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TEDGlobal 2011

Karen Tse: How to stop torture

July 13, 2011

Political prisoners aren't the only ones being tortured -- the vast majority of judicial torture happens in ordinary cases, even in 'functioning' legal systems. Social activist Karen Tse shows how we can, and should, stand up and end the use of routine torture.

Karen Tse - Anti-torture activist
In too many countries, it's still normal to torture prisoners for confessions and information. Karen Tse works to end that. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
In 1994, I walked into a prison in Cambodia,
00:16
and I met a 12-year-old boy
00:20
who had been tortured
00:23
and was denied access to counsel.
00:25
And as I looked into his eyes, I realized
00:27
that for the hundreds of letters I had written
00:29
for political prisoners, that I would never have
00:31
written a letter for him,
00:34
because he was not a 12-year-old boy who
00:36
had done something important for anybody.
00:38
He was not a political prisoner.
00:40
He was a 12-year-old boy who had
00:42
stolen a bicycle.
00:44
What I also realized at that point was that
00:46
it was not only Cambodia, but
00:48
of the 113
00:50
developing countries that torture,
00:52
93 of these countries have all passed laws
00:54
that say you have a right to a lawyer
00:57
and you have a right not to be tortured.
00:59
And what I recognized was that there was an
01:02
incredible window of opportunity for us
01:04
as a world community to come together
01:06
and end torture as an investigative tool.
01:09
We often think of torture as being
01:12
political torture or reserved for
01:14
just the worst, but, in fact,
01:16
95 percent of torture today
01:19
is not for political prisoners.
01:21
It is for people who are
01:23
in broken-down legal systems,
01:25
and unfortunately because torture is
01:27
the cheapest form of investigation --
01:29
it's cheaper than having a legal system,
01:31
cheaper than having a lawyer
01:33
and early access to counsel --
01:35
it is what happens most of the time.
01:37
I believe today that it is possible for us
01:39
as a world community, if we make a decision,
01:41
to come together and end torture
01:44
as an investigative tool in our lifetime,
01:46
but it will require three things.
01:49
First is the training, empowerment,
01:51
and connection of defenders worldwide.
01:54
The second is insuring that there is
01:57
systematic early access to counsel.
02:00
And the third is commitment.
02:03
So in the year 2000,
02:06
I began to wonder,
02:08
what if we came together?
02:11
Could we do something
02:14
for these 93 countries?
02:16
And I founded International Bridges to Justice
02:18
which has a specific mission of
02:20
ending torture as an investigative tool
02:22
and implementing due process rights
02:25
in the 93 countries by placing trained lawyers
02:27
at an early stage in police stations
02:30
and in courtrooms.
02:32
My first experiences, though, did come
02:34
from Cambodia, and at the time I remember
02:36
first coming to Cambodia and there were,
02:39
in 1994, still less than
02:41
10 attorneys in the country because
02:43
the Khmer Rouge had killed them all.
02:45
And even 20 years later, there was only
02:47
10 lawyers in the country, so consequently
02:49
you'd walk into a prison and
02:51
not only would you meet 12-year-old boys,
02:53
you'd meet women and you'd say,
02:55
"Why are you here?" Women would say,
02:57
"Well I've been here for 10 years because
02:59
my husband committed a crime, but they can't find him."
03:01
So it's just a place where there was no rule of law.
03:03
The first group of defenders came together
03:06
and I still remember, as I was training, I said,
03:08
"Okay, what do you do for an investigation?"
03:10
And there was silence in the class, and finally
03:12
one woman stood up, [inaudible name],
03:14
and she said "Khrew," which means "teacher."
03:16
She said, "I have defended more than
03:19
a hundred people, and I've never had to do
03:22
any investigation,
03:25
because they all come with confessions."
03:27
And we talked about, as a class, the fact that
03:29
number one, the confessions
03:32
might not be reliable, but number two,
03:34
we did not want to encourage the police
03:36
to keep doing this, especially
03:38
as it was now against the law.
03:40
And it took a lot of courage for these
03:42
defenders to decide that they would
03:44
begin to stand up and support each other
03:46
in implementing these laws.
03:48
And I still remember the first cases where
03:51
they came, all 25 together, she would
03:53
stand up, and they were in the back, and
03:55
they would support her, and the judges kept
03:57
saying, "No, no, no, no, we're going to do things
03:59
the exact same way we've been doing them."
04:01
But one day the perfect case came, and it
04:03
was a woman who was a vegetable seller,
04:05
she was sitting outside of a house.
04:07
She said she actually saw the person
04:09
run out who she thinks stole
04:12
whatever the jewelry was, but the police
04:14
came, they got her, there was nothing on her.
04:16
She was pregnant at the time. She had
04:18
cigarette burns on her. She'd miscarried.
04:20
And when they brought her case
04:22
to the judge, for the first time he stood up
04:24
and he said, "Yes, there's no evidence
04:26
