Torture and ill-treatment remain prevalent in Asia today.
To mark International Day in Support of Victims of Torture and express its solidarity with victims of torture in Asia and around the world, Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR) and its partners reaffirm key messages articulated by 120 torture survivors and their advocates who gathered in Jakarta last April to participate in a regional roundtable discussion, Empowering Survivors, Strengthening Accountability of Torture. “Torture takes place in the dark. We must shine a light on the practices that enable it to take place with impunity,” said AJAR’s President, Patrick Burgess. The roundtable concluded that accountability for and prevention of torture is strengthened when pre-trial detention is limited, legal aid is available, and torture is criminalized. The empowerment of survivors, through trauma healing and assistance, is another key element in the struggle against impunity.
AJAR works with KontraS (Indonesia), the National Peace Council/NPC (Sri Lanka), Associacaon Chega Ba Ita/AcBit (Timor-Leste), and Wimutti Volunteer Group/WVG (Myanmar) to strengthen the voices of torture survivors in their struggle for dignity and accountability.
Torture victims in these four Asian countries live in societies that already suffer from inadequate social safety nets. Compounding this problem is the lack of special programs for victims. During Indonesia’s New Order regime (1965-1998), torture was a common practice of security forces all over the country. Thousands of torture survivors from the past and present continue to be denied the right to rehabilitation. In Timor-Leste, victims of torture, whose only option for getting assistance is through existing programs for “vulnerable persons” or veterans, may have difficulty qualifying. In addition, it takes funds and family support to travel from remote areas to larger villages and cities in order to access resources. This is difficult for many victims, but particularly for those with a physical disability. In Myanmar, many torture survivors lack access to basic support services such as health and medical care, psychological support, legal assistance, and livelihood opportunities. Because government programs are almost non-existent, the gap is filled by local civil society organizations that are small, under-resourced, and mostly clustered in the urban areas. Especially in ethnic areas, the provision of services by civil society groups remains risky if the services are related to cases of torture by military or police. This same pattern is also found in the four countries.
Based on our research, we have found similar patterns of torture and impunity in the four countries. These countries all share colonial antecedents for torture and arbitrary detention, with these practices increasing after independence during periods of conflict and authoritarianism. The victims fall into three broad groups: those suspected of having links to armed groups, political prisoners, and ordinary criminal suspects abused at the hands of police. As with other human rights violations, women experienced torture and its personal impact differently than men. Both male and female survivors face profound physical and psychological consequences: long-lasting physical injuries, psychological trauma, social exclusion, disruptions to their livelihood and other economic difficulties, health problems, and harassment by government and security sector officials.
Major obstacles in efforts to prevent torture in the four countries can be grouped as follows:
- Accountability. Across the region, weak legal and judicial systems stand in the way of holding torturers accountable. Because legal codes often do not specifically criminalize torture, prosecutors either fail to act or must use other, less effective charges if they pursue action at all.
- Rehabilitation and healing. Torture victims live in societies that already suffer from inadequate social safety nets. Compounding this problem is the lack of special programs for victims/survivors of torture. Therefore, victims of torture must look for ways to fulfill their rights for healing and rehabilitation. Some receive assistance from civil society organizations and religious groups, but not all victims.
- Gender justice. The failure to acknowledge sexual violence is a further obstacle to both accountability and healing. Many women torture survivors remain vulnerable to domestic violence as well as to social economic marginalization. Many women survivors are also unable to obtain proper documentation for their children who, because they were born as the result of rape, are barred access to education and to inheritance and other legal rights.
- Local initiatives. AJAR’s experience shows that community-based healing strategies that facilitate peer support can be very effective, and that survivors of torture living in extreme conditions have an extraordinary capacity for resilience and self-help.
Therefore, we urge the governments of Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Timor-Leste, as well as ASEAN, to take immediate action:
- Define and criminalize torture in the national legal code, without exception for emergencies and incorporating the main elements of the UN Convention against Torture.
- Dismantle separate and ineffective justice systems used to adjudicate for military or police criminal behavior, such as torture. Uniformed officials are responsible for most cases of torture, due not only to the lack of training and safeguards, but also the failure to hold perpetrators and their superiors responsible.
- Strengthen legal aid programs, with a special focus to assist victims of torture to bring perpetrators to justice.
- Ratify, incorporate into domestic law, and comply with relevant international instruments:
- Ratify the Convention against Torture (Myanmar)
- Ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture to allow country visits (all four countries)
- Ratify the first Optional Protocol to International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
- Support development of an effective regional human rights mechanism in Asia
- Promptly implement all recommendations found in UN mechanisms, particularly those in the Universal Periodic Review, the UN Human Rights Committee, the UN Special Rapporteurs, and the UN Committee against Torture.
- Officially acknowledge past torture as a first step towards providing justice for victims, encouraging individual healing, and supporting reconciliation at a societal level.
- Create and fund national rehabilitation programs that address survivors’ medical, psychological and material needs.
- Focusing on survivors of sexual violence, provide long-term rehabilitation through appropriate services, and provide special support for women and their children, combined with community-based education, to overcome deeply engrained discrimination and challenge other social norms detrimental to victims/ survivors of torture.
Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR), KontraS, NPC, ACBIT, WVG
Galuh Wandita, email@example.com
Indria Fernida, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Myanmar has yet to sign or ratify the Convention Against Torture (CAT), or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Under domestic law, torture is not specifically recognized as a crime, but acts that may be considered as torture are penalized.
- Sri Lanka provides constitutional protection against torture, and in 1994 ratified the Convention Against Torture (CAT). The official LLRC, Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, has published its findings and recommendations that include key provisions to combat impunity for torture. Torture is endemic in society. The UN provides advice and technical assistance to the Sri Lankan government for the promotion of accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
- Indonesia provides constitutional protections against torture and ratified the Convention Against Torture (CAT) in 1998. Nevertheless, torture is not criminalized in Indonesia’s penal code. Torture is still regularly used to force confessions from detainees during investigations of ordinary crimes or to suppress dissent in conflict areas, such as Papua. The acknowledged impunity and denial of massive crimes that took place in the past are the foundation for the continuation of impunity for acts of torture.
- Timor-Leste ratified the Convention Against Torture (CAT) in 2005 Various transitional justice mechanisms have been established, including a hybrid court for serious crimes, a truth and reconciliation commission (CAVR), and a bilateral commission for truth and friendship with Indonesia (CTF). However, there has been little progress in implementing the key recommendations of these bodies.