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Statement by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the 43rd session of the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture

35th anniversary of the Fund

How can children survive torture?
Lessons learned on their redress and rehabilitation”

Geneva, 8 April 2016

Excellencies,
Colleagues and friends,
Distinguished panellists,

I am humbled to be speaking alongside expert panellists who devote great time and thought to helping children to recover from torture. Humbled ­- by the selfless heroism of this work ­- and shocked, because the deliberate infliction of unbearable pain on helpless children, whether to extract information, to pressure their parents, or simply as punishment for supposed misbehaviour, is very much present in all regions, and a feature of many conflicts and human rights crises today.

Torture is an unequivocal crime. In customary law, under the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is prohibited under all circumstances, without exception. Neither national security nor the fight against terrorism, the threat of armed conflict, or any public emergency can justify torturing anyone. And yet many States and non-State actors continue to torture people – a horror that my staff must combat daily.

Children are entitled to specific protection, because of their heightened vulnerability. And yet as documented by the work of the UN Torture Fund and other UN Mechanisms, the torture of children is an unbearable reality, particularly in countries in conflicts such as Syria, where the Commission of Inquiry has repeatedly excoriated the torture of children. Even very young children are spared no suffering – including the use of specific machinery to inflict pain; mock executions; the obligation to witness pain being inflicted on other children or family members; and sexual mutilation and assault. Indeed, children are often targeted because they are children, as a way of intimidating entire communities, or to leverage additional pain onto their parents.

If the thought of this is unbearable, how much more unbearable must it be to work, daily, with the children who have been treated thus. But it is vital to assist them to recover, as best we can. Torture inflicts massive physical and emotional damage on the developing bodies and minds of children and adolescents. In addition to its sometimes very significant physical and cognitive impact, the experience of such profound helplessness may fundamentally impair the child’s ability to trust, to freely develop her or his personality and skills, and to navigate changing circumstances with confidence.

States have an obligation to help child victims of torture work towards recovery and find redress. Regrettably, this obligation is often ignored. But around the world, networks of physicians, psychologists, social workers and lawyers , like the ones with us here today, do assist child survivors of torture to deal with the trauma they have suffered. Much of their work is supported by the UN Voluntary Fund for the Victims of Torture, which marks its 35th anniversary this year, and which my Office is proud to manage. Today, the Fund launches a new booklet, From Horror to Healing, with personal accounts from victims of torture, and the practitioners who help them heal and reclaim their lives and rights. Their testimonies were collected from organizations and rehabilitation centres supported by the Fund, which provide direct assistance to around 50,000 victims of torture and their family members every year.

These rehabilitation efforts also focus on refugee and migrant children. Many of them have endured severe trauma and ill-treatment before leaving their homes – in some case, already amounting to torture. In addition, children caught up in large-scale migration movements are also at high risk of violence during their journeys, including sexual violence at the hands of traffickers and criminal gangs. A shockingly high number of child migrants suffer detention at borders, and may suffer very harsh physical abuse in detention by agents of the State. It is absolutely vital that States attentively protect the rights of all migrants, and most especially all child migrants.

These children must know that they are uniquely precious in the eyes of the world; that they have rights; and that what has been done to them is illegal and wrong. We must demonstrate that we are committed to tracking down the perpetrators and holding them to account. And we must do what we can to help them develop the resilience and wisdom to free themselves from the physical and emotional pain they have endured. The work of the Torture Fund over the past three decades clearly shows the extraordinary capacity for resilience of chil‎d victims. But such resilience generally requires that the child victim of torture receives rapid and appropriate support.

The expert workshop that took place over the last two days highlighted methods that can be deployed to durably assist child victims of torture – techniques which can revive their confidence and sense of agency, and bring them hope. There can be no greater demonstration of the tremendous work that is being done by the tireless professionals whose work is supported by the Torture Fund, and I take this opportunity to express my gratitude to them for this life-changing work.