Human rights Conference Urges Action Against Torture

Tiarra Medley

By Tiarra MedleyThe Daily Northwestern

The abduction and torture of a nun while doing missionary work.

The persecution of a young Egyptian army hero by the government he once served.

Last weekend, 44 students from universities all over the country came to Northwestern to hear these and more stories during the annual Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights.

The conference, now in its fourth year, was themed “Torture: A Critical Look,” and examined modern day torture, domestically and abroad. Conferences of past years have focused on American interventionalist policy, American policy toward HIV/AIDS in the developing world and human trafficking and contemporary slavery.

“The ideal result of the conference would be for someone else to really get something out of it, to really understand the issue in its entirety as much as can be done in a 48-hour period,” said Weinberg senior Nicole Schwager, the conference’s co-chairwoman.

The event began with an opening honorary address March 29 by Sister Dianna Ortiz, an Ursuline sister from Kentucky who was abducted and tortured in 1989 while acting as a missionary in Guatemala.

She spoke about her ordeal as a captive and her search for justice that she felt was often hampered by the Guatemalan and United States governments.

This speech was followed by the keynote address on March 30 by M. Cherif Bassiouni, a research professor of Law at DePaul University and President of the International Human Rights Law Institute. The former Suez Crisis hero, who was a victim of psychological torture by the Egyptian government, spoke about the classification of torture in today’s world and how it is still a serious issue – in other countries as well as the United States.

“It is more prevalent than you think, and just an atrocity,” Schwager said.

The weekend also included a policy address and a series of five panels, including one made up of torture survivors who spoke in depth about their torment.

“Listening to the stories of torture survivors has a pretty much incalculable emotional impact,” said Nate Kratzer, a freshman delegate from Centre College in Danville, Ky. “Most of them did not talk a lot about the actual torture methods, for obvious reasons, but just listening to what they went through after it, it is like the torture never stopped.”

The students behind the conference, which took almost a full year of planning, said they hope the event will make the existence of torture more of a reality to the delegates and cause them to take action against it.

“It was most important, while remembering that the people involved are real people with real identities, to look at from every way, to understand it and combat it,” Schwager said. “It is important for the people who are going to be the activists, going to be the lawyers and the leaders and the politicians. If this sparks them to act, then that is our ideal.”

Schwager said the convention was successful, and said the group was especially pleased with the attendance at the presentations.

Although attendees rarely got a break between the panels and speeches, students tried to take the time between activities to weigh the information they were given.

“It has been a mix,” said Kelsey Larsen, a sophomore at the University of Iowa. “Obviously really heavy stuff, really informative stuff from survivors, but at the same time, there has been great policy discussion and sort of more of a lighthearted look at what we are really going to do about it. It has been really informative.”

Reach Tiarra Medley at [email protected]