UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Expresses Concerns Over Potential US Cuts to Torture Victims Fund

The new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed concern that a potential cut of US funding for her office would affect a key resource for victims of torture around the world. Her concerns were raised in the context of recent statements by National Security Advisor John Bolton that the US is seeking to stop funding the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as well as the Human Rights Council, the latter from which the United States withdrew this year.

In a panel discussion at the International Peace Institute on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last Thursday, I asked Bachelet to weigh the impact of a potential US cut to her office.

“We have not heard officially those cuts of resources are coming,” she said. “We have heard words from some officials saying they are going to cut the office budget.”

Bachelet expressed less concern that the Trump administration could specifically target her office with earmarked cuts because the UN budget process does not allow for that kind of program-specific targeting by member states. She did, however, signal that a key UN funding program for victims of torture could be affected by a US effort to reduce its contributions to the UN human rights system.

The program is known as the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. It issues grants to organizations and entities that support the medical, psychological and social rehabilitation of torture victims. The aim of the program is to provide victims of torture a way to recover from their hideous ordeals.  Some of the the grantees listed on fund’s website include:

 In Southern Iraq, the Fund supported a project to provide reconstructive surgery to dozens of Iraqi victims of punitive ear amputation – a brutal method of torture systematically used under Ba’athist regime.

A project, operating in Ecuador, Thailand and Tanzania, provided legal assistance advice and representation to torture victims among asylum-seekers and refugees, in their first country of refuge, to enable them to assert their human rights in these countries, for example, right to employment, right to education and social benefits.

A project, based in Switzerland, specialized in providing emergency assistance, including medical evacuation, to victims of torture in more than 27 countries. In selected cases, legal assistance is provided to bring cases at domestic and international courts as well as UN Human Rights mechanisms

An association of lawyers in Guinea provided legal and medical assistance to victims of torture identified during their monitoring of places of detention in the country. The project aims at documenting torture cases, as well as fighting impunity and bringing perpetrators to justice.

As the name suggests, the funding source is outside the regular budget process and is based on voluntary contributions from donors. Last year, the United States was by far the largest donor to this fund, contributing $6.5 million out of $8.3 million.  Unlike the regular budget, the United States could earmark this fund and eliminate its support for it all together.

“It’s a very important fund that helps us to give victims of torture, or families of victims of torture, the physical, psychological support to reintegrate into society,” she said.

Bachelet is the former president of Chile and first democratically elected leader of a South American country. She is also a victim of torture at the hands of the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Referring to potential US cuts to this fund, Bachelet said, “It would be very bad for those people who have been victims of authoritarian governments.”

The Trump administration has already eliminated funding for other voluntarily funded UN entities, including the UN Population Fund, which supports family planing and maternal health around the world, and the United Nations Relief And Works Agency, which supports humanitarian aid for Palestinian refugees.  Bachelet is still hopeful that these cuts will not befall the UN Torture Victims Fund.

“We are still optimistic, though, that we will continue to receive those resources,” she said.