TORTURE: ASIAN AND GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES | AUGUST 2012
VOLUME 01 NUMBER 03


Erik Wendt has shared with us his insights about the prevention of torture programme, in which he has been involved for over decade. Erik is the Programme Manager for Asia of the RCT – Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture, which is one of best organisations working against torture, globally. Since 1997, he has worked as RCT Asia Program Manager and has been responsible for the development of the programme in Asia. His main duties include co-ordination and development of rehabilitation and prevention projects, s well as regular project visits to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand (ThaiBurmese border), India, Nepal, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Mr Wendt speaks to Nilantha Ilangamuwa, editor of Torture Magazine.

Nilantha Ilangamuwa ( NI): Despite being illegal and socially taboo in many countries, torture remains rampant.This was an important point that you raised in your article just after forming the Asian Alliance Against Torture and Ill-treatment (AAATI) in 2011. Could you please explain more about this point and the experiences you have gained from working to prevent torture?

EW: Well….the fear factor is always there, when we address the state torture. Nevertheless, people do come forward and we have reached the point today where courageous local and international human rights watchdogs document, investigate and report many torture cases. We still do not have regular and updated baseline data on the prevalence of torture and the identity of the perpetrators, due to several factors. The fact that torture is illegal results in many of the atrocities being committed in a clandestine fashion. This shows the cowardly nature of the perpetrators. Also, the fact is that torture and disappearances are used by military operations in areas that are severely restricted from public scrutiny. I do see tendencies towards a broader public awareness of torture around Asia; however, we also observe how governments, even legitimate elected and in named democracies of Asia, seek to maintain their international reputation and dismiss the use of torture by their so-called law-enforcement agencies as individual excesses of force and nonvalidated cases. Furthermore, they use direct and indirect censorship of the national media to suppress the flow of information to the broader public. It is rare to see a state television report on a torture case by their police or military force.

“As in the case of any long-term chronic conditions of maladies, the fight against torture is not  singular or straightforward.

I have visited many development and human rights organizations and my conclusion is that most mainstream civil society organization are genuinely interested in our work against state torture and ill-treatment; however, they are more difficult to activate and engage in a dialogue on partnership against torture. They may focus on violence against women and children, but when it comes to state torture I think the fear factor is widespread within these organizations. On the other hand, I have observed more and more civil society agents coming forward in years.

NI: Based on your time working on the issue of torture prevention and your dealings with local organisations, what are the major challenges that human rights activists are facing?

EW: In comparison to the abundance of local organizations working with poverty reduction projects, you find fewer organizations driven by human rights protagonists who are dedicated to torture prevention. Accordingly, at the end of the day it is easier for the state to spot, isolate, control and suppress these anti-torture initiatives. We need to take care and protect the human rights defenders. This is a major issue. It is important to counteract the state suppression by seeking protection of the legitimate work of these human rights organizations. We contribute through local alliance building as well as building solidarity with regional and international networks. Although the human rights activists share a similar vision of a world free of torture, it is unfortunate that, in some cases, these rights activists are split along different ideologies and personalities. Secondly, any leader of a human rights organization has to mobilize some funds to sustain his program, the donor community is smaller when it comes to donations for prevention of torture. Here we have a challenge to explain better to the donors the linkages between state torture and development.

NI: Eliminating the practice of torture is a long process and there is no universal model to apply to every society. What are the core factors that we have to focus on, to help make the public understand and take necessary action against torture?

EW: As in the case of any long-term chronic conditions of maladies, the fight against torture is not singular or straightforward. We do make progress and we do make a difference to thousands of victims and survivors of torture. We have to work with a long term perspective and we utilize all our theoretical background, our innovative ideas and experience on what works, when and how. Sometimes, we see rapid changes and political openings and we use such opportunities but we have also had setbacks in our anti-torture work when a political regime has changed. The strengths of the RCT model is our close partnership and support from the Danish Government, as it enables us to continue our work and deepen our support to a selected number of civil society organizations and in a selected number of countries across the world. It is our partners, who knows the context and have the details from the inside of the violence and torture. This gives us a unique opportunity to respond quickly to a concrete situation, a sudden political and security shift on the ground. We are able exchange knowledge and experience across many different scenarios in many parts of the world. This is our strength.

