10/23/2012 11:01 am ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

Surviving Torture, Then Fighting to Banish It

When presidential candidate Mitt Romney endorsed a return to "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding, it was a troubling reminder that the debate over torture's efficacy -- and even its morality -- still drones on. Romney's embrace of torture has been echoed this year alone by former Vice President Dick Cheney and former CIA official Jose Rodriguez, both of whom released books defending the use of interrogation tactics that the international community has deemed illegal, ineffective and inhumane.

In this environment, a little-known but critical front in the global fight against torture has taken on greater importance: the rehabilitation of torture survivors. That effort, which is inextricably linked to international mandates against torture, deserves special attention today as people across the world mark the annual United Nations Day.

There's no question that efforts at the national and international level to eradicate the use of torture are indispensable. Statutes that criminalize torture must be enacted in every part of the world to establish a baseline of zero tolerance across geographic, cultural and political divides. Similarly, the prosecution of those who commit torture is essential to both holding perpetrators accountable and discouraging the use of torture.

But legal and policy responses can never be fully successful without the rehabilitation of survivors, whose endurance and testimony act as the most powerful counterweight to those who practice or defend torture.

Torture is used to strip victims of their humanity and to render them powerless -- and it often succeeds. At the Program for Torture Victims, 91 percent of our clients suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and 96 percent struggle with depression. (For the past decade, the Greater Los Angeles area has been home to the largest population of torture survivors, asylum seekers and refugees in the nation.)

But survivors who receive comprehensive psychological and medical treatment, get help finding jobs and housing and are given assistance in winning asylum can, over time, rebuild their lives. By doing so, they reclaim their own power and dignity -- their victory over their tormentors.

While not all survivors who are able to regain their physical and mental strength choose to become public spokespeople, those who do are formidable counterweights to torture apologists. Hector Aristizabal, a torture survivor from Colombia, has written a one-man play about his brutal incarceration and performed it around the world. "It takes me back to the torture chamber and ignites my desire to do what I can to stop it and educate people to the existence of this atrocious human act," Aristizabal has said.

Other survivors, like Leontine Lanza, have testified at government hearings on the use of torture. When Leontine was being raped and beaten in her native Congo, the last thing she -- or her attackers -- could have imagined was that she would one day become a powerful anti-torture advocate. But she survived, emigrated to the U.S. and slowly began to recover from the physical and psychological scars of her experience. She then dedicated herself to stopping the horrific violence against women in Congo.

The theoretical claims of torture's strategic value lose their credibility in the face of testimony from survivors, who not only speak to the terrible cost of torture but also consistently repudiate the argument that torture is effective in eliciting sensitive information.

Here's how one survivor from the Ivory Coast put it: "What torture really does is terrorize individuals, families and communities -- it is an instrument of fear and oppression, not of national security."

Of course, torture survivors do not easily volunteer themselves for the enormously difficult task of publicly sharing their stories. Reliving their experiences is invariably traumatic, and in some cases speaking out against torture can put their families in jeopardy. It is only after months or years of working to restore their mental and emotional equilibrium that survivors reach the point where they can go public.

When survivors are able to share their stories, they unveil the true barbarity of torture for all to see. This is why helping to rebuild the lives of survivors is not only the right thing to do -- in some ways it is the ultimate weapon against those who torture and their defenders.

Julie Gutman is executive director of the L.A.-based Program for Torture Victims.