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UN Observes International Day in Support of Victims of Torture


The United Nations says the absolute prohibition against torture has eroded. To mark the International Day in support of Victims of Torture, the United Nations is launching a publication, called "Rebuilding Lives," which presents the experiences of torture survivors and the efforts of those who work to rehabilitate them.

The International Convention Against Torture has been ratified by 142 countries. And, yet, the United Nations estimates 75 percent of countries around the world practice torture in a systematic way. It says victims often suffer life-long consequences. The United Nations says rehabilitation is essential.

Jose Quiroga of Chile is the co-founder and medical director of the Program of Torture Victims in Los Angeles, California. Founded in 1980, it is the oldest such program in the United States.

Quiroga says, victims of torture have post-traumatic symptoms throughout their lives. But, he says they can learn to function and lead a normal life. "A man who was tortured in Iran for many years, (so) that the person have serious problems, and after a process of rehabilitation he became very functional again, and now he is working in an office of a lawyer. He is a person who has been really doing a lot of normal life in a way. But, still symptoms could occur," he said.

Dr. Quiroga says 70-percent of all torture victims seen in rehabilitation centers in the United States are from Africa. He says most victims who show up in centers in developed countries come from the developing world.

The Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture came into force a few days ago. The United Nations calls it a milestone in the fight against torture and impunity, because it provides safeguards and mechanisms that could potentially prevent torture from occurring. For example, states that are parties to the protocol have to allow visits to places of detention.

The protocol is binding only on the 20 countries that have ratified it. Nevertheless, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, says it can be used to press countries not to send prisoners to other countries where they might face torture. "As you know, there is an obligation of non-refoulement to any country where there is a real risk that the person will be exposed to torture," he said.

Arbour says the protocol was a step in the right direction. "It seems to me that, in the assessment of the risk of torture, the fact that there is ratification of the Optional Protocol should be viewed as a very positive factor," he said.

This year's observance of the International Day in support of Victims of Torture also marks the 25th anniversary of the U.N. Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. Over the years, the fund has supported hundreds of centers that have rehabilitated thousands of torture victims.

Many of their tales are recounted in a new book, "Rebuilding Lives", in which people who received help in Australia, Bosnia-and-Herzegovina, Chile, Pakistan, and Rwanda recount their experiences.

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