Administration Plays Politics With Victims of Torture

THE appalling accounts of Iraqi brutality against residents of Kuwait helped to mobilize international public opinion in support of taking immediate action to free Kuwait. President Bush cited the use of torture by Saddam Hussein as proof that force was the only policy Saddam would understand.Public outcry against torture has been used to stir our most humane instincts, and cynically misused to justify other, often political, objectives. The verdict is still out on the Bush administration's true intentions. Its policy on the United Nation's Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture raises serious questions. In 1981, the UN General Assembly established the fund for torture victims. Contributions are distributed to victims through established channels. Priority is given to victims in states that have been subjects of UN sanctions on human rights. Since 1983, the fund has authorized almost 200 grants, totaling $5.4 million, for medical care, psychotherapy, social rehabilitation, and physician and social worker training for those specializing in torture treatment. Congress approved the fund's noble mission by appropriating modest annual US contributions - a total of $660,000 since 1985. Certain restrictions were placed on the funding, preventing US funds from going to organizations engaged in terrorism. But even this small sum has not reached those in desperate need. Since 1987, both the Reagan and Bush administrations have withheld US contributions of $388,000, insisting upon a detailed accounting as to how the funds are spent. The Voluntary Fund is committed to making resources available to groups that help torture victims, no matter what the ideology of the oppressive regime. They have made commitments to certain of its grantees not to identify the organizations for fear of placing torture treatment providers at risk. In certain countries where torture remains rampant, Congress recognizes the need to protect these providers. But the administration seeks to impose political litmus tests on which victims deserve support. Instead of suggesting alternatives, the State Department has withheld the funds with no explanation to Congress. The sum is paltry compared to the needs. According to Amnesty International's recent Annual Human Rights Report, thousands of persons survive torture each year as more than 100 states practice or condone its use. Without active programs of healing and recovery, torture survivors often suffer continued pain, depression, and anxiety. The severity of the trauma makes it difficult to hold a job, study, or acquire new skills needed for successful adjustment into society. The US is the only industrial country that does not fund the treatment of torture victims living within its borders. More than 100,000 survivors now reside in the US. The Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis - the first program established in the US to help victims of torture - and similar programs around the country are funded solely by private contributions. The International Convention Against Torture obligates nation states to stop the use of torture worldwide. It also calls upon all governments to provide resources and programs to help victims recover. The US Senate finally approved the treaty in 1990, but little has been done to implement its terms. Perhaps the concern about Iraqi abuses in Kuwait can stimulate specific and meaningful help for the victims. First, an agreement that allows for immediate release of US contributions should be reached. The State Department should immediately release the overdue appropriated funds. The fund should identify for the US those treatment providers who do not object to being identified, and supply descriptions of the location and type of work being done where further identification would jeopardize providers. The foreign-aid authorization bill now moving through Congress calls for a report on unobligated funds appropr iated for the UN Voluntary Fund. Congress must continue to vigorously ensure that these funds are delivered promptly. Second, US contributions to the Voluntary Fund should be significantly increased, to reflect continued high levels of torture and abuse worldwide. Denmark gives more than the US, as do many other European countries. Many other treatment facilities like the one in Minnesota should be established worldwide. Third, Congress should authorize bilateral foreign-aid programs to help victims of torture. This would further institutionalize American commitments against torture, and clearly demonstrate that we care about even victims outside the political spotlight. Increased US support for the UN Voluntary Fund, and for other programs which help torture victims, would be a modest but significant indication of our continued firm commitment to stop torture worldwide.

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