Karen Tse (Premiere): Abolishing Torture

Karen Tse On Abolishing Torture
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Watch human rights lawyer Karen Tse explain why it's possible to end torture anywhere in the world in our lifetime.

While my TED talk was categorized under the "Dark Side", what I wanted to share most deeply was the beauty and light that courageous lawyers and defenders bring into the darkest corners of police stations and prisons cells. At International Bridges to Justice, our goal is that a lawyer will meet someone as soon as possible after detention. For most, having a lawyer present at the earliest stage makes the critical difference between being tortured for a confession or having your right to be protected from torture upheld. I struggled in the preparation of this TED talk, in the same way that I struggle now in this blog, to convey the fierce urgency that is upon us. While my hopes when I founded International Bridges to Justice 12 years ago were much more modest, today I believe that it is entirely possible for us to come together as a world community to end torture as an investigative tool in our lifetime.

Why Now?

1. Laws to Prevent Torture Are Now on the Books

Despite the historic spread of democracy in the past two decades, the rule of law remains a dream for the majority of the poor. Legal protections from arbitrary detention and torture have never been realized.

The good news is that laws prohibiting this practice exist in 93 of the 113 countries that continue to practice torture routinely as an investigative tool. This means that the prevalence of investigative torture today is completely preventable if we commit to working with these countries toward implementing their own domestic laws. The fundamental rights these laws are intended to protect are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed more than 60 years ago. Unfortunately, we have not prioritized the implementation of these rights and torture continues as the cheapest form of investigation. If we make a concrete commitment and ensure the necessary resources to build local legal infrastructure, we can breathe life into the very laws that ensure the protection of individuals.

2. Technology Is a Force Multiplier

Ten years ago, there was no Facebook or Twitter or Crowd funding. Social media was in its infancy. IBJ built its international network of defense lawyers through relatively antiquated methods: emails, phone calls and high-heels in the mud. Obviously justice cannot be delivered virtually; it requires the presence of an advocate in the jail cell, interrogation room and courthouse. Yet the rise of social media has created exciting opportunities and we are seeing dramatic results.

At first, International Bridges to Justice started country by country. China, Cambodia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Burundi, India. It changed, however, as defenders discovered us through technology, and we also began to discover and support them through technology. In addition to eLearning and Wikipedia defender sites, we began new innovative "JusticeMaker" pilot programs in more than two dozen new countries throughout the world. These Justicemakers in turn also used technology as a force multiplier.

Take Patrick Dunku, a criminal defense lawyer in Lagos, Nigeria and an IBJ JusticeMaker Fellow in 2008. Patrick created a system to link newly-arrested suspects, lawyers and paralegals by mobile phone. By stationing volunteers at courts every day, they can spot people ensnared in the inefficient judicial system, alert family or friends about their whereabouts and arrange legal aid. It serves as a lifeline for the accused.

3. Power of the People Is Creating Hope

People everywhere are demanding the infrastructure of justice, and are building it too. In Tunisia a single man set off the revolution after people protested against the lack of respect for his legal rights. Prior to the protests the country was seen as a jewel of development in North Africa, with among the highest mobile use, good education and foreign investment. But it was not enough. People wanted legal rights, just as they wanted iPhones. Everywhere in the world, one sees the power of people coming together, demanding their legal rights.

More exciting, is that I see the courageous "Yes" of lawyers and legal communities responding everywhere as they move from fear to hope. Though torture has been the norm in many countries, the lawyers and judiciary have the prophetic imagination to see another world that has not yet existed. Step by step they are willing this new reality into existence. But they cannot do this alone, and are seeking support from the worldwide community to do this.

During the TED talk, I felt myself strangely overcome with a sense of calm. I have known that the only thing holding us back is our own lack of belief in the possibility of a world without torture. During the talk itself, I felt the audience move in one breath from fear to hope. For me, this was catching a glimpse of the dream. For in this moment, I believed in the possibility of everything that we could co-create working together.

Just as the 19th century abolished slavery and the 20th century established human rights, civil rights and improved women's equality in the West, so too the 21st century is the one in which we can end torture as a method of investigation. What is needed to make this happen is our fire of commitment.

So it isn't just about torture. It is about who we are as human beings making our way through history -- and what we choose to create for our world. We have an urgent opportunity today to end torture in our lifetime. I urge us to make the commitment and to seize it together.

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