A Time for Hope: Justice Can't Wait

04/01/2015 08:04 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

GENEVA -- "Ecce homo" (behold the man) were the words that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate spoke when he presented Jesus to a mob, after presiding over a trial and ordering his crucifixion. Despite being probably the most known miscarriage of justice in human history, some 2,000 years later torture still plays a systemic role within justice systems throughout the world.

The time has come for the international community to end torture as a cheap form of investigative tool by the authorities -- and it is possible. In the words of the historical Rabbi Hillel: "If not now, when?"

In over 100 countries, torture regularly happens by the police and prosecutors as a basic way to speed up criminal trials. Why bother building a case based on evidence -- and potentially lose at trial, with a loss of face as well -- when a confession can unjam a clogged docket? So what if the confession is coerced?

Jesus was born a common man -- a carpenter's son -- and today, the problem of state-sanctioned torture mostly impacts ordinary people caught up in failed judicial systems in countries that see public services fail in a myriad of other ways. And although high-profile political prisoners rightly attract attention, the problem particularly afflicts the poorest of the poor: the three million people around the world stuck in pre-trial detention. It is shocking that there are places in the world where a person's guilt is dependent on their threshold for physical and mental abuse; often the guilty escape consequences because of the forced confession of an innocent.

It has been over 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 recognized the right not be tortured, joined by a plethora of UN, European Union and other regional treaties, monitoring and implementation mechanisms and resolutions. Though most countries have laws prohibiting torture, these robust forms of declaration have not been matched with on-the-ground implementation. Though most countries have laws prohibiting torture, these robust forms of declaration have not been matched with on-the-ground implementation.

The problem is systemic, not personal -- that is, it is not a matter of individual victims or corrupt bureaucrats, but about the lack of a basic legal infrastructure to protect individual rights. Likewise, remedying this is not about drawing attention to one-off abuses, but improving the overall process of the judicial system, with a particular emphasis on public defenders.

Putting a sustainable judicial infrastructure in place makes legal rights a part of the mainstream development agenda that policymakers, economists, businesses and regulators support, not simply a matter for legal professionals in the courthouse. Improving the foundations of legal rights involves more than ensuring that every person has access to counsel. It means changing the mindset of all stakeholders in society about how integrity in the judicial system is a critical prerequisite to a cohesive and prosperous society, where the dignity of each person is respected.

For more than a decade, International Bridges to Justice has established and supported a network of legal professionals in more than 40 countries including China, India, Rwanda and Brazil. We have identified a cost-effective formula to eliminating torture: the legal protections and qualified staff to intervene to defend a suspect's rights from the moment they are accused. By advocating on behalf of suspects at the earliest stages of a case, it is far less likely that the people will see their rights violated or be tortured by police or prosecutors.

This not only supports individual rights, but brings about systematic changes to the legal infrastructure of the country, producing lasting social stability and supporting the wider development objectives.

This Passover Friday is a commemoration of liberation that coincides with Good Friday, a day of suffering. But it is also a prelude to Easter Sunday, a day of hope. These holidays fall close to the Buddhist Theravadan New Year, marking cycles of birth, enlightenment and death. In this season of suffering and release, pain and liberation, torture and hope, we can appreciate the dignity of individual rights in the themes common to all human experience.

In this moment of hope, rising from the ashes of destruction, let us respond positively to the call. If not us, then who?


Karen Tse, an international human rights lawyer, Unitarian Universalist minister and former San Francisco public defender, founded International Bridges to Justice in 2000 while at Harvard Divinity School. To learn more about Karen's work and International Bridges to Justice, please visitwww.ibj.org