“We cannot despair of humanity, since we ourselves are human beings.” Albert Einstein
I recently returned from a trip to Geneva, the human rights headquarters of the world, you might say. Only what struck me from the people I met, the stories I heard and the places I visited was not the undeniable force of activism and political will that characterises the city, but the sad sense that for the people it represents, the human rights movement is losing its grip.
That is of course a sweeping statement predicated on a momentary glimpse and a handful of cases. And it is not at all to say that the people working on the frontline of rehabilitation are losing the will. It is more that the context in which they work, the institutions they inhabit and the countries in which their clients and patients seek sanctuary, it is these pillars traditionally relied on for support that are crumbling.
I had gone to speak with some of the key players in the development of the anti-torture movement, to hear how things had changed and how the situation stands today, after some 30 years of grassroots campaigning and battling resistance to establish rehabilitation centres across the world.
One of the key questions I had for some of those with whom I met was, “how do you get an audience”?
In the early days of persuading people to even countenance the idea of providing health, social and legal support to political dissidents from the Cold War and Soviet era, for instance, how were people persuaded to even listen to the plight of the displaced? How did those leading the charge gain a moment with those who had the power to change things?
Part of their success lay in their unabashed assertiveness, the courage they demonstrated in their conviction, coupled with the weight of medical ethics and human rights legislation that made the irrefutable case for providing refugee protection.
The movement also grew in response to the urgency of the times – the 1980s were a period of intense upheaval, of extreme political unrest that for many so-called dissidents and protestors resulted in torture and exile.
Over the past three decades the movement has grown in scope and reach, working with individuals and communities to counter the damage and in some cases, to prevent torture. The International Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (IRCT), an umbrella organisation for the global network that has since emerged, now counts 144 centres in 70 countries around the world as members, providing “support and hope, and act[ing] as a symbol of triumph over the terror of torture”.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Some of that hope seems to be fading.
I spoke with doctors and interpreters working in some of the centres in Geneva itself, with young adults who years before fled warfare in the Middle East and unsurprisingly are still living in the shadows of an unimaginably painful past.
They told me of several cases where survivors had fallen through the gaps of a system that ought by now to be faultless at spotting and protecting the most vulnerable. Yet at least three of their clients had fallen tragically by the wayside, one committing suicide, the others disappeared, fearful of disclosing their histories to someone new when their usual support workers were unavailable. And that’s if they remained on the radar of health services at all.
It’s a very bleak picture. Why?
One assumption is that with the increasing fallout from each successive conflict across another border, state authorities that on paper respect the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention Against Torture and the Refugee Convention, are beset by “compassion fatigue”. The same applies to certain aspects of society. And the care workers who actually care are so overwhelmed with work that they cannot possibly be expected to keep up.
There is less money going into the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture (UNVFVT), so the funds are dwindling and there is less financial assistance for the legal, social, medical and psychological service-providers that one would expect at this stage in the movement’s progress.
Perhaps the philosopher John Gray is right, progress is a myth we simply like to believe in to give ourselves a sense of purpose in life. When in fact the increasing sophistication with which we inflict harm, find rationale to limit our kindness, and prioritise the needs of a greater collective over those of the comparably voiceless individuals, points to a backward view.
That said, I was nonetheless heartened, as I always am, by the resolve of these people to carry on regardless of, or in fact more so because of, the lack of support. Interestingly, all of the people I met came from and were brought together by their own stories of escaping oppression, from South Africa, Romania, Morocco, Afghanistan, India and elsewhere. And like so many I have met before, a small part of their hearts remained in the places they had been forced to flee, accompanied by a desire to return and join the movements for change.
Still, I was left with the lingering suspicion that the campaigners, activists, lobbyists and defenders are speaking to a smaller, well-defined crowd of similarly minded individuals. What about the wider world, the ones who remain to be persuaded of the collective humanitarian mission? Are they listening? Do they hear these stories and do they care enough to do anything about it?