Triumph Over Torture by
This speech on TORTURE was given Dec.4th in New Zealand, his
country of birth by Michael Lapsley, himself a victim of a parcel bomb from
the apartheid regime.
It is a broad but focussed survey of torture in the region, past and present,
and a tribute to Amnesty who sponsored his visit to New Zealand.
Since Michael lived in Lesotho, and Zimbabwe as well as South Africa, I have
circulated it to the region, and since torture is such a gross violation of
human rights I have circulated to the HR list as well.
if you get more than one copy, you could pass one on.
P.S. I have just read The Country of my Skull, (Guilt, Sorrow, and the limits
ofForgiveness in the New South Africa) by Antjie Krog, (Random House 1998).
She isan Afrikaner journalist who covered all of the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission hearings in South Africa.
Very readable (Krog is a poet), and has narration of many testimonies of
torture victims and perpeptrators; also insights into many facets of truth, (re)conciliation,
confession, forgiveness, honour, shame, guilt etc.
I highly recommend it.
Triumph over Torture
The Second Michael Hirschfield Memorial Address
December 4, 2000
By Father Michael Lapsley,S.S.M.
Institute for Healing of Memories
Dear Friends, Fellow survivors of human rights violations, Fellow activists
for human rights.
I would like to dedicate this speech to a group of Timorese women from
Liquica – a small town in East Timor who call themselves Widows without
Graves. Their husbands were massacred inside a church and the nearby
priest’s house in April last year by the militia supported by the Indonesian
military. To this day they do not know where the bodies are
For me it is a deep honour to give this Second Michael Hirschfield Memorial
Address. Let me also express my congratulations to the Freedom Foundation of
Amnesty International in New Zealand for honouring the memory and the immense
contribution of Michael Hirschfield to the international struggle for human
rights. His vision and hard work together with other colleagues gave birth to
the Freedom Foundation thus ensuring the ongoing economic viability and
sustainability of Amnesty’s work both here and abroad.
I am also delighted to be asked to come and speak in the land of my birth. The
invitation comes as a surprise as I have always taken the Biblical dictum
seriously, that a prophet is not without honour except in her or his own
country and among her or his own people.
May I also congratulate Amnesty International for its outstanding work as
a watchdog, as campaigners and defenders of human rights and as part of our
collective and individual consciences as an international community.
Most importantly, I speak in the context of Amnesty’s recent launch of its
worldwide campaign for all of us to take a step to stamp out torture.
Indeed I have been asked to speak to you today on the theme of torture.
In 1993 I became one of the first two employees of a Trauma Centre for
Victims of Violence and Torture. In April of 1990, 3 months after the release
of Nelson Mandela, I became the victim of a letter bomb sent to me at my home
in Zimbabwe by the De Klerk Government As a result I lost both hands and an
eye together with other injuries. After a month in a Zimbabwean hospital, I
spent 6 months in 2 Sydney hospitals (I shouldn’t forget to mention that you
as NZ taxpayers paid the bill!) Whilst I was in hospital, a South African
friend of mine phoned me from London. People had been trying to prepare me for
a life of disability by telling me all the things I would no longer be able to
do. My friend phoned me in my hospital bed to say that he had just been
visiting Cape Town and heard that there were plans to start a center for
victims of violence and torture. He told me "I think that is a job which
you can do. You will be better qualified now" That was my first inkling
that my loss might also be a gain.
>From 1993 to 1998, I worked as a chaplain to a Trauma center for Victims
of Violence and Torture. During the 1980s a group of mental health workers who
were themselves part of the struggle against apartheid sought to provide
services to people who were in and out of detention, to people on the run, to
people coming out of prison. They dreamed of the day when there would be a
center dedicated to healing the emotional, psychological and spiritual wounds
of the victims of apartheid.
First Experience of Torture
In 1975, I was a student in Durban. The brother of a friend of mine was
detained . He was physically tortured including electric shocks to the
genitals. Another woman was detained with the brother of my friend. In her
case her parents were brought to see her in detention. The parents told me
what considerate and kind people the security police are. As soon as the
parents left, the security police told the daughter that if she did not tell
all, she would not see her parents again. She did tell all and they did not
lay a finger on her.
