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The Voices of Torture Survivors Must Be Heard

Survivors of torture in Sri Lanka feel they will not receive impartial justice unless international judges and lawyers are involved, writes the founder of Survivors Speak Out (SSO).

“The message is clear: a strong, credible justice process for Sri Lanka requires independent international participation. It is up to the international community to be vigilant in ensuring that Sri Lanka fulfills the commitments it made to the UN Human Rights Council by allowing this to take place,” said Kolbassia Haussou.

See full opinion below.


The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has just finished a visit to Sri Lanka aiming to keep the justice process on track. Survivor activist Kolbassia Haoussousays the international community must listen to the perspectives of torture survivors to ensure that the justice process is strong and credible.

Torture is used to silence opponents. They are silenced by the trauma of their experiences, by a fear of the repercussions if they break that silence.

The Survivors Speak OUT (SSO) network, which I co-founded with support fromFreedom from Torture, helps survivors of torture to be heard, empowering them to advocate for change and support others who have been tortured.

For the Sri Lankan survivors currently undergoing treatment at Freedom from Torture, speaking out about their torture is a difficult and potentially very dangerous act. SSO supports them to speak out and, where necessary, represents their voices all the way to policy makers.

I am not from Sri Lanka. But torture is torture, whether it took place in Sri Lanka, Syria or Bangladesh. It knows no borders. The suffering of our Sri Lankan brothers and sisters is something all survivors can relate to - we have had the same experience, have felt the same pain.

Trust is a fragile thing and something that survivor to survivor discussions are best able to provide. In the workshops facilitated by SSO, the shared experience of torture more often connects everyone in the room. It means that survivors are more open to disclosing and sharing information. They feel understood and reassured that their disclosures will not be betrayed.

The SSO workshops with Sri Lankan torture survivors posed the question of what justice in Sri Lanka should look like to them, eliciting which factors were critical to a fair and transparent, and therefore successful, justice process. Their perspectives now feature in Freedom from Torture's new report - 'Why Sri Lankan torture survivors want international participation in the justice process'.

Torture survivors can offer a unique perspective on questions like this. They can offer crucial insights and recommendations that no one else can give. From their knowledge and expertise, they can identify exactly what action is needed and how it can best be implemented.

Their testimonies have already provided the vital evidence proving that torture has continued in Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war and formed the foundations of Freedom from Torture's 'Tainted Peace' report. Now, for the justice process to be credible, it needs to be satisfactory to those who have suffered the most. The overriding message was the absolute insistence on international participation in the justice process in Sri Lanka.

I know that experiencing torture at the hands of those who are supposed to be your protectors causes you to lose all trust and faith in the authorities. Many Sri Lankan survivors in the group were unconvinced when the new Sri Lankan government officially recognised the importance of a hybrid court, as recommended by the UN.

So when President backtracked on this commitment in recent media interviews, their worst suspicions were confirmed: this was no more than a new face to the same old system.
Survivors need to feel confident that they will get fair and impartial justice. They simply do not consider this possible without the presence of international judges and lawyers. They have made it clear that the justice process will lack all validity for them unless this condition is met.

SSO has years of experience working with torture survivors. Our workshops have a clear purpose, which is to use our specialist knowledge to inform and advise policy makers. It is not only a very effective form of activism - it is a crucial part of seeking justice.

Many feel that their suffering will be in some way mitigated if the perpetrators are brought to justice and punished for their crimes. It will allow them to begin to rebuild their lives which torture shattered.

Their message is clear: a strong, credible justice process for Sri Lanka requires independent international participation.

It is up to the international community to be vigilant in ensuring that Sri Lanka fulfils the commitments it made to the UN Human Rights Council by allowing this to take place.