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Torture and inhuman treatment

Access to justice is a form of rehabilitation for torture victims

13 April 2018


“Seventy years ago, there rose an unequivocal promise forged not in prosperity but in horror,” said UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore. “Drafted not by self-congratulations but in shame – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was the first international text prohibiting torture in absolute terms.”

Gilmore made her remarks as part of a discussion on access to justice for victims of torture, which took place in Geneva. The event was part of an expert workshop convened by the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture (UNVFVT), bringing together rehabilitation practitioners, victims, international experts and civil society groups to exchange experiences and good practices in the quest for access to justice for victims of torture.

Since 1981, the UNVFVT has supported civil society organizations worldwide to provide legal, medical, psychological and social assistance to nearly 50,000 victims of torture each year. The Fund also hosts knowledge-sharing workshops on different aspects of assistance to be provided to torture victims.  This year, the workshop focused on access to justice for victims.

Access to justice is a way to help restore the dignity of victims of torture, said the Chairperson of the Fund, Mikolaj Pietrzak. When people obtain justice for what has happened to them it “reaffirms that torture is a criminal act and its prohibition is absolute and that victims are entitled to redress.”

“Redress and rehabilitation are not charity; they are rights under international law,” he said.  

In 2002, Hassan Bility, a journalist, was imprisoned for six months in Liberia where he was tortured. He was released only to be exiled to the United States. After Charles Taylor was deposed, Bility realized that nobody had been held accountable for any war crime committed during the conflict. Something had to be done, he said. So he returned to Liberia and created the Global Justice and Research Project to document the crimes committed, and to use the legal tools available to go after suspected war criminals no matter where in the world they were. And the UNVFVT funding helped the group to do this.

“The Fund…trusted us when no one else would…and the money they gave us six years ago helped us hold accountable and put in jail Liberian war criminals in Belgium, Switzerland, the USA and the UK,” Bility said.

The campaigning group “Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo” of Argentina were one of the first groups funded by the UNVFVT as early as 1984. Its iconic President, Estela Barnes de Carlotto, said when they began demanding for justice and information about the more than 300,000 people, including children who forcibly disappeared during the military regime, they were labelled as “crazy old ladies” by authorities and press. But not any longer.

“Today we know that the fight against impunity for crimes against humanity is not a solitary struggle of a people: it is a common struggle and a universal obligation,” she said. “These crazy old women, whom the Argentine military underestimated and let walk, managed to weave networks around the world. Today, these networks lead us to be here, with you, trying to make the painful experience of the Argentine Mothers and Grandmothers serve a purpose. That, there is no other mother in the world who mourns the unknown absence of a son or daughter and that no grandmother has to look for a kidnapped grandson granddaughter, who was robbed and deprived of truth and, therefore, freedom.”

“It is important to remember that rehabilitation of torture victims is not only an a-political health service but may produce very potent statistics about torture, perpetrators and torture methods which can be used in advocacy”, said Jens Modvig, Chairperson of the UN Committee against Torture – as one of the panelists in the event.

Today, almost four decades since its establishment, the UNVFVT is one of the four pillars in the fight against torture available at the United Nations, namely the Committee against Torture, the Special Rapporteur and the Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture, said Ambassador Carsten Staur, Permanent Representative of Denmark to the UN.

“These pillars all work together to further the fight against torture,” he said.

Ambassador Staur also announced that the Danish government will increase its donation to the Fund to 5 million Danish Kroner (about $800,000 USD) to help the Fund continue its successful work. In nearly 40 years, the Fund has assisted more than 630 organizations across 80 countries for a total budget of $180 million USD.


13 April 2018