Torture in South Africa
Sad to say torture became a normative part of the South African way of
life especially during the 1980s when repression and resistance was at its
Like so many other struggles, as the years passed, we kept crossing thresh
holds of what we were prepared to do to each other. Those involved in the
struggle against apartheid became progressively younger as the years passed.
In the late 80s estimates of numbers in detention reached more than 80,000
with more than 10,000 under the age of 18. Evidence suggested that more than
90% had been tortured. Detention, unlike imprisonment, exposed the detainee to
a range of horrendous uncertainties:
For how long will I be detained? (Under apartheid legislation detention
without trial was unlimited in duration). Will I be tortured, how long will it
last? Will I be able to endure? Will I betray my comrades? Will I die?
Wouldn’t it be better to die than to survive?
Although many have written and spoken about their experience of torture, I am
not sure that anyone who has not had the experience knows the full horror and
terror experienced by a torture survivor.
The torturer would say: “Scream for all you like, no- one can hear. Don’t
worry we wont leave marks so no one will believe you.”
During countless numbers of political trials the accused would tell the courts
that they had been tortured, often giving names, dates and detailed
descriptions of the kinds of torture. The English speaking press recorded
these details for the public to know.
Torture and the Truth Commission
In his recently published book on the truth commission, its Deputy
Chairperson, Alex Boraine writes:
“From June to August 1997, the TRC analysed a large amount of evidence
presented to it concerning allegations of torture committed by the security
forces. Our information indicated that the rate of torture increased more than
ten-fold after the declaration of the state of emergency in 1986. Furthermore
the TRC had received statements alleging that the security forces had been
involved in almost 2000 acts of torture in more than 200 different venues
around that time.”
“Torture was not something that took place in a handful of prisons,
performed by perverted warders. Torture was endemic. There was no place we
visited, no hearing we conducted , which did not contain stories of torture.
Thousands were killed, not merely at roadblocks, in ambushes and raids, but
also by abduction and design. Those who were seen as a threat to the apartheid
regime were in many instances summarily executed”
Boraine,A. A Country Unmasked: Inside South Africa’s Truth and
Oxford 2000 p.131
(Earlier this year, I made a brief visit to New Zealand. Whilst I was here
a friend of mine told me about a conversation he had with a South African
woman who was visiting her son here. My friend mentioned to her that I would
be visiting and that I worked with victims of violence and torture. Her
response was to state unequivocally that there had been no torture in South
Africa although she conceded that some people were killed. My friend promised
to tell me that I was wasting my time since noone had been tortured in South
Africa. I could not help wondering how many ostriches New Zealand has imported
from South Africa.)
Why torture? What is the point? People are tortured in order to extract
information. It is used as a form of punishment and also to intimidate. One
person is tortured to terrorize others and prevent them from following the
same course of action.
During the struggle for liberation in South Africa torture was part of the
arsenal of state terrorism. It became an instrument with the primary purpose
of breaking the will of the people to resist and to be free. The only way the
regime could try and crush the spirit of the people was by physically crushing
The mid-eighties was also the period during which the horrific form of killing
known as “neck lacing” became common. It involved the placing of
a tyre over the head of a victim, which was then doused in petrol and set
alight. This was particularly used in black townships against those who were
believed to be collaborators with the apartheid regime.
Often I have been asked: How could this happen? How could a group of human
beings do this to another human being? Often young people would be in the
forefront of calling for the neck lacing of another alleged collaborator. My
question was: What had been done to these young people that they should relish
Under apartheid the moral order was inverted. Torturers and assassins were
respected members of the community, although they may have never told their
children how they passed their days. They were rewarded and promoted and given
golden handshakes when they retired.
