Human Rights Abuses:

Survivors of torture and trauma

What is torture?

Torture is a process of brutal human degradation that occurs in a setting of political repression. The World Medical Association, in its Declaration of Tokyo (1975), defines it as follows:

... torture is defined as the deliberate, systematic or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons acting alone or on the orders of any authority, to force another person to yield information, to make a confession, or for any other reason.

This attack is always carried out by or with the approval of a public official (United Nations 1984). It forms part of the systematic process of state control of dissident beliefs and the oppression of communities. However, it is not merely the survivor of torture who suffers and, in fear, may be driven into cells. The systematic and repressive nature of the violence affects all people who share an ethnicity, religion, or political ideology with the immediate victim. In deed, it is the intention of state that this should be the case.

According to Ignacio Martin-Baro (1988), torture can be best described as "organized state violence". [He was the vice-rector of the University of Central America and one of the Jesuits tragically murdered in El Salvador in 1989 because of his human rights work.] He described two aspects of the violent process operating in his country, "dirty" and "psychological" warfare. Between 1980 and 1983, one out of every 200 Salvadorans was a direct victim of the dirty war. Many were killed by the so called death squads, which operated with state support and impunity. From 1984 onwards, there was an attempt to shift to a more sophisticated (and politically more acceptable) psychological warfare. This required that brutal actions were carried out on a few individuals in such a way that the wider population was literally terrorized. For this to be successful, the state had to make sure that the population was well informed about the violence taking place and was maintained in a state of fear by a sequence of unpredictable actions involving acts of intimidation, alternating with conditional protection.

What is the effect of torture?

Systematic harassment, detention, interrogation, and searches share similar repressive intentions. The effects of sudden rounding up of civilians by soldiers, threatening all the inhabitants of a village may be identical to the application of electric shocks to skin and genitals, and the half drowning of submarino torture, which are all included in lists of physical tortures. Psychological torture methods, (for instance deprivation of sleep, blindfolding, lack of human contact, etc.) leave a deep sensation of helplessness and fear. Torturers today are able to create conditions which effectively break down the victim's personality and identity and his ability to live a full life with and amongst other human beings.

The RCT (The Rehabilitation and Research Center for Torture Victims) have never encountered torture survivors who, after the torture, have given up their ethical/political beliefs. However, the torturers have succeeded in weakening the strength and resistance of the torture survivors so they are no longer able to work or fight in the same way as before they were subjected to torture.

The worst consequences of torture for the survivors are psychological. Deep feelings of shame and guilt often occur after torture. The feeling of guilt may be caused by the mere fact of survival while friends may have died under torture, or perhaps information was given that could have harmed friends.

What can be done?

The treatment of torture survivors comprises psychological, somatic and social rehabilitation. By helping torture survivors and by showing respect and dignity towards them, we are helping the suppressed and those who have worked for free conditions in our country.

Another weapon against torture is awareness. It is important that everybody understands what the torturers really want, when practising torture in a society, is to isolate the victims. By talking openly about torture and not hidding it away, we can break the isolation around the victims.

A very serious problem in the treatment of victims is "impunidad" (that is torturers are hardly ever punished). This is deeply offensive to the conception of justice, first of all in the torture survivors and also for the persons who are working against torture.

With collective good will and political determination the practice of torture could be eradicated sooner rather than later. IF WE REALLY WANT IT, IT CAN HAPPEN ..... JUST AS SLAVERY WAS ABOLISHED IN THE LAST CENTURY. It is up to us to do it.

Dr Khin Saw Win

This commentary is based on a posting Dr. Khin Saw Win made in the soc.culture.burma newsgroup and the FreeBurma Yahoo! Group on 2001-07-15. The posting has been edited for inclusion on the Burma Watch International Web site.

Date last changed: 2010 March 20

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