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UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture: Healing Survivors, Rebuilding Lives

In a welcome show of unity, the United Nations General Assembly last week unanimously approved a resolution sponsored by Denmark taking a strong stand against torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

With 154 States, including the United States, party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, torture is amongst the most universally condemned--yet still widely practiced--human rights abuses in the world. "Some form of torture or mistreatment is happening at any moment in at least half the countries of the world," according to Juan Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

As torture leaves bodies and minds broken, it also tears apart social fabrics, leaving families, communities, and societies fragmented. Rehabilitation for torture survivors not only restores the dignity of the individual and may help them be open to engaging in civil society and governance, but it can also serve to heal the community and restore social cohesion.

Article 14 of the Convention Against Torture is explicit in defining the requirement to provide torture survivors "as full a rehabilitation as possible." The United Nations Committee Against Torture has emphasized this requirement "refers to the need to restore and repair the harm suffered by a victim whose life situation, including dignity, health and self-sufficiency may never be fully recovered as a result of the pervasive effect of torture."

The United States has been a longstanding supporter of torture survivor rehabilitation programs domestically and internationally, including as the largest contributor to the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. The U.S. Department of State has explained, "[The Fund] supports the U.S. foreign policy goal of promoting democracy and human rights... U.S. contributions underscore our commitment to the rights of the individual and to the essential importance of protecting these rights." Nevertheless, in order to meet the needs of a growing number of survivors of torture and violent conflict, the U.S. government must increase its investment in torture survivor rehabilitation, including by encouraging other countries to increase their investments as well.

The Voluntary Fund provides desperately needed assistance to torture survivor rehabilitation programs worldwide to bring healing and sanctuary to survivors. It is a highly effective and efficient grantmaking entity that annually supports over 200 torture survivor rehabilitation programs. Most of the U.S.-based torture survivor rehabilitation programs, including the Center for Victims of Torture, receive support from the Voluntary Fund.

More than 70,000 survivors around the world benefit from the Voluntary Fund's work each year.

The demand for healing services has grown as the United States protects and resettles an influx of highly traumatized torture and war survivor refugees. Among the U.S. programs, the need for services far exceeds resources and it is common for some survivors to be on waiting lists.

Unfortunately, the Voluntary Fund is experiencing decreased international contributions, and U.S. support has not kept pace with the rising number of survivors. Despite steady increases over several years, the U.S. contribution to the Voluntary Fund has significantly diminished.

To alleviate the financial crisis, it is critical for the U.S. government to increase our contribution to the Voluntary Fund and actively encourage other world governments to boost theirs.

U.S. support for the Voluntary Fund benefits torture survivor rehabilitation programs globally by its leadership, inspiring contributions and commitments from the international community to help survivors and their families heal and rebuild lives of dignity.