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Paul Linnell, the Humphrey Fellow for CVT in our Washington DC office, provides an informative and useful summary of our recent expert briefing on Fighting Impunity: Combating Torture & Human Trafficking.

On June 25, CVT convened a number of experts at our Washington, DC office for a panel discussion on ending the practice of impunity in torture and human trafficking. The event was held on the eve of June 26 – International Day in Support of Victims of Torture – commemorating the date when the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment went into effect.

In his opening remarks, CVT Executive Director Curt Goering elaborated on the title of the event, detailing how survivors of torture are often the victims of multiple human rights violations, including rape, sexual and gender based violence, and human trafficking, among others. Unfortunately, the practice of impunity stretches across all of these issues, denying justice to the victims and allowing perpetrator’s actions to go unpunished. While it was noted that strides have been made in recent years, including the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002 and the advent of social media, crimes against humanity persist nevertheless. Curt closed with a call to action for human rights advocates and governments to ensure that we utilize the laws and mechanisms that we have in place to ensure accountability for those responsible for these crimes.

Executive Director Curt Goering presents Professor David Crane with CVT’s 2014 Eclipse Award. Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar

Executive Director Curt Goering (right) presents Professor David Crane with CVT’s 2014 Eclipse Award. Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar

Curt then introduced David M. Crane as the keynote speaker and presented him with CVT’s 2014 Eclipse Award in recognition of his extraordinary efforts in fighting impunity for torture. Professor Crane is currently a professor at the Syracuse University College of Law and served from 2002-2005 as the Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. In his remarks, he reiterated that we have come a long way in the fight against torture and other crimes against humanity, but that there is still significant work to be done. He highlighted that 9/11 was a turning point for the United States, and that, unfortunately, the country began traveling down a dark path away from its position as a leader in international humanitarian law. Professor Crane expressed how simply being an American negatively influenced perceptions of him in Sierra Leone as he was attributed to the country’s flagrant human rights violations and efforts to undermine and discredit international human right law itself. He noted that, in order to have a truly fair justice system, all members of the international community must be held accountable, including the most powerful.

The event segued into a panel discussion moderated by Curt. Professor Crane was joined by U.S. Ambassador-At-Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons Luis CdeBaca and Georgetown University Law Professor David J. Luban. Ambassador CdeBaca highlighted some of the important changes underway regarding how the United States’ works with victims of trafficking. He described a shift from a prescriptive approach to an inclusive approach, whereby the victim is at the center of the rehabilitation process and where we must “walk with them and be there when they need support.” He also noted some of the many challenges in combating impunity in trafficking, detailing how wealthy and powerful enterprises that benefit from human trafficking will fight hard to ensure that those systems remain in place.

Professor Luban provided an overview of the implementation of the Convention Against Torture, noting that its impact has been strongest in countries undergoing political transitions. He cited a weakness in the Convention as it is confined to torture by state and state agents, despite a growing number of cases of the same acts being committed by non-state actors. He also raised a number of questions about accountability for perpetrators of torture from the United States. He commented that not only were perpetrators at the CIA not fired, but many were in fact promoted. Even more discouraging was that there was no recognition of those within the U.S. government who took a stand against the country’s illegal actions. Professor Luban suggested the heroes within the government at the time that spoke out – or even resigned in opposition – should be awarded Presidential Medals of Honor.

Expert panel (left to right): Professor Crane, Ambassador CdeBaca, Professor Luban, and Curt Goering. Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar

Expert panel (left to right): Professor Crane, Ambassador CdeBaca, Professor Luban, and Curt Goering. Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar

Professor Crane spoke of how one of the primary challenges in fighting impunity is the sheer volume of conflicts that are not following – or even pretending to try and follow – international humanitarian law. With these “dirty little wars,” as he described them, it is difficult for the United States to insert the rule of law into these situations, particularly when both allies and enemies are committing war crimes. He also spoke on the increasing involvement of multinational corporations in these conflicts and the need to hold them accountable, whether criminally or through civil penalties, when they are complicit in war crimes. Professor Crane closed the panel with a moving story about announcing to a crowd of former child soldiers in Sierra Leone that they would not be charged with war crimes, bringing tears of relief to the frightened children that expected strict punishment for their forced involvement in the terrible war.

The event brought to light many important questions and challenges that still must be addressed to end the practice of impunity. However, the audience was also left with a sense of hope that we have the tools and the laws to defeat impunity.

If you’d like to see more from the event, we have posted a photo album on our Facebook page.