People's Stories Justice

Torture: A crime beneath contempt
by United Nations Human Rights Office
With support from the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, many NGOs support torture survivors in overcoming their suffering, giving them back hope and the dignity destroyed by torture.
When he speaks, you’d never know Jhonier had spent the last 15 years as a “guest” of one of Colombia’s most notorious prisons.
“I’d never seen a microwave or large screens and I didn’t even know Facebook,” he said, describing his first few days of freedom. “I was afraid of the street. I had no notion of life in the city.” With his wire-rimmed glasses and thoughtful sentences, he sounds more like a professor than a former guerrilla with the FARC, Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces.
During his imprisonment, Jhonier was badly beaten. He was held in isolation, gassed and pepper-sprayed. He was hung high from the ceiling by his arms – and when jailers cut the rope, he tumbled into a heap. He survived, but several fellow inmates were left paralyzed.
“Many of us were rebels, not murderers. We weren’t terrorists but social warriors – resisters – with a different vision of society. We were persecuted for thinking differently.”
Halfway across the world in Ethiopia, a diminutive woman no bigger than a young teenager sits quietly, looking at the floor, her eyes the only visible feature of her veiled face. Samira (not her real name) was also punished for her thoughts.
Accused of supporting the opposition, she was dragged to prison for six months, beaten with an electric fence and psychologically tortured. Her voice is nearly inaudible as she tells a story she desperately wants to forget, a story of her harrowing escape, her terrifying overnight truck ride to the distant border with Kenya and her final sprint to freedom.
Torture may date back to ancient times but efforts to eradicate it have not succeeded.
“Torture is a serious crime in international law. There is no grey zone, yet it continues to happen,” said Laura Dolci, Secretary of the UN Fund for Victims of Torture at UN Human Rights. “There is no question, torture is meant to destroy.”
Had it not been for a few courageous organizations and individuals, it might well have destroyed the lives of Jhonier and Samira. It might also have destroyed the life of Samuel M., a Nairobi bus conductor assaulted and imprisoned for no apparent reason and who, disoriented, still walks with a limp many months later.
Or the lives of Elsi E., who was forced to stand naked during an interrogation in Colombia, or of Woga B. in Kenya, raped and beaten for belonging to the wrong ethnic group.
Torture nearly destroyed Gilberto Torres Martínez, abducted by paramilitaries for leading union protests against human rights violations by oil companies. After his highly publicized release, Gilberto fled abroad, embarking on a lonely 15-year exile. With the launch of the peace process, he returned, but ongoing threats again forced him to leave.
While their sheer resilience has played a major part in reconnecting these survivors with everyday life, they admit they could not have done it on their own.
Organizations that help
Normally it is a state’s responsibility to provide redress for victims of torture. But reality is different and civil society groups often have to step in.
For Jhonier, that group was the CSPP, the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners, which seeks justice for victims of torture in Colombia and works with prisoners, a thankless and dangerous job.
Samira’s life, too, changed because of a local NGO. Early on, she met RCK, the Refugee Consortium of Kenya, the only organization that provides legal aid to asylum seekers in Kenya and helps refugee torture victims with psycho-social counseling.
“They helped me be fully recognized as a refugee and that will allow me to be resettled to another country,” she said. “My life is changing. Before I couldn’t even sleep at night I was so terrified. Now I have received counseling – I can air my problems and I am not alone.”
Both organizations receive desperately needed support from the UN Fund for Victims of Torture.
“UN Human Rights [which manages the Fund] has political weight, and the state listens when it is involved and takes us much more seriously,” said Oscar Ramírez, Coordinator of the Prison Assistance Area of CSPP.
NGOs are often a torture victim’s only lifeline. Their trained professionals work in difficult circumstances, frequently providing services not available anywhere else. Their work is psychologically difficult and can be physically dangerous.
“These groups are highly professional entities, staffed with doctors and lawyers and psychiatrists,” said Dolci-Kanaan. “They can’t erase the impact of torture but they can address its consequences and give people an opportunity to move forward with their lives. For each person who emerges from a nightmare, a family and an entire community benefits.”
Another example of this valuable work is the forensic reporting undertaken by IMLU, the Independent Medical Unit in Nairobi.
“To be able to get justice, we need credible forensic documentation,” said Peter Kiama, the organization’s Executive Director. IMLU also provides rehabilitation to torture victims and helps train doctors and lawyers to provide much-needed expertise and services.
In 2018, the Fund awarded just over US$ 7 million in grants to support more than 40,000 victims of torture through 166 projects in 78 countries.
According to Article 1 of the UN Convention against Torture, it is defined as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person”. This could include obtaining information or a confession, or punishing or intimidating a person.
“Torture is an unequivocal crime, prohibited under all circumstances, bar none. No matter what threat to society, it is unjustifiable and illegal to cause pain to defenceless men, women and children. Torture is beneath contempt, and unworthy of any decent society,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra''ad Al Hussein in a recent speech.
Prohibition against torture is a cornerstone of international law, yet many countries still practice some form of it.
In a 2016 report to the Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture listed more than 70 countries in which some form of torture had taken place.
“Torture has no borders,” said Dolci, “and it can occur in many circumstances – in conflict, in police stations, or because of poverty. Sometimes it is caused by ignorance or it can be the product of sheer brutality. But in the end, it has the same outcome: those with power step on the dignity and integrity of fellow human beings. Restoring them is part of the core mission of the many organizations financially supported by the UN Fund.”
For Jhonier and Samira and all the others, renewed dignity and integrity are the glue that holds them together and allows them to dream of a future they once thought beyond reach.

