Leslie Gerson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Testimony before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights
House International Relations Committee
Washington, DC, June 29, 1999
U.S. Policy Toward Victims of Torture
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, I am the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which is headed by Assistant Secretary Harold Hongju Koh. Assistant Secretary Koh asked me to convey his regrets that he cannot be with us today, and to thank you for holding this hearing to commemorate the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, and the anniversary of the ratification of the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
This is my first appearance before this Committee, however I am familiar with your dedication to human rights and democracy issues. I am also familiar with the domestic and multilateral support for victims of torture provided by the Torture Victims Relief Act of 1998, which was authored by you, Mr. Chairman, and signed into law by the President last year. Given the Subcommittee's concentrated attention to human rights concerns through hearings and legislation, it is not surprising that this Subcommittee has found time in the hectic Congressional schedule to mark this important anniversary in a constructive and supportive way by focusing on measures to provide relief for the victims of torture. This Subcommittee is to be commended for drawing public attention to the outrage of torture and its consequences throughout the world.
For many of us, torture is virtually inconceivable. It is simply not part of our frame of reference. But for all too many, it is a brutal reality that leaves scars for a lifetime. The stories of the victims are indeed horrific, and the NGOs, institutions and individuals that serve victims, working to heal their physical and psychological wounds, are to be commended for their important work. They make a positive impact on shattered and traumatized lives. Organized efforts to address these problems seek to make it easier for torture survivors to recover to become an integral part of the larger community.
In the second panel you will be hearing testimony from expert NGO witnesses who work with torture survivors. Because these witnesses are well equipped to discuss the horrors of torture, the motivation of torturers, and the long-term effects of torture, I will limit my remarks to U.S. government efforts to support the international fight against torture and to aid those whose lives have been unjustly damaged by torture.
Let me emphasize, the United States is firmly committed to ending torture and helping individuals who have suffered from the debilitating practice of torture. Because this work is important and the goals are shared by both the Administration and Congress, I would very quickly note that even prior to passage of the October legislation, and since, the Administration has been working on the concepts embodied in the bill. As President Clinton said last October when he signed the Torture Victims Relief Act authorizing continued and expanded U.S. contributions to treatment centers in the U.S. and abroad, "The United States will continue its efforts to shine a spotlight on this horrible practice wherever it occurs, and we will do all we can to bring it to an end."
We can be proud that the U.S. has long played a vigorous leading role in the formulation of the United Nations Declaration on Protection from Torture, and in the negotiations on the Convention Against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which was ratified in 1994. The United States is the largest single donor to the United Nations Voluntary Fund on Torture, providing $3 million in FY99. I would also briefly mention that Assistant Secretary Koh has discussed with Ambassador Swett ideas for working with the Danish Government to honor and give moral support to torture victim support organizations worldwide.
In addition, we speak out regularly against torture in our public statements and public diplomacy. And, in our reporting in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which we submit to this Committee every February, we strive to fully cover internationally recognized individual, civil and political rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically including freedom from torture. Mr. Chairman, as you know, the report on each individual country includes a section covering findings of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. We are very proud of the fact that in the Country Reports we criticize those who torture whether they are friend or foe, and we believe that that criticism itself contributes in many cases to a reduction in abusive practices.
When we find evidence of torture, we use bilateral channels to raise our concerns forcefully with responsible governments, consistently raising these important concerns at the highest of levels. We also work through a number of multilateral organizations to press our specific concerns about torture situations. For example, at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights we support country-specific resolutions which mention cases of torture, and also the thematic resolutions which support the work of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. We strongly emphasize the importance for all countries to cooperate fully with the Rapporteur, underscoring the vital importance of the Rapporteur's independence and ability to have full access to human rights activists and abuse victims with full safeguards protecting these sources.
Simply put, where there is evidence of torture, we demand an accounting. Torturers must be shown that they cannot act with impunity. For example, the United States took the lead in pushing for the formation of International Criminal Tribunals on the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, to bring to justice those responsible for torture and other crimes. Most recently, we have worked very closely with the Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, to document a wide array of human rights abuses, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, including torture in Kosovo. We are also seeking to establish mechanisms of accountability for the Khmer Rouge and the current regime in Iraq, and we support the work of truth commissions the world over, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, and those in Guatemala and El Salvador.
But demanding justice is only half the battle. This Administration is also interested in trying to help torture survivors. The Administration does this in a variety of ways, ranging from technical assistance to facilities that focus on the treatment of victims, to protection for survivors from return to countries where there is a substantial risk of torture. One of the more tangible and direct ways in which we offer protection to those at risk of torture is through compliance with the Convention Against Torture. We urge countries that have ratified the Convention to abide by its tenets, and we urge countries that have not yet ratified to consider doing so. Many torture victims are caught up in humanitarian crises, as we have seen in the Balkans and the Great Lakes region of Africa. The United States is the leading contributor to international humanitarian assistance, and has funded psycho-social and other aspects of health care in response to the needs of refugees and conflict victims in many regions who have suffered torture.
In sum, we believe that United States support for treatment programs demonstrates United States opposition to torture and gives hope to those seeking human rights and democracy. We believe that it is an appropriate course of action and that it reaffirms our national commitment to ending such heinous crimes and upholding our most cherished American values. Mr. Chairman, I know you have heard from other Administration representatives that the U.S. Report to the Committee on Torture, as required by the Convention on Torture, is near completion. I am pleased to inform you that we expect the report to be completed by the end of the summer, and Assistant Secretary Koh is looking forward to an opportunity to brief the Committee on this report when it has been submitted to the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
In closing, we extend our concern and regard to individuals who have experienced the cruelty of torture. We honor those at the Minnesota Center for Victims of Torture, and others, who labor at direct care, education and prevention. And finally, we reaffirm our commitment to this cause, as well as our desire and willingness to work closely with Congress on these complex and troubling issues.
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