Survivors of torture were portrayed by the state as lying criminals who
deserved to be disbelieved and punished. Because of their degrading and
humiliating experiences, torture victims often speak of their own sense of
shame at what has happened to them. Survivors sometimes wait for many years,
even for decades before they speak of what has been done to them. “Will I be
believed? What will people think of me if they know what has happened to
me?” This is particularly true of sexual torture and of rape especially of
women but also of men. In the recesses of the human heart the victim sometimes
blames her or himself for being a victim. Not long after I had survived the
attempt to kill me, I apologized to a friend for having survived whilst her
own son had been killed. For both perpetrator and victim, there is a need to
restore a moral order in which good is called good and evil is called evil.
There is a consensus in the international community that apartheid was morally
evil. Indeed the family of nations asserted that apartheid was a crime against
humanity. Ironically, inside South Africa, it was the liberation movement that
was first called to account for its transgressions of human rights not the
ANC Human Rights Violations
After the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1990,
accusations began to surface of abuses that had taken place especially in ANC
detention camps in Angola. For the first time in history, a liberation
movement set up three separate commissions which confirmed that indeed human
rights abuses had taken place. The ANC leadership responded by accepting
collective responsibility for gross violations of human rights which were
contrary to the ANC’s own moral values. At the same time the ANC leadership
signaled that there would be a need to place these violations in the much
broader context of all that had happened during the apartheid years. A new
government would need to set up a truth commission.
It is now a matter of history that South Africa established a Commission for
Truth and Reconciliation. To this Commission, relatives of victims and
survivors were invited to recount their stories of gross violations of human
rights. Gross human rights violations were defined as murder, attempted
murder, torture, abduction and severe maltreatment. In the eyes of the
Commission all people who appeared before the commission were treated with the
same dignity and respect regardless of whether the perpetrator was the
apartheid state or the liberation movement.
The ANC insisted that there could be no moral equivalence between the just
struggle to end apartheid and the injustice of defending apartheid. However
with great importance both for the individuals concerned and for the
establishment of a moral order, the truth commission asserted the moral
unacceptability of gross violations of human rights regardless of who carried
them out. In the eyes of the Truth Commission torture was torture was torture.
The ends did not justify the means.
Reparations are a Right
Amnesty International correctly asserts that all torture victims have a
right to reparation. More than two years ago, the Truth Commission presented
its report to President Mandela including its recommendations for Reparations
for the 18,800 people officially declared to be victims.
So far the state has implemented only extremely limited Urgent Interim
Reparations. It is a moral tragedy that a process which was correctly heralded
around the world is in danger of going down in history as a perpetrator
friendly exercise. The world-wide network of Amnesty International needs to be
mobilized to join the chorus of South African survivors and the human rights
community which is calling for the immediate implementation of Final
Reparations as recommended by the Truth Commission.
It has to be said that apartheid was itself based on a lie about the human
person. i.e. the false claim that human value comes from the colour of our
skin rather than the fact that we are all human. It was this lie about the
value of the human person which provided the milieu in which all forms of
torture could flourish. Apartheid in South Africa and racism around the world
have provided the context in which discrimination, violence and torture has
been carried out against people of colour.
The United States is a bad example
Today the United States is a dramatic example of the relationship between
racial discrimination, torture and death. A vastly disproportionate number of
Latino, African and Native Americans occupy the more than ten thousand cells
on death row along with world reknowned Abu Jamal. Jamal has already spent
more than eighteen years on Death Row. He and his growing number of supporters
around the world continue to demand a retrial to avoid the ultimate form of
state torture, judicial execution. How many times does a death row inmate die
before the actual moment of execution?
In South Africa our Constitutional Court ruled that the death penalty is
incompatible with a clause guaranteeing all our people the right to life.
