Torture, Healing and Accountability

We owe torture survivors, and we owe ourselves truth and accountability.
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You may not know it, but June 26 is United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. It was on this day 25 years ago, that an international treaty banning torture, cruel inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment went into effect. Our country is a signatory to this treaty and played a central role in its drafting.

As a physician who cares for torture survivors from all over the world, this June 26 is particularly meaningful. Unlike one year ago, we now have an administration that has repudiated the use of torture rather endorsed it -- albeit the Bush/Cheney administration didn't call it torture, they called it "enhanced interrogation." We now have an administration that talks about the rule of law, rather than the rule of fear and deluded necessity. Torture is never acceptable even against those who would do us harm.

If we truly want to show support for torture victims we need to provide care for them, and we need to do all we can to end torture. In order for this to happen there must be accountability for torture committed in the name of our country.

Torture is endemic and is documented to occur in approximately 100 countries. As you are reading this, it is likely that organizers of the recent demonstrations in Iran are being beaten and subjected to mock executions. In Tibet, Buddhist monks are being shocked with electric cattle prods. In Zimbabwe activists are being forced to remain naked in dark foul smelling cells ridden with feces.

The overwhelming majority of torture victims worldwide are innocent civilians. They are students, political and religious leaders, ordinary citizens who peacefully speak out for freedom and basic human rights. They were tortured by despot regimes in the name of national security for daring to question the ruling authorities. Torture is typically not used to elicit accurate information -- for which it is woefully ineffective -- but rather it serves to break the will and the dignity of individuals and entire societies. Here in the United States, it is estimated that roughly 400,000 torture survivors from all over the world now call the U.S. home. The cab driver from Sierra Leone, or the Tibetan working as a home attendant may well have endured terrors and atrocities you can't imagine. Or maybe you can, since many of the things they have endured are eerily similar to what we have learned detainees in U.S. custody were subjected to.

So how should we commemorate June 26? First, we must care for those who have endured torture. Programs doing this work need greater support. In the United States, the National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs has over 25 member organizations caring for torture survivors that need your support in order to meet the enormous demand for such services. Federal funding for torture treatment through the Torture Victims Relief Act, has remained the same since it was first enacted in 2000. Worldwide, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims has over 100 member organizations. The Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture in New York City, which I direct, has cared for nearly 700 individuals in the past year alone. And substantial waiting lists for our Program and others are all too common. My colleagues and I are often asked about how depressing this work must be. It is true that we see the bruises and broken bones from beatings. We hear about the shame, humiliation and relentless nightmares and terrifying memories. We witness the pain and uncertainty of our patients, many of whom don't know if the family members and friends they left behind when fleeing their home countries are alive or dead. Nevertheless, the work is enormously gratifying. Individuals recover from the physical and psychological wounds. Families are reunited. The human spirit is resilient and while we cannot undo the terrible events that occurred, there is much we can do to help torture survivors restore health, dignity and trust.

Today, our country faces an even more pressing challenge. It is essential that we acknowledge and take responsibility for our actions over the past several years as we turned a blind eye to policies of torture in the name of national security. It defies common sense to presume that torture resulted from only a few low level "rotten apples." Furthermore, it wrong to think that abusive techniques tantamount to torture were only used on a few "high value" detainees. Thousands of individuals were likely arrested in sweeps in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, held in inhuman conditions, subjected to methods that by any reasonable standard are torture, and then released without ever being charged. We owe these individuals an apology. We owe these individuals help in reclaiming their lives.

But most importantly, we owe torture survivors, and we owe ourselves truth and accountability. Our actions have made the world a much more dangerous place by undermining our credibility and by providing cover and incentive for torture to occur around the world. I believe that history will judge us by how we do or do not come to terms with what happened. Yes we need to focus on the economy and on access to health care, but we can't sweep torture under the rug. It will come back to haunt us.

If we are serious that torture is illegal, that torture is immoral, then there needs to be a comprehensive and independent investigation of torture and the misguided policies of the Bush/Cheney Administration. While committees in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives have and continue to investigate what happened, more questions than answers still remain. More disclosures are likely to come. In addition to being morally sound appointing such a commission makes logistical sense for the Obama Administration. This one is not going away. The unapologetic, fear mongering statements of Mr. Cheney and others are sobering reminders of how easy it is for torture to be condoned and to happen.

So happy June 26, 2009. Let this be the day that we truly affirm our commitment to aiding torture survivors, and that we truly take steps to ending torture.

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