Karen Tse believes in a torture-free future

The human rights activist and founder of International Bridges to Justice spoke Tuesday night at Hendricks Chapel to show how to promote judicial global change.

Karen Tse shared touching stories about tortured prisoners she met while working to champion human rights around the world when she spoke at Hendricks Chapel on Tuesday night.  

"The biggest obstacle that I see today is our own inability to believe in the possibility and the hope for a future where there is a torture free world," Tse said. "We can do this by putting building blocks together and creating infrastructure in these countries.”

Photo: Stephen Sartori/Courtesy of Syracuse University
Karen Tse, founder of International Bridges for Justice, speaks Tuesday at Hendricks Chapel about her work to champion human rights.

An award-winning human rights defender and founder of International Bridges to Justice (IBJ), Tse has promoted judicial global change in countries including Rwanda, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Cambodia and India, among others, since 2000. Tse emphasized how her organization is trying to instill a “shifting consciousness” around the world by focusing not only on saving political prisoners, but all torture victims and condemned torture as an ineffective and cheap form of investigation during her “Transformation and Liberation: Rising Up From Fear to Hope” talk, part of the Syracuse University Lecture series.

Tse began her talk by reading from “Step by Step,” Cambodian Buddhist monk Maha Ghosananda’s volume about the compassion and forgiveness of Cambodian refugees during the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia. During the lecture, Tse recalled several anecdotes of tortured prisoners she had met while traveling to Cambodia and Zimbabwe, among other countries where IBJ is involved.

A 12-year-old boy in Cambodia had been imprisoned for stealing a bike, while a woman was incarcerated for stealing two diapers for her baby. In India, Tse met with a man who had been tortured with acid for stealing barb wire. He was one of 130 people tortured in that area.

While most prisoners receive cruel punishments and lengthy imprisonment for minor crimes, they’re still hopeful and kind. Torture victims of a Cambodian prison found solace in connecting with a four-year-old boy who had been born there and visited all of them to lift up their spirits. Meanwhile, in a prison in Zimbabwe, prisoners told Tse their tragic torture stories, as their cellmates applauded everyone’s courage to stand and speak.

Tse realized that hundreds of people were tortured in places where IBJ had not set up pilot legal aid centers. Although there are 113 countries where torture is still practiced and 93 have laws against this practice, her movement is implementing change. For instance, the Cambodian government has asked her to develop a comprehensive plan to implement anti-torture laws across the country.

“Torture no longer exists, but happens as an exception to the rule,” Tse said. I want you to know before I die, I know we can.”

David Norcross, an engineering and political science freshman who is interested in political issues, learned new things about the work that's being done in the legal area for tortured prisoners. "I know there's a lot of work that needs to be done in certain developing countries that don't have basic protection for human rights," he said. "Before this, I would think about it more from a development standpoint needing to support economic development, but it was really interesting for me to hear the other piece of this, which is the legal work that can be done right now."

Tse highlighted a gap between helping political and regular tortured, one of the reasons why she began IBJ. “There's such an international focus on political prisoners who are five percent of the people imprisoned, but 95 percent of the people who are being tortured are not necessarily political prisoners,” Tse said. There’s something we can do about it but there's a gap in the system. Work here with us.”

Lorein Abenhaim, a magazine writing junior, admires Tse's International Bridges to Justice movement, but wonders why it has not been more widely publicized in the past and wishes the lecture included more facts. "A lot of the things [in the lecture] were a little too emotional and not necessarily fact-given," she said. "She [Tse] could have done a lot more with what the program has done number-wise, but if you look at the website, it's probably there. Maybe she was trying to give off something different."

Before the Q&A portion of the lecture, Tse turned the floor to Hanna Richardson, Associate Deputy Director of the Honors Program, who taught the full-house crowd in the Hendricks Chapel a song to send solidarity to tortured prisoners across the world. “We are going, heaven knows where we are going, we'll know we’re there. We will get there, heaven knows how we will get there, we know we will.”

"The only thing we need to do to save this world is to allow ourselves to hear the cries of the world to save these people,” Tse said. "If we can see the seas of hope, if we can see it and we can believe it, then we can create another tomorrow."

Video filmed by advertising sophomore Will Leonard:

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