General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Stories of Joy and Inspiration: the Fight Against Torture

General Assembly 2009 Event 4022

Charlie Clements, President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), introduced the session. He invited participants to meet UUSC partners: inspired people leading the global movement to eliminate torture.

The first partner was the National Religious Coalition Against Torture (NRCAT). The UUSC is a member. Linda Gustitus, President of the NRCAT Board, explained that NRCAT includes more than 250 national and local organizations representing Christian and non-Christian faith groups, working to shift the issue of torture so it is considered a moral issue, not a political one. “Although the Latter Day Saints are not in the coalition yet,” Gustitus explained, “we are working on them.”

The NRCAT developed a budget of $700,000 in response to the U.S. atrocities at Abu Ghraib, and in 2005 started supporting vigils against torture. Approaching this from a faith based perspective was very powerful, said Gustitus. Gustitus, a UU, said she discovered that our first principle, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person,” makes sense to every faith group. “We all share the same core principle which is why we can work together.” She added, “It helps that we are not afraid of the religious language that they use.”

Initially the UUSC played a large role in getting NRCAT off the ground, giving a grant to work with interfaith organizations to approach newspaper editorial boards. She emphasized that “it really matters what hometown editorial pages say because they are on the desk tops of representatives in Washington, DC.”

The aim of NRCAT was to get the editorials to address the issue of torture, responding to a religious response to a moral issue, NRCAT has been able to work on this all around the country in over 350 congregations. A “Banners Across America” poster highlighting the issue was hand delivered to every member of Congress, and the NRCAT used their Unitarian Universalist (UU) network to fill in gaps in state coverage like in Tupelo, MS, where UUs were used when other denominations would not take up the issue.

Gustitus highlighted the fact that the victims of this issue include Americans. She told the story of a young female soldier in Iraq, a Mormon, who was asked to humiliate naked Iraqis in Abu Ghraib. She refused on religious grounds but committed suicide the next day.

“Genocide, slavery, torture cannot be used in a civilized country,” Gustitus said. “NRCAT would love to be put out of business.” In the meantime, NRCAT is working for a commission of inquiry. President Obama does not favor that approach, and NRCAT wants to change his mind.

Rev. Dr. Justin Osterman, Minister at the Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon, PA, spoke about the great value of NRCAT and UUSC on the issue of torture by the United States. Osterman, who served as an NCO in the Army, emphasized his pride to be a member of the military. “I think there are far too many Americans today who are ashamed,” he said. Because of his Arabic skills he was asked by two attorneys to act as translator for individuals they were representing who were being held at Guantanamo. One of the defendants was picked up by Iranian security forces and handed over to U.S. forces. An American interrogator beat a confession out of him. To stop the beatings, he admitted to visiting an Afghan camp. He was then hooded, shackled and shipped to Cuba. Since arriving at Guantanamo he has never been charged with a crime. “I don’t talk about detainees,” Osterman said. “What we have are prisoners subjected to inhumane treatment on a regular basis and sometimes torture in our names. It is a moral travesty.”

Osterman went on to explain that “it was probably the first time an American had identified himself to the prisoner in four years. I did it unconsciously. But the people refusing to give their names were doing it deliberately. The question is not who is being held. The question is who we are as a people. It is not what have we done to bodies but what have we done to our body politic—our moral credibility.”

He added, “We need to judge ourselves as Americans. Let’s ask ourselves if we are living up to our high ideals embedded in the Constitution. I believe we must be honest with ourselves, and have an unflinching commitment to truth. We should examine all we have done however shameful that might be. We owe it to our children and grandchildren.”

The second UUSC partner was introduced on video: Southern Alternative Agricultural Cooperative, owned by African American women producing fair trade pecan products in south west Georgia.

The UUSC is helping them with training in business skills and introducing them to other partners as well as connecting them with UU congregations to sell their products.

The third UUSC partner presented was a consultant in Darfur, Sudan, where hundreds of villages have been destroyed, and over two million people have moved to camps.

Fighting often cuts camps off from aid. It is often the women who need to leave the camps to find food, wood or work. This exposes them to attack and rape, but they take these risks rather than let the men to leave since the men are in danger of being killed.

Women had little voice in camp affairs, but the UUSC’s consultant encouraged women to speak with UN soldiers, training them on their rights and educating camp leaders on gender sensitive issues. The UUSC wants to implement practical measures and is working behind the scenes with their Drumbeat for Darfur campaign. This includes having UN soldiers protecting the women and training the camp leaders in ways to protect women. The United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) recently approached the UUSC to continue training in gender sensitivity, for example, that it’s important to have a woman in each patrol as it is easier for the Darfur women to approach a woman. Training has included having the patrols meet women in the camp rather than outside.

The UUSC aims to move their mission forward with minimal resources by working extensively with partners around the country and around the globe. This session’s examples showed how they are succeeding in that endeavor.

Reported by Rodney Lowe; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.