Photo by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims

Governments must reform their laws on torture, IRCT urges, as it advocates for survivor justice

News 14.12.2023

Governments around the globe systematically deny torture accusations, making it difficult to reform their laws on torture and ensure justice for victims. The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) wants to change that by pushing governments to end torture and constructing reparations processes for torture survivors, who endure lasting physical and psychological trauma.

In 1988, Inge Genefke received the Right Livelihood Award alongside the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT) in Denmark. Together, they pioneered efforts to restore the health and identity of torture survivors. The organisation later split into the RCT and the international entity IRCT, extending its impact beyond Denmark. Today, the IRCT stands at the forefront of documenting instances of torture, advocating for legal reforms and offering indispensable support to survivors worldwide.

Nearly 40 years after its founding, the IRCT operates as an international secretariat for 160 torture rehabilitation centres in 76 countries. Known as member organisations, these centres vary in size and are spread throughout the world.

“Torture is the intentional infliction of pain and suffering by the state that is supposed to protect you,” said IRCT’s Advocacy Director, Asger Kjærum. “Each story is unique and individual, but there are some common things, like severe physical injuries. Everyone has long-term psychological trauma that doesn’t go away.”

The IRCT’s work falls into two categories: facilitating the exchange of best practices between member organisations and engaging in global advocacy to end torture. Kjærum leads the organisation’s efforts to document torture and push governments to reform their laws on the topic. 

“The real problem is implementation,” said Kjærum. “We document torture for court cases and to demonstrate that it’s happening because it is so systematically denied. This makes it hard to have policy discussions on it, but also it denies victims even the most basic acknowledgement that a wrong has been done.”

Part of the reason it is so difficult to get governments to deal with torture is due to the media’s disproportionate coverage of cases related to terrorism and criminal interrogations. The reality of who is victimised by torture, Kjærum explained, is much less sensational.

Stories of Latin American torture survivors

On a recent trip to Colombia, Kjærum and the IRCT met with 15 torture victims from Latin America. Their stories reveal the disturbing truth that most victims are brutalised as a result of discrimination, disregard for protesters, corrupt police officials and abuse in places of detention.

Each of the survivors Kjærum met had a more devastating story than the previous one. Take, for example, the story of Oscar, a transgender activist who was raped by a guerrilla group. He now lives in isolation with his son who was born as a result of the rape.

Then, there is Carolina, a 22-year-old, who was arrested while walking through a protest on her way home. Without committing a crime, she was detained, beaten and forced to watch other inmates be tortured for four days.

“She doesn’t want to see her family or friends because she’s afraid the police are going to come back for her and arrest her loved ones as collateral and do the same thing they did to her” Kjærum said. “She isolates herself completely. She’s alone with all of this.”

The IRCT works tirelessly alongside its member organisations to ensure survivors get the care they need.

“The membership has collectively agreed on a set of standards that they believe are the articulation of good rehabilitation from the perspective of civil society,” said. “They also offer a re-empowerment process, where victims retake control of their situation and their life by telling their stories, becoming activists or supporting others with their rehabilitation.”

Working amid conflict in Palestine and Argentina

The rehabilitation work carried out by the IRCT’s member organisations is particularly vital during periods of conflict. While these rehabilitation centres have had a longstanding presence in Palestine, their efforts have intensified since the Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7 and Israel’s subsequent aerial bombardment, blockade and ground invasion of Gaza.

“We have been active in Palestine, especially on the West Bank, both focusing on Israel’s and the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) violations against Palestinians,” said Kjærum. “In addition to the widespread torture by Israel against detained Palestinians, there’s quite a bit of torture and ill-treatment taking place when Palestinians are detained by the PA.”’

Since October 7, the IRCT’s role has shifted to ensuring the staff providing rehabilitation care also receive the support they need.

“We’re setting up a caregivers network where psychologists from other member organisations volunteer to support the staff in Palestine who are working under tremendous amounts of stress and insecurity,” Kjærum said.

Similarly, the IRCT is preparing to assist its Argentinian member organisations in anticipation of potential crackdowns on protesters following the recent election of far-right outsider Javier Milei as president.

“We’re seeing if we can facilitate knowledge exchange between organisations in Brazil and Argentina”, said Kjærum. “When this ugliness comes in, it becomes difficult for civil society to navigate because of the absence of interest in facts … that’s something that Brazil has a good experience dealing with.”

New avenues for justice

Looking ahead, Kjærum is hopeful that the IRCT will continue to improve its ability to help survivors receive justice. This optimism is fueled, in part, by the expanding understanding of what justice can be.

“One positive trend is the idea that we can construct justice and reparation outside of the scope of the state,” said Kjærum. “We will keep trying to get perpetrators prosecuted, but some victims feel like they can get justice through activities that they do to expose the crimes or through acknowledgement by other people of what has happened.”

A few years ago, Right Livelihood introduced IRCT  to colleagues of Right Livelihood Laureate Denis Mukwege to learn about the Global Survivors Fund (GSF). Mukwege co-launched the GSF in 2019 to increase access to reparations for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. As a result of this meeting, the IRCT is learning from GSF and its approach to co-creating reparation directly with survivors.

While in Colombia, Kjærum met victims from Mexico and Chile who expressed that they had gotten some form of justice and reparations through such processes.

“It’s hard to say how much this will work for other victims but it’s a promising development”, said Kjærum. “It’s incredible to see the impact it has on victims’ healing process.”

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