Blog: Finding inspiration in torture

Free Tibet's director Eleanor and torture survivor Golog Jigme at the UN in 2015
Free Tibet's director Eleanor and torture survivor Golog Jigme at the UN in 2015

18th December 2015
Post by Eleanor

"There is a saying in Tibetan, 'Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.' No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that's our real disaster."

-the 14th Dalai Lama

Our work in November was focused on the UN Committee Against Torture’s review of China.  The trip to the UN in Geneva was also a chance to catch up with torture survivor Golog Jigme.  Last time I saw him was at a Hong Kong solidarity vigil in Dharamsala back in 2014.  He’s now living in Switzerland and will hopefully be coming over to visit us in the UK early next year.  I am still amazed by how cheerful he manages to be after everything he’s been through.

We got some great feedback on the reports we submitted, although a few people referred to them as “grim reading”.  I guess they are.  Believe it or not, it is surprisingly easy to get caught up in the details.  Have we got the timeline accurate?  Is the name of that detention centre spelled consistently throughout the report?  This person is supposed to be anonymous – have we deleted all the details that might identify his family? 

One of the difficult things about working in human rights is finding a balance between the need for some emotional detachment and the risk of becoming completely detached. 

The first time I read anything in depth about torture was during my fourth year of law school.  I don’t remember what the assignment was but I was reading the report of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Chapter 3 of Volume 2 - which is almost a whole book in itself - catalogued the different torture methods that were used by the state during apartheid and also listed the nicknames given to commonly used techniques.  I felt slightly nauseated by the time I got to the end of that.  I also felt confident that it would take something absolutely horrendous to shock me in the same way ever again.  And that much has been true. 

One of the difficult things about working in human rights, especially in a field involving torture, is finding a balance between the need for some emotional detachment and the risk of becoming completely detached.  If you allow yourself to get too emotionally involved then you can’t do any work because the material is just overwhelmingly awful.  On the other hand, if you detach yourself completely then you risk losing track of the human element.  You can become desensitised, sometimes without even realising.

I am stunned by the courage of Tibetans who walk into protests knowing what the consequences are.

Some people become emotionally numb – and that’s never good.  Some people develop a very specific sense of humour and then have to remember never to tell those jokes or make those comments outside of the office. 

Personally, I’ve dealt with it in different ways over the years.  These days I try to keep gates around my emotions rather than solid walls.  Most of the time I keep them closed –because I have work to do.  But every so often I allow myself to look at the material with less jaded eyes and connect to what I’m reading. First, I usually start by imagining the pain being described on the page, how I would feel if it was me. And then I am stunned by the courage of Tibetans who walk into protests knowing what the consequences are.  Their passion and commitment are inspiring, to say the least.

We owe it to them to make the best possible use of that information and share it as widely as possible.

Campaigning on torture is also tricky.  Actually, on one hand it’s very easy – everyone understands that torture is wrong.  But how do you approach it?  If we bombard people with graphic images then there’s a risk we’ll scare them away rather than rallying them around the cause.  If we use a catchy slogan then we might accidentally cause offence.  If we hold back too much then some might not appreciate how serious things are – and we might fail in our duty to the Tibetans who have given us their testimony.  It’s not an official duty, obviously.  But, personally, I feel that if someone is willing to re-live a traumatic experience and give us their story then we owe it to them to make the best possible use of that information and share it as widely as possible.

Tibet has been occupied for over 60 years now.  And we know that, despite China’s best efforts to prevent the flow of information even inside Tibet, news does spread from one area to another.  So people know what’s going to happen to them if they walk down the street scattering lungta prayer flags or holding a picture of the Dalai Lama and chanting slogans.  They understand the consequences of playing a leading role in a protest, passing information to people in exile or saying the “wrong” thing in a meeting.  This is not something people in Tibet do naively.  They have weighed up the risks and decided it’s worth it.  The bravery is incredible.

Eleanor is Director of Free Tibet and also of our research partner Tibet Watch. She joined the movement professionally in April 2013, having previously been Director of Casework for legal charity Amicus, where her work focused on the death penalty in the US. With a law degree and an MA in human rights, Eleanor has worked for many other campaigns and projects, including One For Ten, PeaceBrigades International, the Burma Human Rights Documentation Unit and the British Institute of International & Comparative Law. She has been a supporter of Free Tibet since her student days and has supported the Tibetan cause for over 20 years. Read updates from her on Twitter and each month on our blog.