former member of the Haitian Military’s High Command during the dictatorship in Haiti, who was found guilty of torture, extrajudicial killing, arbitrary detention and crimes against humanity in 2007. The perpetrator won the state lottery while living in Florida and as a result of the judgement in 2008, the amount of $580,000 was distributed to the victims. One of the victims used a portion of the recovery to help fund The Hope Centre for Haitian Refugees, an organization he founded to provide social services to Haitian refugees.

Torture Victim Relief Act: Funding Rehabilitation of Torture Victims

In terms of rehabilitation of torture victims, the Torture Victim Relief Act (TVRA) must be acknowledged as an example of national legislation introduced to provide funding rehabilitation centres. The U.S. Congress passed the first TVRA in 1998, authorizing funding support programs domestically and overseas that carry out projects or activities specifically designed to treat victims for the physical and psychological effects of torture.

The funds are accessed by rehabilitation centres through a competitive grant process. The TVRA authorises the Office of Refugee Settlement (ORR) to fund the U.S. based rehabilitation programs for survivors of torture, and authorises funding for the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture (UNVFVT) to support programs that are carrying out projects involving torture rehabilitation, outside the U.S.

The U.S. going forward

The U.S. has powerful tools for human rights litigation with the ATCA and the TVPA; furthermore the establishment of legislation such as the TVRA could demonstrate effort to provide legal remedies for torture victims.

Nevertheless, I believe that further research is needed in regard of the actual implementation of these legislations on the ground and its effectiveness in the fight against torture. Moreover, it is important to make clear that this does not necessarily counteract the U.S. unwillingness to join international legislation against torture and to end impunity in torture cases involving their government officials, in the Bush administration for instance.

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On the Forefront: The journey of CVT from local US campaigning to a global movement

WWT - Members series

Since founding in 1985, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) has rehabilitated over 24,000 torture survivors, provided healing programmes for people affected by torture and violent conflict, implemented community building projects in the aftermath of some of the world’s deadliest wars, and pioneered research into torture rehabilitation and prevention.

That’s a pretty impressive resume for a centre which essentially began as a conversation between a human rights campaigner and his father, the then Governor of Minnesota.

Staff at CVT

Staff and friends of CVT

Following a visit to Denmark and the Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims – now the Danish IRCT member, DIGNITY – Governor Perpich returned to Minnesota to establish CVT as an independent non-governmental organisation aimed at healing torture survivors.

But CVT did not just remain influential in the US and, by the early 1990s, their operations had expanded with work in Bosnia and Croatia. In 1995, CVT began working with medical professionals in Turkey to train them in the documentation of torture survivors.

Today CVT is truly a large international movement, offering direct care for torture victims and refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, refugees of the Somali war in the Dadaab camps in northern Kenya, urban refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Jordan and Eritrean refugees in northern Ethiopia.

But as well as expanding and developing their projects across the globe, CVT is working on shaping public opinions at home. Through a newly established blog, the team at CVT aims at adding personality to the movement, to give people an understanding of the work of CVT staff and the experiences they encounter through their anti-torture work.

CVT staff in Dabaab, Kenya

CVT staff in Dabaab, Kenya

It is yet another initiative of CVT’s ever-expanding tapestry to prevent torture and improve the lives of torture survivors.

“Torture has profound long-term effects. Physical reminders include headaches, chronic pain, respiratory problems and a host of other symptoms. The psychological damage is often worse,” says Brad Robideau from CVT.

“But healing is possible. We help survivors rebuild their lives so torture is in their past and not something they re-live every day.”

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