Today’s Solutions: December 08, 2022

Karen Tse makes a strong case against torture

Nynke Sietsma| December 2006 issue
Karen Tse couldn’t be more clear about her dream: She wants to eliminate torture in the world. It certainly doesn’t sound simple, but Tse says it could be. “We just have to make a decision as a global community to say no to torture. We’re quick to cry that it’s impossible. But we said the same thing about slavery and apartheid–until we turned the tide by deciding that we would no longer accept such barbarism.”
Growing up in the United States, she often heard horror stories about countries where people were tortured in prison and given no right to fair trial. Three decades later, Tse—by then a prominent international attorney, a former judicial mentor for the United Nations and an ordained minister—had not forgotten those stories. That’s what inspired her to found International Bridges to Justice (IBJ)—a citizens group that advocates for fairness in legal systems worldwide—with donations and a small amount of her own money. The six-year-old organization now gets requests for help from all over the world, from India to Zimbabwe.
“A lot of governments have set down proper laws on paper. But often, that’s as far as it goes. Meanwhile, in many countries defenders are threatened and prisoners are still being tortured,” she says. To change that, IBJ trains police, attorneys and judges, and works with local governments to ensure that laws are correctly enforced. For example, IBJ does see cases where prisoners have never been allowed to see a lawyer. With IBJ support, a criminal lawyer may learn to inform his clients of their rights, or a prison director to create a room in which attorneys can speak to clients undisturbed.
Cambodia, where Tse worked on the reconstruction of the judicial system in 1994 to 1997, is one of the most dramatic examples of rule of law’s power to affect change. In a country with 13 million residents, only 10 lawyers were active in 1994. The Khmer Rouge regime had seen almost 2 million citizens murdered, including effectively all of its attorneys and judges. Tse participated in a unique event in the country’s history: She trained the first 25 public defenders after the end of the communist regime.
Right now, the world is at a historical turning point, says Tse; much of the world is ripe for justice. “Participatory democracies are emerging. For countries like Cambodia, which are in transition to democracy, now is a critical time to invest in the legal system.” Governments generally take a positive view of that idea, according to Tse, if in part because it supports favourable economic development. After all, a stable country where there is no torture is more likely to lure foreign investors than one where human rights are in peril.
Ultimately, the fight against torture begins at home, says Tse. “Closing the gap between your own personal values and the work you do outside is where justice begins.”
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