Monday, June 26, is International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. It is a day to stand with survivors; to affirm their dignity and humanity; and to reflect on the prohibition of torture’s strengths (accepted near-universally as a peremptory norm of international law) and weaknesses (in practice, torture remains widespread). It is also a day to recognize the chasm between the number of survivors who want help rebuilding their lives and seeking justice, and the scant resources available to assist them.
There is no precise figure for the number of torture survivors across the globe. That is in part because, by design, perpetrators frequently torture in secret, and to stifle dissent. Also, the harms survivors suffer – which often include, among other physical and psychological scars, feelings of guilt and shame, and a profound distrust in human relationships – can make it excruciatingly difficult for them to disclose their experiences.
In 2015, the research, monitoring, and evaluation team at the Center for Victims of Torture, where I work, conducted a meta-analysis of all available studies documenting the prevalence of torture just among refugees, asylum seekers, and asylees, who arrived in the United States since 1980. As best we can tell, the torture prevalence rate for those populations is approximately 44 percent, which would mean that there are several million survivors in the United States alone. Extrapolating globally, tens of millions of survivors feels like a conservative estimate.
Of course, not all survivors need or want rehabilitative care, which can include psychotherapy, physical therapy, more traditional medical care, art therapy, case management, and a variety of other approaches. Similarly, not all survivors wish to pursue justice, which can take many forms, including seeking to hold perpetrators accountable. But of those who do want such support, only a fraction will receive it, because global need far exceeds providers’ capacity.
The United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture (the Fund) is doing its best to close the gap. Managed by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Fund awards hundreds of grants annually to civil society organizations worldwide that provide survivors with medical, psychological, legal, social, and other support. In 2023, grantees in 90 countries are implementing projects that will directly assist 53,000 survivors, especially those in situations of particular vulnerability, including: children, youth, persons deprived of liberty, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, asylum seekers, refugees, internally displaced persons, LGBTQI persons, people tortured in detention, victims of enforced disappearances, and victims of sexual violence in armed conflict.
By leveraging U.N. Human Rights field presences worldwide, the Fund can identify organizations that are best-positioned to reach survivors and to make a meaningful impact. Here are just a few examples:
Dieynaba Ndoye Dieng is the Programme Director at VIVRE CAPREC, a Fund grantee that provides medical, psychological, and social care to survivors, including children, from across West Africa. “I accompany the victim, little by little, until they themselves can pronounce the word that they keep inside but dare not admit for fear of being betrayed by their religion, their conscience, their community,” she said. “Torture exists and as long as there will be conflicts I think there will be torture; and there will be victims that will need to be supported and accompanied to relieve their suffering and allow them to build new lives.”
Wassim Mukdad was detained and tortured by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. At least weekly, he would be taken from his cell and forced to lie stomach-down on a table for beatings. “I am a musician, but I didn’t tell them so. I told them that I am a doctor, which is also true,” Mukdad recalled. “I used to put my hands under my chest, to keep them from being hit. And by this, they didn’t know they (could be) hurting the most valuable part of my body.” Mukdad was among a group of Syrian refugees – represented by a Fund grantee – who faced their abusers in a German court (exercising universal jurisdiction) and obtained a life sentence against the highest-ranking Syrian military officer to be convicted of crimes against humanity.
Siris del Carmen Rentería, a sexual violence survivor from Colombia, portrayed her road to recovery through a photo exhibit hosted by the Fund, in collaboration with Fundación Círculo de Estudios, a Colombian organization that provides psychosocial care to sexual violence victims. “I have thrown out fear; something enlightened me and encouraged me to show my face,” she said. “I would like for all those who have been denied the right to justice, like me, to speak up.”
The money that flows through the Fund to support essential projects like these comes almost entirely from U.N. member states. But most states do not contribute at all, and many that do contribute can, and should, give more. The Fund’s budget hovers around $10 million annually. In 2022, the Fund had to turn down $5 million in applications that, resources permitting, it would have approved.
Imagine how many worthy applications the Fund would receive if it had, say, $100 million to distribute. That is not an unrealistic goal. For many countries, giving the Fund a few million dollars each year is a rounding error, if that, on their national budgets (or even a section thereof). Over the Fund’s 40-plus year history, only two countries other than the United States have made an annual contribution that exceeds $1 million – Germany and the Netherlands. Countries that are not in a position to give substantially could make at least a nominal contribution, and consider other ways to demonstrate their support; Peru, for example, co-chairs the Fund’s Group of Friends, an initiative launched in 2019 to promote the right to redress for survivors worldwide and to mobilize support for the Fund.
Last year, the United States’ $8 million contribution comprised 80 percent of all Fund contributions, an imbalance that has long persisted. The Biden administration is working hard to address this issue, by encouraging other countries to step up.
In 2021, the president himself publicly “urge[d] other governments to join us in supporting this critical lifeline for torture survivors.” Both Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have highlighted the Fund’s important work several times since. On June 26, the United States will co-host a side event at the 53rd Session of the Human Rights Council – alongside Peru, Denmark, the Fund, and the Center for Victims of Torture – titled “Transitioning from Horror to Healing: Preventing Torture and Helping Survivors Rebuild Their Lives.” The event will feature Natasha Nzazi (a survivor and advocate), Volker Türk (the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights), Ambassador Michèle Taylor (U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council), Ambassador L. Chuquihuara Chil (Permanent Representative of Peru to the United Nations Office at Geneva), and others. The goal is to grow the Fund, significantly and sustainably, and in so doing to strengthen the anti-torture movement as a whole.
It is too often lost in the fight against torture that much of the work is rooted in hope. There is hope in survivors’ healing journeys; in survivors reclaiming their voices; and in the leadership roles that many of them play across the human rights movement. Hope is a powerful change agent, and in the simplest terms, it is what the Fund and its grantees build. When states are considering whether to give more to the Fund, or to give at all, it is hard to imagine a better reason to lean in.