There is a link between torture and human trafficking that we see at the Center for Victims of Torture. Survivors of torture and violent conflict have often survived multiple abuses. In addition to torture and war, they’ve experienced rape, poverty, malnutrition, separation from family, forced displacement, human trafficking and other egregious human rights violations.
The crisis in Eritrea is a glaring example of this intersection. CVT provides mental health care to Eritrean refugees in northern Ethiopia. They have suffered unimaginable torture at the hands of their government, then exploited and abused by smugglers and traffickers preying on refugees.
One Eritrean client of ours told of fleeing Eritrea, only to connect with Bedouin smugglers who imprisoned him, tortured him and exploited his relatives for money. The smugglers burned his feet. He was only released when his open sores smelled so bad that the smugglers didn’t want to keep him. They abandoned him in the desert, pointing him in the direction of Israel.
Whether we are focused on modern day slavery or torture, ending impunity is fundamental to eradicating these abuses.The actions of smugglers and torturers often go unchecked. Impunity denies justice to the victims of human rights violations, leaving them feeling abandoned and vulnerable to future incidents. Accountability in the form of criminal prosecutions—whether at a national, regional or international level—and imposing appropriate punishments for perpetrators are essential. Impunity must also be combatted with increases in transparency, public accountability and social condemnation of these practices. And it is necessary to strengthen government institutions and rule of law systems—all of which are undermined by the failure to expose and pursue perpetrators.
The International Criminal Court, established in 2002, created the first permanent, treaty based international criminal court to hold accountable and help end impunity for perpetrators of serious international crimes. Other international courts, such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone, have produced successes including the prosecution and sentencing of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, prosecutions for crimes involving use of child soldiers, forced marriage and attacks directed at UN peacekeepers.
Advances in technology and the advent of social media mean perpetrators can no longer hide. Today there is more evidence documenting human rights violations in greater quantities and in near real-time. But accountability mechanisms and the political will to utilize them have not kept pace.
Specialized programs that support survivors of torture and human trafficking might operate separately, in large part because the laws and funding sources require a certain categorization of victims. But fighting impunity concerns all of us who work to prevent human rights violations and hold perpetrators accountable. Finding ways to collaborate and to increase political will to address impunity is worth our collective action. It is our responsibility as human rights advocates to redouble our efforts and ensure governments around the world take action, and that those responsible for committing crimes are held accountable.
Curt Goering is executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), an international nonprofit with offices in St. Paul, Minnesota and Washington, D.C., and healing initiatives in Africa and the Middle East. Prior to CTV he was the Chief Operating Officer at Amnesty International USA, where he had worked for nearly 30 years. CVT provides direct care to survivors of torture and violent conflict, trains partners around the world who can prevent and treat torture, and advocates for human rights and an end to torture.