The following was written on the occasion of the 2013 International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Our medical director, Joanne Ahola, MD and her colleague, Coleen Kivlahan, MD share their experiences as volunteer medical advisors with the Physicians for Human Rights‘ Asylum Network. Republished with kind permission from the authors.
An Ethiopian man who sought asylum in the United States had been repeatedly beaten and tortured in his home country simply for engaging in protests against the government. A young Sudanese woman who was an outspoken human rights advocate bears scars from having been burned and beaten by her torturers; she now struggles to interact with people and is afraid of enclosed spaces like subway stations. A Russian college student now living in the United States was beaten to the point of unconsciousness by skinheads because of her sexual orientation, while security agents declined to intervene.
As volunteer medical advisors in Physicians for Human Rights’ Asylum Network, we have examined hundreds of people who came to the United States seeking asylum after being tortured in their own countries. They have endured physical and psychological harm based on their religion, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or gender identity. We have seen 6-year-old girls raped by militia, teens who were kidnapped and trafficked by gangs, pregnant women who were beaten and lost their newborn infants, gay men who were detained and tortured, and grandmothers who watched as their entire families were slaughtered and their homes burned to the ground. The enormity of their suffering is hard for any of us to imagine.
Today, June 26, the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, we remember all the children, women, and men who died at the hands of their torturers, and those still among us. The day provides an opportunity to recognize the remarkable spirit of those who live and work in the United States and are healing from the devastating effects of torture, as well as a chance to demand from our leaders that they take urgent steps to stop torture in all countries, including the United States.
Although torture is a crime under international law, it is still practiced in many nations of the world. It represents the worst of what human beings can do to each other, and often leaves behind painful and long-lasting physical and psychological scars. The medical-forensic evaluations that hundreds of doctors like us around the country conduct are among the best tools we can use for documenting these horrific crimes.
More than 25 years of experience have shown us that effective medical investigation and documentation of torture and ill treatment are essential for preventing and redressing torture while also ending impunity for perpetrators. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) led the UN effort to develop standards for the effective investigation and documentation of torture and ill treatment. Now, more than ever, countries need to recognize and implement these standards – known as the Istanbul Protocol – if they are serious about ending torture. Our country should take the lead, sending the message that torture in all settings is unacceptable, since it conflicts with American values and the fundamental principles on which our nation was built.
The United States is the new home for people like the brave Ethiopian man and the Sudanese woman we have had the privilege to meet. Today, we honor them, and the value they bring to our communities. As a nation, we can do more to ensure that human rights abuses are identified and punished. Every case of torture is one too many.