Turning Off the Light: Protecting Survivors of Torture (Peace and Conflict Series)

Publicising Human Rights violations and holding perpetrators of torture accountable has been guiding practice for much human rights work. As Prof. Tobias Kelly shows in this contribution to the GJA’s Peace & Conflict blog series: rather than shining light into dark places, many victims want the lights switched off. Kelly suggests that that the need for protecting victims may be more important than the need to hold perpetrators accountable.

By Tobias Kelly

Perpetrators need to be held to account and victims need redress. This has been the central principle of human rights work against torture for the past fifty years. However, collaborative work we have been carrying out in Kenya, Bangladesh and Nepal suggests that for many survivors- especially amongst the poorest and most vulnerable in society- the emphasis might be in the wrong place. What most survivors want, above all else, is to feel safe and secure, and accountability has only an indirect relationship with the desire for protection. 

The risk of prosecution

Over the past three years, I have been part of a collaborative project with Danish NGO DIGNITY, the Kenyan Independent Medico-Legal Unit, Social Science Baha in Nepal and the University of Dhaka’s Department of Peace and Conflict Studies. Together, we have been working with other human rights organisations and para-legals trying to understand the prevalence of torture and ill-treatment in low-income nieighbourhoods. The poor are often deeply vulnerable to violence, but face numerous obstacles when it comes to access to justice. One of the main objectives of the research has been to link work on torture and ill-treatment with wider interventions aimed at reducing violence. In part this has meant working with practitioners to widen the ways in which we understand the causes and consequences of state violence.

An informal neighbourhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh

As part of this work we carried out household surveys on exposure to state led violence and justice seeking behavior. One of the most sobering findings was that whilst many of the residents of these slums had direct experience of torture and ill-treatment, only a very tiny percentage would ever consider reporting this to human rights groups. When asked about generalities, many of them would say they wanted legal redress. But when asked about what they actually did after an act of violence, the overwhelming majority reported that they sought out protection, not justice. Taking a case to court, going to the police, or seeking help from human rights practitioners would take too long, was seen as highly unlikely to produce any tangible results, and above all would expose them to further reprisals at the hands of the police.

In an ideal world most survivors would certainly want perpetrators to be prosecuted and to receive some form of compensation for their suffering. However, all too often this is seen as a distant aspiration that might actually put them at further risk. In a context where legal systems might be unwilling and unable to stand up to perpetrators, focusing on legal accountability can fail to take into account the everyday reality of life for the poor and marginal.

Protection first

Much human rights practice works on the assumption that we should shine a light into dark places. Through the glare of human rights work, we can uncover harm and wrong-doing, and then shame perpetrators into ending abuse. However, for many of the people in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Dhaka and Kathmandu, the very last thing they wanted was to have a light turned on their experiences. Doing so would have left them feeling all too exposed. Instead, they want the light to be turned off as quickly as possible. They want to be able to go away and hide from the attention of torturers.

Human rights work has historically treated the protection of survivors as a means to and end. Protection is important because it helps survivors on the road to accountability. Indeed, the United Nations Convention Against Torture only mentions protection in the context of legal accountability. There is no straight-forward and stand alone right for survivors to be protected. But, our research suggests that not only will accountability only be possible once more attention is given to protection issues, but that for many survivors this is the first priority.

Providing protection though is far from easy. In human rights terms, the duty of protection lies with the state. Yet, perpetrators are also state actors. State protection is therefore often deeply inappropriate for survivors. Yet, at the same time, civil society organisations can lack the resources and capacity to make survivors feel safe. The challenge for human rights practitioners is therefore to give greater priority to protection issues and to think of practical solutions for survivors.

Graffiti in an informal settlement in Nairobi