Economic Torture Against Cuba
The forty-one year blockade against Cuba by the United States, which has
been condemned by the community of nations, is an attempt by the most powerful
nation in the world to torture the tiny island of Cuba into ideological
Torture is a World Problem
However when it comes to questions of torture, a very large number of
countries stand in the dock. Amnesty’s research between 1997 and 2000
reports cases of torture or ill treatment by state officials in more than 150
countries. “In more than seventy they were widespread or persistent. The
evidence suggests that most of the victims were people suspected or convicted
of criminal offences. Most of the torturers were police officers”
Take a Step to Stamp out Torture
Torture continues in South Africa
Since the demise of the apartheid state, torture has not disappeared. As
in many other countries allegations of torture come from criminal suspects.
Because of the scale of violent crime in South Africa the public often lacks
sympathy with the torture victim. There have been exceptional cases which have
been captured on camera and have received widespread local and international
In the face of growing unemployment and widespread poverty, xenophobia has
become a feature of the South African landscape. Recent television footage of
illegal job seekers being set on by police dogs caused a huge outcry. The
Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation said that the nation had
been traumatized by what they witnessed.
In many countries of the world the undocumented migrant, the asylum seeker and
the refugee are subject to ill treatment and torture. Frequently these
categories of people are not afforded most or any of the basic rights and
protection which are enjoyed by citizens.
Indefinite Detention in New Zealand
Times New Roman><?bigger><?bigger>I note that here in New
Zealand a number of asylum seekers complained that they were assaulted by
other prisoners and were held for several months last year until the courts
ordered their release. I hope Amnesty in New Zealand will raise very sharply
with the Government its opposition to laws, policies and regulations which
allow for indefinite detention of people arriving in the country without
travel documents, including asylum seekers
<?color><?param 0101,0101,0101>Torture of
Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered People
International’s Stamp out Torture Campaign has also highlighted the torture
of gay, lesbian and transgendered persons which arises out of both homophobic
prejudice and laws against homosexuality in some countries.
In South Africa the constitution outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual
orientation. Recently allegations have been made by the victims against a
psychiatrist who performed sex change and other experiments on gay &
lesbians conscripts in the apartheid army during the 1970s and 1980s.
Torture of Women and Children
Women and children are often the targets of torture. They are most often
the victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence. Sad to say, South Africa is
reported to have the highest number of rapes in the world. “It is estimated
that a woman is raped every 23 seconds in South Africa, that between 1 in 3
and 1 in 2 women or girls will be raped in her lifetime, and that most will
know her attacker.
Pacsa Fact Sheet No 44 June 1998.
Of some encouragement is that we have begun to see men organizing and
joining marches of men against violence against women.
Healing of Memories
My own work is in the field of the healing of memories. Our experience has
convinced us that all human beings are capable of being both victim and
victimizer and sometimes at the same time. One of our wise and great leaders
once said “Those who think of themselves as victims eventually become the
vicimizers of others.” Often someone who has been badly treated is not able
to get at the perpetrator. Instead they take it out on those who are close to
them and weaker than them whether in the form of emotional, physical or sexual
This cycle of victims becoming victimizers is true of individuals,
communities, and nations. At the individual level it is important to create
spaces where individuals are able to have what has happened to them,
acknowledged, reverenced and recognized so that victims can begin to traverse
the journey away from victimhood, through survival and eventually to become
victorious. This is also true for all communities of people who have suffered
oppression in the recent or the distant past. National leaders who carry
within them unfinished business from the past at a psychological, emotional
and spiritual level are precisely the ones who will help lead their people to
We are all Responsible for the Past
It is tempting to focus solely on the individual torturers and individual
victims, to make moral condemnations and to let ourselves off the hook.
The German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, writing shortly after the second world
war spoke of four kinds of guilt: criminal, political, moral, and
metaphysical. If I can illustrate from my own life. Somebody made and sent me
a letter bomb. They are criminally guilty together with the chain of command.
South Africa’s political leaders passed unjust laws and created the
environment in which torture, murder and mayhem flourished. They are
politically guilty. The majority of white people voted for apartheid. They are
morally guilty. All white people, even those who fought against it, benefited
from it. Jaspers speaks also of the metaphysical guilt which we all share
because we are part of the same human family.
