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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal Bennett Freeman, Deputy Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Testimony before the International Operations Subcommittee
Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Washington, DC, July 30, 1999


U.S. Policy Toward Victims of Torture

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee: It is a privilege to testify on such an important topic on behalf of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and Assistant Secretary Harold Hongju Koh. Before leaving for Turkey on Wednesday evening, Assistant Secretary Koh spoke at the reception honoring you, Mr. Chairman, and Senator Wellstone, together with Congressmen Smith and Lantos, for your work on the Torture Victims Relief Act and your commitment to helping victims of torture. The reception also paid tribute to the individuals and organizations, including the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims in Copenhagen, that are doing so much to help.

I want to salute you, Mr. Chairman, and Senator Wellstone, for your sensitive work on behalf of the Center for Victims of Torture in Minnesota and other torture treatment centers around the United States. Moreover, your leadership on behalf of legislation to help torture survivors and their families is an inspiration-and an investment in healing wounds and repairing lives.

I first gained an appreciation for the importance of this work in May 1993, when I visited the Center in Minneapolis with then-Secretary Christopher. It was a moving experience that made me understand the difficult challenge of overcoming both the physical and psychological wounds brought about by torture. For most Americans, torture is virtually inconceivable; it is simply beyond our frame of reference. But for all too many around the world, it is a brutal reality that leaves scars for a lifetime. Those organizations and individuals that work with the victims make a positive impact on shattered and traumatized lives, helping torture survivors to recover and 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. Therefore, my statement focuses on U.S. Government efforts to support the international fight against torture and to aid those whose lives have been horribly and unjustly damaged by torture.

Let me emphasize that the United States is firmly committed to ending torture and to helping individuals who have suffered from the debilitating practice of torture. Both the Clinton Administration and Congress share these goals, and we are pleased to work toward them together. As President Clinton said last October when he signed the Torture Victims

Relief Act "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." Even prior to passage of that legislation, and since, the Administration has been working on the commitments embodied in the bill.

One of the backbones of my Bureau's--and indeed the U.S. Government's--work to promote human rights is our annual Country Reports on Human Rights. In these reports, which we submit to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee every February, we strive to cover the 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 and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. It is a hallmark of our Country Reports that they openly report on torture wherever it occurs. We believe that that criticism itself helps to curtail abusive practices in many countries.

In addition to this essential reporting function, our Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor works on these issues on a regular basis, especially in our Offices of Bilateral and Multilateral Affairs. When we find evidence of torture, we use bilateral channels to raise our concerns forcefully with offending governments, consistently raising these important concerns at the highest levels. I had the opportunity to raise concerns related to torture with the governments of Vietnam and Cambodia when I visited those countries two weeks ago. In what was the 7th round of our bilateral human rights dialogue with Vietnam, I discussed prison conditions, including beatings of prisoners, with Vietnamese officials. In Cambodia, because torture in that country is closely bound up in its culture of impunity and is common in police custody when securing confessions from suspects, I gave the Minister of Justice a copy of a recent report on impunity authored by Human Rights Watch together with two leading Cambodian NGOs.

Mr. Chairman, we also work through a number of multilateral institutions to press our specific concerns about torture. We can be proud that the U.S. has long played a vigorous leading role in formulating the United Nations Declaration on Protection from Torture and the Convention Against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading

Treatment or Punishment, which we ratified in 1994. We are proud to comply with the terms of the Convention. At the same time, we urge countries that have ratified the Convention to abide by its tenets, and we urge countries that have not yet ratified to do so.

At the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, we support country-specific resolutions that mention cases of torture and thematic resolutions that support the work of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. We urge all countries to cooperate fully with the Rapporteur, underscoring how vitally important it is that the Rapporteur be independent and 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, as well as those in Guatemala and El Salvador.

But demanding justice is only half the battle. Let me also emphasize that the United States is the largest single donor to the United Nations Voluntary Fund on Torture, providing $3 million in FY99, and increase of $1.5 million over FY98. We also strive to help torture survivors in a variety of ways, ranging from protecting survivors from return to countries where there is a substantial risk of torture to providing technical assistance to victim treatment facilities.

We are committed to protecting those at risk of torture by ensuring that, as stipulated by the U.N. Convention Against Torture, asylum-seekers are not returned to countries where they are more likely than not to suffer torture. In fact, in response to legislation passed last year, the Department of State and the Immigration and Naturalization Service promulgated regulations establishing procedures to ensure that persons in the U.S. are not returned to face likely torture. The Department of Justice is also establishing a working group that will be dedicated to identifying and taking appropriate action--prosecution, extradition, or deportation--against torturers who may be in the U.S.

