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A Day to Support Victims of Torture in Health Care

“This is 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.”

With these words 14 years ago today, Former United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, marked the first-ever International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. This annual event is dedicated to remembering victims, supporting survivors, and honoring those who have dedicated their lives to fighting torture around the world. June 26 carries great meaning as both the day the United Nations Charter was signed in 1945 and the day in 1987 when the United Nations Convention Against Torture came into effect.

Today, as we reflect on the impact that torture has had on so many people and appreciate those who continue to fight against it, let us not forget the often overlooked victims and survivors who have been tortured under the guise of health care.

Health settings should be places where human rights are realized. It is, after all, hospitals and clinics where people come—often with their defenses down and at their time of greatest need—seeking care, trusting the judgment and expertise of doctors and nurses, and never suspecting that they may need to steel themselves against abuse. Yet, across the world, health facilities often serve as venues of punishment, coercion, and violations of basic human rights, sometimes amounting to torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Torture in health care disproportionately affects people from stigmatized and socially marginalized groups—people living with HIV, people with life-limiting illnesses, ethnic and racial minorities, sexual and gender minorities, people who use drugs, and people with intellectual disabilities or mental health problems.

Late last year, the International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights (Interights) published a dedicated issue of its respected Bulletin on torture and ill treatment in health care. Contributors highlighted some of the most egregious abuses, including forced and coerced sterilization, detention and physical abuse in the name of drug treatment, and denial of cheap and effective painrelief medications for patients with life-limiting illnesses. In 2009, Human Rights Watch released a report, Please Do Not Make Us Suffer Anymore, in which patients in India who suffered from severe and untreated pain “expressed the exact same sentiment as torture survivors: all they wanted was for the pain to stop.” Patients who are denied access to adequate pain treatment have often told doctors that they would prefer death over the unbearable pain they are forced to endure.

International law explicitly protects patients in health settings against torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and there are many national, regional, and international mechanisms designed to promote accountability for such abuse.Yet, these mechanisms are rarely applied to health facilities.

To help address this gap, and on the occasion of this year’s International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the Open Society Foundations and other partners in the Campaign to Stop Torture in Health Care are pleased to announce the publication of the manual Twenty Mechanisms for Addressing Torture in Health Care. The Open Society Foundations has also launched a new grants competition to support advocates to use the manual in fighting instances of torture in health care in their communities or the communities of those with whom they work. The manual describes 20 anti-torture mechanisms from the United Nations and from African, European, and Inter-American human rights systems and provides illustrative examples on how to use these mechanisms to fight torture in health care. For each mechanism, the manual explores mandate, procedure, possibilities for engagement, and prior work on torture in health care.

We hope the manual and the associated grants will serve as a resource for organizations that advocate against abuse in health care or those that would like to start. These could include international, regional, and national human rights organizations; groups focused on particular health care abuses; anti-torture groups; or UN treaty bodies themselves. We hope that these tools help those fighting torture in health care to “speak up against the unspeakable.”

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