By Agasha N. Tabaro
Today is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
Thirty years ago, the United Nations Convention against Torture, an international human rights treaty condemning and aiming to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, came into force.
Uganda signed this treaty and has indeed abided by the principles reflected in it.
We have made admirable progress in prohibiting torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.
The right to be free from torture is an absolute human right in our Constitution and, therefore, one which cannot in any circumstances be derogated from.
The strict observance for the non-tolerance of torture is also reflected through our passing of The Prohibition and Prevention of Torture Act, 2012 (‘the Act’) as national legislation. This law makes torture a distinct criminal offence in Uganda.
Rehabilitation of torture victims is an important form of redress, especially as victims are often transformed physically and/or psychologically by the traumatic experiences they endured.
Rehabilitation is necessary in ensuring that torture victims are successfully reintegrated into society as fully participating citizens and that they can rebuild their lives.
The Prohibition and Prevention of Torture Act recognises the need for victims to receive rehabilitation by allowing courts hearing torture cases to order that rehabilitation including medical and psychological care; or legal and psychosocial services in cases of trauma, be awarded to victims of torture.
Although the Act has been in place for a few years now, it remains under-utilised. This is because accountability for offences of torture remains a challenge with many victims of torture unable to bring cases before the courts.
Few victims, therefore, receive the reparation due to them for the harm they suffered including court orders for rehabilitation.
Moreover, that rehabilitation can only be ordered by a court and even then, only in ‘certain cases’, falls short of the international standard mandating that victims receive rehabilitation, especially initial rehabilitative care in the direct aftermath of torture.
As it is, it is solely at the discretion of the court to decide whether rehabilitation is an appropriate remedy based on the circumstances of the case.
The duty to provide rehabilitative services for victims, including initial care, should, however, form a state obligation.
It should not merely be based on the discretion of a court or on whether a victim decides to file a case or not.
It importantly should not be solely dependent on the successful outcome of a case.
As court processes are often slow and lengthy, the provision for rehabilitation only following a successful case may lead to increased victims’ suffering.
Access to rehabilitation for victims should be immediate so as to avoid the possibility of re-traumatisation.
Prompt rehabilitation should be the State’s response to the harm suffered by the victim.
We are, however, faced with the reality that State funding for rehabilitation services is a challenge.
Victims, therefore, often rely on services provided by civil society organisations.
However, for many, these may be outside their reach. It is recommended that the Government collaborate with civil society and possibly even with universities and hospitals so as to ensure comprehensive, long-term and specialised rehabilitative and legal services are made available and accessible for victims of torture.
Further recommendations include the development of a national strategy to guarantee rehabilitation for victims of torture and the establishment of a compensation fund for victims especially to cater for initial rehabilitative care.
Writer works with the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa in Banjul, The Gambia.