Mr. Chairman, the State Department also encourages our posts throughout the world to look for ways to work with and help local torture centers. One recent example is a cable we sent all of our posts asking them to contact and establish relationships with treatment centers and report examples of financial and diplomatic support of such centers' activities. We have received many encouraging responses from posts around the world. To cite just one example, our Embassy in Sri Lanka maintains close contact with two organizations that treat torture victims, the Family Rehabilitation Center and a group called Survivors Associated. In addition, the U.S. has funded a $4,400 grant to the Family Rehabilitation Center administered through the Asia Foundation to raise awareness in Sri Lanka about the issues that torture victims face.

Often, torture is accompanied by a wide range of other human rights abuses or occurs in the context of humanitarian crises, as we have seen in the Balkans and the Great Lakes region of Africa. Therefore, a full response to torture requires addressing the broader situation in which it has been perpetrated. 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 around the world who have suffered torture.

In Kosovo, our current human rights and democratization priorities focus on long-term structural goals such as judicial training and establishing a human rights ombudsman. Of course, we seek to find long-term solutions while at the same time ensuring that the human rights protection mechanisms in the immediate post-conflict environment provide effective remedies for all Kosovars. We will continue to work with the UN Mission in Kosovo toward these important goals.

On May 10, the State Department released a report entitled, "Erasing History: Ethnic Cleansing in Kosovo," which detailed human rights abuses in Kosovo up to that point, including instances of torture. A second volume will complete the story and highlight new evidence about mass graves, burning bodies and evidence, using civilians as human shields, and other violations of human rights. We hope to release this report later this year and we will be prepared to brief interested Senators and staff as soon as that report is available.

As we noted in "Erasing History," Kosovo is among the recent conflicts in which we have seen rape and other violence against women used as a weapon of war. Because violence against women is of great concern to us, the U.S. is working hard to address the special needs of those who have suffered such atrocities in the context of its larger efforts to aid all Kosovar refugees. We funded a $10 million Kosovar Women's Initiative which will be the centerpiece of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' efforts to provide psycho-social support to Kosovar refugees affected by violence against women. The UNHCR has also sought to identify victims of such violence in its overall assistance efforts to Kosovar refugees. As relief efforts continue to shift from short-term to long-term efforts, more programs will emerge that address refugees' psycho-social needs.

The U.S. has also funded a project by the World Health Organization (WHO) that will provide counseling and health follow-up to survivors of violence against women. This initiative is being designed and will begin to be implemented soon.

To aid victims of rape and other women's human rights abuses around the world, the U.S. has established the Women Survivors Project. This project, which my Bureau is in the process of funding, will work with indigenous nongovernmental organizations in several countries to provide counseling, social reorientation activities, and training in income-generating activities to mainly women survivors of genocide. The project includes a $100,000 grant to an indigenous non-governmental group in Rwanda called Rwanda-Women-Net that is working particularly with traumatized survivors of genocide and rape.

Through its Polyclinic of Hope project, Rwanda-Women-Net provides treatment services to women of different ethnic backgrounds who shared a common trauma of rape and violence during the 1994 genocide. In addition, it constructs shelters for vulnerable women and their families. Our grant will assist widows and girl heads-of-household and their families in psycho-social adjustment, shelter building, and skills training activities.

We also maintain a firm commitment to see that U.S. military and police training do not benefit known human rights violators, and that security forces that engage in abuses do not use U.S.-produced equipment to do so. The Administration's commitment to this principle was reinforced by recent legislation requiring increased attention to the record of security force units receiving our assistance. We have worked hard to ensure that our embassies understand the new provisions of the Foreign Operations and the DOD Appropriations and that each embassy has in place a plan to ensure that it will comply with the law.

In sum, we believe that our efforts against torture, especially our support for treatment programs gives hope to those seeking human rights and democracy. We believe that this support reflects and reinforces our national commitment to combating the practice of torture and upholding our most cherished American values.

We are well aware of concerns about the Administration's compliance with the portion of the Torture Victims Relief Act that calls for training for consular personnel on how to interact with victims of torture. This issue was highlighted again at a hearing on the House side last month on this same topic. I recently met with Ambassador Ruth Davis and Dean Steve Browning of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and several of their colleagues to discuss the Department's efforts to ensure compliance with this provision. We reviewed our efforts to enhance existing training programs for our consular officers on how to identify and interact with victims of torture-and to direct them toward expert assistance. This is an interagency process involving not only my Bureau and FSI, but also the Bureau of Consular Affairs, and potentially others like the Bureau Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM).

Currently, FSI's basic consular training course includes a role-playing session in which an American citizen has been tortured in a foreign jail, and the consular officer must know how to identify symptoms of torture, be sensitive to the victim's needs, and point the person toward help. We plan to enhance this important segment by emphasizing more fully and explicitly that such concerns and need for sensitivity apply to non-American citizens as well.

In the advanced consular course, my Bureau and others have the opportunity to conduct a class on our issues, and we are committed to ensuring that torture victims' concerns are included in the human rights dimension of this training. FSI's training for political officers also includes components on torture, along with a wide range of other global issues, including human rights concerns.

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 submitted shortly, and we would be pleased 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 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 wrenching issues.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

[end of document]


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