During his first address to the UN General Assembly five years ago this month, President Obama said:
“On my first day in office, I prohibited – without exception or equivocation – the use of torture by the United States of America. I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed, and we are doing the hard work of forging a framework to combat extremism within the rule of law. Every nation must know: America will live its values, and we will lead by example.”
His words signaled to the world that the United States was committed to turning the page on a dark chapter in U.S. policy. We also know there is more work to be done by the U.S. government to fully reckon with the past illegal use of torture and cruelty, including the public release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture.
Another valuable way for the president to demonstrate America’s values and respect for human dignity is through U.S. support for the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.
Established in 1981, the Fund was the first institution created to focus global attention on the impact of torture and the needs of its victims. It brings together much-needed donations from the international community into one fund for torture survivor rehabilitation.
We urge the president and other members of the U.S. delegation to use the occasion of this year’s 69th session of the General Assembly to commit to increased U.S. contributions to the Fund and to engage other countries in increasing their investments to the Fund as well.
Global torture survivor rehabilitation programs supported by the Fund help tens of thousands of survivors heal from their deep wounds and rebuild their lives through providing psychological, medical and social assistance, legal aid, and financial support. Many programs that receive assistance from the Fund also function as local human rights defenders in addition to torture survivor rehabilitation, including human rights monitoring, research, and documentation.
For many torture survivor rehabilitation programs, the Fund is the primary source of funding. Unfortunately, in recent years the Fund has experienced decreased international contributions despite urgent needs arising from the increasing number of survivors fleeing horrific violence, such as those from the ongoing conflict in Syria. At our healing site in Jordan that extends rehabilitative care to Iraqi and Syrian refugees, which the Fund helps make possible, we see many Syrians, including children, who have experienced unimaginable suffering, such as brutal torture, imprisonment, and killings.
The human rights atrocities committed in Syria are now even becoming more difficult to describe as Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, chair of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, recently told the UN Human Rights Council “I have run out of words to depict the gravity of the crimes committed inside Syria. As the numbers of victims climb ever higher, their stories and their pain seem increasingly obscured by the extent of the tragedy.”
Their recovery and desire for a renewed life are at the core of our mission and will be central to CVT’s participation at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in New York City next week.
We know restoring the health of torture survivors can undo the legacy of torture and promote human rights. International contributions to the Fund are critical to making this happen.
The UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture has a significant role in the rehabilitation of torture survivors worldwide. As global leaders gather for the UN General Assembly, we hope the United States will reiterate its commitment to the Fund and take the lead in building support for the Fund from other countries.
Dross is director of external relations at the Center for Victims of Torture, an international nongovernmental organization based in St. Paul, Minnesota and dedicated to healing survivors of torture and violent conflict and to advocating for human rights and an end to torture.