except for your torture confession
04:28
and you will be released."
04:30
And the defenders began to take cases
04:32
over and over again and
04:34
you will see, they have step by step began
04:36
to change the course of history in Cambodia.
04:39
But Cambodia is not alone.
04:42
I used to think, well is it Cambodia?
04:44
Or is it other countries?
04:46
But it is in so many countries.
04:48
In Burundi I walked into a prison and it wasn't
04:51
a 12-year-old boy, it was an 8-year-old boy
04:53
for stealing a mobile phone.
04:56
Or a woman, I picked up her baby,
04:58
really cute baby, I said "Your baby is so cute."
05:00
It wasn't a baby, she was three.
05:03
And she said "Yeah, but she's why I'm here,"
05:05
because she was accused of stealing
05:07
two diapers and an iron for her baby and
05:09
still had been in prison.
05:11
And when I walked up to the prison director,
05:13
I said, "You've got to let her out.
05:15
A judge would let her out."
05:17
And he said, "Okay, we can talk about it,
05:19
but look at my prison. Eighty percent
05:21
of the two thousand people here
05:23
are without a lawyer. What can we do?"
05:25
So lawyers began to courageously
05:27
stand up together to organize a system
05:29
where they can take cases.
05:32
But we realized that it's not only the training
05:34
of the lawyers, but the connection
05:36
of the lawyers that makes a difference.
05:38
For example, in Cambodia, it was that
05:40
[inaudible name] did not go alone
05:42
but she had 24 lawyers with her
05:44
who stood up together. And in the same way,
05:46
in China, they always tell me,
05:48
"It's like a fresh wind in the desert
05:50
when we can come together."
05:52
Or in Zimbabwe, where I remember Innocent,
05:54
after coming out of a prison where everybody
05:56
stood up and said, "I've been here
05:58
for one year, eight years, 12 years
06:00
without a lawyer,"
06:02
he came and we had a training together
06:04
and he said, "I have heard it said" --
06:06
because he had heard people mumbling
06:09
and grumbling -- "I have heard it said that
06:11
we cannot help to create justice
06:13
because we do not have the resources."
06:16
And then he said, "But I want you to know
06:18
that the lack of resources
06:20
is never an excuse for injustice."
06:23
And with that, he successfully
06:25
organized 68 lawyers who have been
06:27
systematically taking the cases.
06:30
The key that we see, though, is training
06:32
and then early access.
06:35
I was recently in Egypt, and was inspired
06:37
to meet with another group of lawyers,
06:39
and what they told me is that they said,
06:41
"Hey, look, we don't have police
06:43
on the streets now. The police are
06:45
one of the main reasons why we had
06:47
the revolution. They were torturing everybody
06:49
all the time."
06:51
And I said, "But there's been tens of millions
06:53
of dollars that have recently gone in
06:55
to the development of the legal system here.
06:57
What's going on?"
06:59
I met with one of the development agencies,
07:01
and they were training prosecutors
07:04
and judges, which is the normal bias,
07:06
as opposed to defenders.
07:08
And they showed me a manual which
07:10
actually was an excellent manual.
07:12
I said, "I'm gonna copy this."
07:14
It had everything in it. Lawyers can come
07:16
at the police station. It was perfect.
07:18
Prosecutors were perfectly trained.
07:20
But I said to them, "I just have one question,
07:22
which is, by the time that everybody got to
07:24
the prosecutor's office, what had happened to them?"
07:26
And after a pause, they said,
07:28
"They had been tortured."
07:30
So the pieces are,
07:32
not only the training of the lawyers, but
07:34
us finding a way to systematically implement
07:36
early access to counsel, because they are
07:39
the safeguard in the system
07:42
for people who are being tortured.
07:44
And as I tell you this, I'm also aware of the
07:47
fact that it sounds like, "Oh, okay, it sounds
07:49
like we could do it, but can we really do it?"
07:51
Because it sounds big.
07:54
And there are many reasons why I believe it's possible.
07:56
The first reason is the people on the ground
07:59
who find ways of creating miracles
08:02
because of their commitment.
08:05
It's not only Innocent, who I told you about
08:07
in Zimbabwe, but defenders all over the world
08:10
who are looking for these pieces.
08:13
We have a program called JusticeMakers,
08:16
and we realized there are people that are
08:19
courageous and want to do things, but
08:21
how can we support them?
08:23
So it's an online contest where it's only
08:25
five thousand dollars if you come up with
08:27
and innovative way of implementing justice.
08:29
And there are 30 JusticeMakers
08:31
throughout the world, from Sri Lanka
08:33
to Swaziland to the DRC, who with
08:35
five thousand dollars do amazing things,
08:38
through SMS programs,
08:41
through paralegal programs,
08:43
through whatever they can do.
08:45
And it's not only these JusticeMakers,
08:47
but people we courageously see
08:51
figure out who their networks are
08:53
and how they can move it forward.
08:56
So in China, for instance, great laws
08:58
came out where it says police cannot
09:00
torture people or they will be punished.
09:03
And I was sitting side by side with one of our
09:06
very courageous lawyers, and said,
09:09
"How can we get this out? How can we