NI: You have been observing the sociopolitical systems of most countries in Asia for some time. Could you please share with us your understanding of major problems that Asian countries are facing today?

EW: Asia has experienced huge development in terms of economic growth. Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty and they have benefitted in terms of access to social services. This is very clear from the monitoring of the implementation of the MDG goals. But at the same time, you see massive negative consequences of this development as millions are left behind and side tracked from the development dividend. Unfortunately, we haven’t witnessed a parallel to this massive economic development when it comes to democracy and rule of law. State sponsored violence and police torture is rampant in many Asian societies and genuine human development is not easily forthcoming. Unfortunately, with the economic muscle of the emerging countries has also followed a tendency to ignore or suppress internal and international critique. This is a challenge – not only for the UN system and the international community – but for civil society as a whole, as we need to find ways to reengage the state in a human rights discourse leading to acceptance and action.

State sponsored violence and police torture is rampant in many Asian societies and genuine human development is not easily forthcoming.

NI: According to Prof. Manfrek Nowak, who was a UN special rapporteur on Torture, the RCT is the most famous torture rehabilitation centre in the world. Can you briefly analyse the role of the RCT on torture prevention in the world?

EW: The RCT was started a long time ago. We were one of the first health based organizations worldwide that addressed the negative individual and societal consequences of torture. This year we celebrate our 30 years anniversary and we will have three former Danish foreign ministers attending the ceremony and they will reassure the Danish political commitment to support the international work against torture. This is remarkable and demonstrates the massive public support for our work. But the real strength of our work is the close partnership with courageous and highly dedicated and experienced human rights organizations around the world. Without their work on the ground, in difficult circumstances, our work wouldn’t make a big difference.

NI: The AAATI, a regional alliance against torture organized a meeting with Asian parliamentarians recently and you played active role in it. What was the outcome of the meeting and how can it help prevent torture?

EW: The Asian Alliance Against Torture and Ill-treatment (AAATI) represents a unique initiative taken, jointly by human rights organizations, activists, and scholars representing a number of Asian countries. We had our inception meeting in 2011, and the message to unite and reflect deeper on strategies and tactics against torture has now spread throughout Asia from mouthto-mouth, as well as through written and social media. The recent meeting with Asian parliamentarians has demonstrated that the political will is there. The meeting has not only a symbolic value. Politicians and legislators across party lines are surely concerned, as we are from civil society, to find ways and means to stop torture and ill-treatment. I think that this meeting has shown how important it is to facilitate the dialogue between concerned legislators across borders in Asia and to offer technical support and to share our insight as civil society actors with the legislators who will stand up and contribute within their political domain to promote anti-torture legislation and safeguards. This meeting has broken the myth that Asian parliamentarians close their eyes when it comes to police torture. In fact, I came to realize how many Asian politicians either have themselves or somebody in their families have suffered torture and illegal imprisonment. I am hopeful that we will see more parliamentarians who will become role models and human rights champions in the future. For any genuine sustainable human development to take place the fight against torture and corruption should have the highest priority. This is the message that we learned from the meeting with legislators, the bar association and the anti-corruption agency in Hong Kong.

NI: Do you think that some individuals, especially in countries without much exposure to the outside world, ‘tolerate’ torture because they do not know of a way out? What kind of educational services could be provided to empower them?

EW: I don’t know what kind of human beings or human societies of today would tolerate torture and I speculate if such people would really know the devastating physical, mental, and social consequences of their action for the individual, the family, the community, and society at large, that they would not be content to tolerate anything of the sort. How can anybody be ignorant of such inhuman behavior and go home to sleep and play peacefully with their loved ones? It may be that there are people and institutions, who believe in the use of torture as a necessary mean in their ‘duties’ for the benefit of a state. But it is peculiar how rare we see representatives from police or the military coming forward to defend such position as necessary. Why? Because they know very well that torture is the negation of all human values and behavior. We do sensitize police, military, and prison officials through training on human rights standards and good policing. These are on-going activities, but not even the best training can in itself be sufficient to stop torture. In my opinion we need to look at the whole picture in a given context, we need to analyze the risk factors and to strategize against torture. There is no single ‘magic bullet’ to stop torture – unfortunately!