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After the outrage: Care for torture victims

By Gunnar Stålsett / September 27, 2004



OSLO, NORWAY

The continuing revelations of torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, coupled with the latest revelations about abuses at Guantánamo, illuminate a powerful irony: Torture has been thrust into world consciousness just when private funding for treatment and rehabilitation of torture survivors has become scarce.

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Still, there is hope: Governments and legislative bodies on both sides of the Atlantic are now pondering their levels of commitment to such programs. For the public, the issues of torture and abuse of prisoners now have a far more prominent face than ever before. But will that make a difference for those seeking treatment?

I hope so. Over the years, I participated directly in negotiations that brought a measure of peace and stability to Guatemala. My long engagement in this process gave me a heart-wrenching glimpse of the violence done and the scars left behind in the lives of people whose faces and voices I will never forget. These experiences were reinforced by my exposure to the work of a friend of mine, a Norwegian psychiatrist deeply involved in rehabilitation of torture survivors.

But to most people, the invisible victims from Saddam Hussein's Iraq and from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Guatemala, Chile, the Congo, or any of the more than 60 countries where torture has been systematic, go largely unnoticed.

Yet about 500,000 refugees and asylum seekers who endured torture in their home countries now live in the United States, according to congressional data. The impact of torture on their lives is typically indelible, and experts judge that in many instances it can be addressed only through a combination of specialized physical and psychological care, with medication for chronic pain. But treatment is often unavailable to survivors. Such people are doubly victimized, suffering torture and then neglect.

In response to such conditions, the US Congress passed historymaking legislation, the Torture Victims Relief Act, in 1998. At that time, there were only a handful of treatment centers for victims of torture in the US. Since then, expansion has brought treatment and rehabilitation to thousands of survivors in American cities from California to Massachusetts. The overwhelming majority of those assisted come from other countries.

Congress is slated to decide what level of funding to provide for the next two years. In a gratifying development, the House of Representatives this summer voted to increase this year's appropriation by 30 percent. This includes support for the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, which had a budget of $7 million in 2003 ($5.5 million of which was supplied by the US) supporting scores of rehabilitation projects in many countries. More will be helped if increases are passed by the full Congress in the weeks ahead. The total of about $35 million for US domestic and worldwide programs (including those administered by the US Agency for International Development) would be a vital contribution.

A reduction in charitable giving because of the economic downturn has led to cuts in services at torture treatment centers in various parts of America and internationally. Only 5,000 to 10,000 torture victims can be treated by existing American centers. Precise numbers of those wanting such services are elusive, because there are insufficient resources to do the outreach needed to make that determination.

Across the Atlantic, the European Union has begun this year to reassert its own commitment to rehabilitation of torture survivors. Long a mainstay of treatment centers in Europe and throughout the world, the European Commission, the administrative center of the EU, in 2002 cut about $7 million of its total of $18 million in torture treatment funding. A public outcry caused the European Parliament to call for a reversal of the action. But so far, the EC has restored only about half of what had been cut from torture rehabilitation programs; without full restoration, severe damage already caused by the cuts will be prolonged and intensified.

And, alarmingly, next year the European Commission once again may try to cut about $5 million from its torture rehabilitation budget. This should be prevented. Indeed, the EU must be encouraged to increase its torture rehabilitation funding to a level commensurate with - or, given the comparative size of the EU economy, even greater than - that adopted by the US.

Simple morality dictates that every torture survivor - whether from Abu Ghraib, Guatemala, or Afghanistan - who wants such help should receive it. And by joining forces to address this vital humanitarian need, the US and Europe can act in their best traditions. There should be no doubt that victims of torture have a claim on our conscience.

Gunnar Stålsett is Lutheran bishop of Oslo and a former deputy leader of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

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