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Honoring Victims of Torture Means Repairing Trust in Healers

by Sarah Dougherty, JD, MPH on June 26, 2014

Today, UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, marks 27 years since the UN Convention against Torture came into effect. June 26 has become, in the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, “a day on which we pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable. This is an occasion for the world to speak up against the unspeakable.”

All too often, the victims of torture are forgotten. Hollywood and politicians alike frequently portray the victims of torture as powerful forces of evil, while those who torture are painted as willing to risk everything to save the world. We rarely see the story of the eloquent dissident who is tortured for refusing to be silenced or the teenage boy swept up in a police raid whose only crime is being poor or black. The excuses of public safety and national security are evoked to make us fearful and accepting of the crimes of torture. We are shielded from the horrors of such torture, which often occurs in classified locations, perpetrated by undisclosed actors, and justified through secret orders. The collective result is that those who argue torture is necessary are seen as our defenders, and those who are tortured are stigmatized.

Today, we must remember those who have borne the brunt of torture – the individuals, the families, and the communities harmed by a crime that is universally prohibited, but nonetheless widespread. The effects of this crime last long after the physical or psychological pain has ended. The memories and scars of torture will stay with victims and survivors for the rest of their lives. To suffer torture is to live with the fear that someone else can so easily violate your body and mind, with no consequences whatsoever.

Healing takes time. And part of this process involves neutralizing the stigma often associated with admitting to being a torture victim – victims who often face the question of what they did to deserve it. Victims must feel safe and be empowered to share their stories and have their experiences validated.

Part of recovery entails helping victims through the journey of transformation from victim to survivor – a process that requires the active participation of medical professionals. Both the physical and psychological harms suffered by survivors require professional attention for healing. Unfortunately, these same professionals – by virtue of their skill and proximity to power – are far too often drawn into facilitating and even perpetrating acts of torture. The recently leaked summary of a report on CIA detention techniques confirmed that physicians and psychologists have long been involved in devising so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques meant to break the minds and bodies of prisoners. Their involvement has critically damaged trust in the health profession in jails, detention centers, and the like.

Of course, the vast majority of health professionals do adhere to their professional ethics, and they must be ever vigilant in looking for signs of torture and ill-treatment in the people they treat, especially those more vulnerable due to circumstances of identify, detention, or refugee status.

To truly honor victims and survivors of torture, we must restore trust in those charged with healing and helping. Everyone who has engaged in torture, including doctors and psychologists, must be held accountable in court and by their peers for undermining the crucial code of ethics that binds all doctors – namely – never, ever to do harm.


Places: United States

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