09:12
make sure that this is implemented?
09:14
This is fantastic." And he said to me,
09:16
"Well, do you have money?" And I said,
09:18
"No." And he said, "That's okay,
09:20
we can still figure it out."
09:22
And on December 4, he organized
09:24
three thousand members
09:26
of the Youth Communist League,
09:28
from 14 of the top law schools,
09:30
who organized themselves, developed
09:32
posters with the new laws, and went
09:34
to the police stations and began what he says
09:36
is a non-violent legal revolution
09:38
to protect citizen rights.
09:41
So I talked about the fact that we need
09:44
to train and support defenders.
09:46
We need to systematically implement
09:48
early access to counsel.
09:50
But the third and most important thing is that
09:52
we make a commitment to this.
09:54
And people often say to me, "You know,
09:56
this is great, but it's wildly idealistic.
09:58
Never going to happen."
10:00
And the reason that I think that
10:02
those words are interesting is because
10:04
those were the same kinds of words
10:06
that were used for people who decided
10:08
they would end slavery, or end apartheid.
10:10
It began with a small group of people
10:12
who decided they would commit.
10:14
Now, there's one of our favorite poems
10:16
from the defenders, which they share
10:18
from each other, is:
10:20
"Take courage friends, the road is often long,
10:22
the path is never clear,
10:24
and the stakes are very high,
10:26
but deep down, you are not alone."
10:28
And I believe that if we can come together
10:30
as a world community to support not only
10:33
defenders, but also everyone in the system
10:35
who is looking towards it,
10:38
we can end torture as an investigative tool.
10:40
I end always, because I'm sure the questions are --
10:43
and I'd be happy to talk to you
10:45
at any point -- "But what can I really do?"
10:47
Well, I would say this. First of all,
10:49
you know what you can do. But second of all,
10:51
I would leave you with the story of Vishna,
10:53
who actually was my inspiration
10:55
for starting International Bridges to Justice.
10:58
Vishna was a 4-year-old boy when I met him
11:00
who was born in a Cambodian prison
11:03
in Kandal Province. But because he was
11:05
born in the prison, everybody loved him,
11:08
including the guards, so he was the only one
11:10
who was allowed to come
11:12
in and out of the bars.
11:14
So, you know, there's bars. And by the time
11:16
that Vishna was getting bigger,
11:18
which means what gets bigger? Your head gets bigger.
11:20
So he would come to the first bar,
11:22
the second bar and then the third bar,
11:24
and then really slowly move his head
11:26
so he could fit through, and come back,
11:28
third, second, first. And he would
11:30
grab my pinkie, because what he wanted
11:32
to do every day is he wanted to go visit.
11:34
You know, he never quite made it to
11:36
all of them every day, but he wanted to visit
11:38
all 156 prisoners. And I would lift him,
11:40
and he would put his fingers through.
11:42
Or if they were dark cells, it was like iron
11:44
corrugated, and he would put his fingers through.
11:46
And most of the prisoners said that he was
11:48
their greatest joy and their sunshine, and they
11:50
looked forward to him. And I was like,
11:52
here's Vishna. He's a 4-year-old boy.
11:54
He was born in a prison with almost nothing,
11:56
no material goods, but he had a sense of
11:58
his own heroic journey, which I believe
12:00
we are all born into. He said,
12:02
"Probably I can't do everything.
12:04
But I'm one. I can do something.
12:06
And I will do the one thing that I can do."
12:08
So I thank you for having the prophetic
12:10
imagination to imagine the shaping
12:12
of a new world with us together,
12:15
and invite you into this journey with us.
12:17
Thank you.
12:19
(Applause)
12:21
Thank you.
12:29
(Applause)
12:31
Thank you.
12:33
(Applause)
12:35

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Karen Tse - Anti-torture activist
In too many countries, it's still normal to torture prisoners for confessions and information. Karen Tse works to end that.

Why you should listen

A former public defender, Karen Tse developed an interest in the intersection of criminal law and human rights after observing Southeast Asian refugees held in a local prison without trial, often tortured to obtain "confessions." In 1994, she moved to Cambodia to train the country's first core group of public defenders. Under the auspices of the UN, she trained judges and prosecutors, and established the first arraignment court in Cambodia.

In 2000, Tse founded International Bridges to Justice to help create systemic change in criminal justice and promote basic rights of legal representation for defendants on the ground. Her foundation complements the work of witness groups, who do the equally vital work of advocacy, reports, photographs. Tse's group helps governments build new systems that respect individual rights. In IBJ's first years, she negotiated groundbreaking measures  in judicial reform with the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian governments. It now works in sixteen countries, including Rwanda, Burundi and India.

She says: "I believe it is possible to end torture in my lifetime."

The original video is available on TED.com
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