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Amid allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma, UN chief calls for civilian protection
by UN News, agencies
8 April 2018
Following a very brief period of calm in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta region, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Sunday expressed deep concern over renewed violence in Douma, particularly the alarming allegations that chemical weapons may have been used against civilians.
A statement from UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said the Secretary-General called on all parties to cease fighting and and to adhere fully to Security Council resolution 2401, adopted in February and which called for a ceasefire across Syria.
While the UN is not in a position to verify these reports, his spokesperson said “the Secretary-General notes that any use of chemical weapons, if confirmed, is abhorrent, and requires a thorough investigation.”
Through his spokesperson, Mr. Guterres explained that over the last 36 hours, he has received reports indicating sustained airstrikes and shelling on Douma that have killed civilians, destroyed infrastructure and damaged health facilities. There has also been shelling on Damascus city, reportedly killing civilians.
“It is critical that civilians be protected,” Mr. Dujuric stressed. “The Secretary-General calls on all sides to ensure respect for international humanitarian and human rights law, including humanitarian access across Syria to all people in need, as per relevant Security Council resolutions,” he concluded.
22 March 2018
Use of chemical weapons, under any circumstances, unjustifiable and abhorrent.
Alarmed at persistent reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, the United Nations Secretary-General has called on the Security Council to demonstrate unity and resolve in response to bringing to justice those who use.
In a statement attributable to his spokesperson, Secretary-General António Guterres expressed that the use of chemical weapons, under any circumstances, is unjustifiable and abhorrent.
“Equally unjustifiable is a lack of response to such use, if and when it occurs. Impunity cannot prevail with respect to such serious crimes,” he added.
The statement follows a meeting on 20 March, between Mr. Guterres and Ahmet Üzümcü, the Director General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
During the meeting UN chief reiterated his support for OPCW’s work in investigating allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria as well as his confidence in its integrity and expertise as well as in that of its Fact-Finding Mission and its conclusions.
The OPCW is an international organization which works closely with the UN to implement the Convention against Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and eliminate the use of chemical weapons as well as the threat of their use.
* There have been repeated calls for the ongoing violations of International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law taking place in the Syrian conflict to be referred to the International Criminal Court for investigation. On the 24th of Feburary the UN Security Council called for a 30 day cessation of hostilities in Syria. The conflict now entering its eighth year with such devastating consequences must be brought to an end.

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