The last night that it was possible to get amnesty under the Truth Commission
process, a small group of young people approached the Commission. They asked
that they should be given amnesty for apathy. They made the point that all
black people suffered under apartheid and struggled to endure it. It was left
to a minority to fight against it. As Edmund Burke said: “For evil to
prosper all it needs is for good people to do nothing. ”
All people share responsibility for the past of their countries and all people
have a responsibility for creating a different kind of future.
The Role of the Faith Community
The many different faith communities have a particular responsibility to
be in the forefront of the fight against torture. We are the ones who assert
in a particularly definite way the sacredness of the human person. In the
Judaeo Christian tradition we go so far as to make the bold claim that all
human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. Furthermore, for those
of us who are Christians, we are the followers of the tortured one. We follow
Jesus who said “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and
sisters, you did it to me ”
The World fails to stop Genocide
In 1994 the world was told that genocide was about to happen in Rwanda.
After it happened we said we were sorry. Last year I was in East Timor a week
before the referendum concerning independence. The militia supported by the
Indonesian military made it clear that if the people voted for independence,
all hell would break loose and they would raze the capital to the ground.
Already the Indonesians had successfully killed a third of the population.
After Dili was razed to the ground, with many thousands of people fleeing and
countless people dead, the international community began to insist on a
The international human rights community has to insist on the development of
regional and international rapid reaction peace keeping forces by the United
What is to be done?
What is to be done? In the face of the scale of torture worldwide, it is
easy to feel overwhelmed, downcast and hopeless. It is important for us to
recall the lessons of history. Last century women and men of goodwill mounted
a campaign against slavery until it was outlawed and abolished.
In our lifetime all people of goodwill throughout the world, including
the majority of New Zealanders, came to the conclusion that apartheid was a
crime against humanity. Constitutionalised apartheid has gone for ever.
During the campaign for peace in Vietnam we learnt that one and one make a
Landmines - originally developed to "protect",
anti-tank mines soon became
the weapons of choice to torture individuals and communities - being
designed to maim rather than kill; being produced to look like toys for
children to pick up and play with.
Rae McGrath, who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the
International Campaign to Ban Landmines in 1997, notes that in Cambodian
Buddhist society, those that are "unwhole" are normally not allowed
monks - a denial which strikes at the very heart of their culture - a form
of torture not usually associated with a landmine explosion
Another brief example. A particularly obscene use of landmines by the
apartheid State was revealed during the TRC hearings when members of the
Northern Transvaal security branch applied for amnesty for the torture,
death and subsequent blowing up with the use of landmines of anti-apartheid
activists in the 1980s. Thus, to torture the families, by ensuring that
these victims are never found.
Although the victory is not yet complete, we can all rejoice in the
achievements which resulted in the Treaty to Ban Landmines. In a major way
this was a victory for civil society who mobilized public opinion until
governments were forced to respond.
Helen Clark opposes Torture
In relation to torture it was here in New Zealand on October 18, Prime
Minister Helen Clark lead from the front by asserting: <?/color>"I,
Helen Clark, Prime Minister hereby affirm that the New Zealand Government does
not tolerate torture within New Zealand and is committed to working for the
eradication of torture everywhere".
We must all commit ourselves to helping to shape a world in which every human
being is treated with dignity and respect. We must join the struggle against
all forms of prejudice and discrimination which will help prevent violence
against, and the torture of children, women, people of colour and indigenous
people, gay and lesbian people, the disabled, asylum seekers and refugees,
prisoners and criminals.
We are the leaders of humanity
Human rights activists are on the frontiers of the greatest human
It is now time for every New Zealander to join the worldwide campaign to stamp
out torture. It is the right thing to do.
Forgive me if I end with reference to my own journey. I often asked
myself, why did I survive while so many others (have not) survived. It was
important that some of us should survive so that no-one could say that these
things did not happen. Much more importantly, I think in a small way I can be
a sign that the forces of God, of life, of justice, love and gentleness are
stronger than the forces of death, of violence, torture and hatred. Victory is
Viva Amnesty International! Viva!
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