(All photos by Asa Mathat)
Founder and CEO, International Bridges to Justice
Tse: I think that we often think of torture as being something that’s done by rogue states or political torture. And we often feel helpless because we think that there is very precious little that we can do about it. And I also used to feel this way, until one day I walked into a Cambodian prison and I met a 12-year-old boy who had been tortured and denied access to counsel for stealing a bicycle.
And what was ironic about the situation is that the Cambodian government said he’s not a political prisoner. If you want to help him, go ahead.
And there I began to realize although the world focuses mostly on political prisoners, which is very important, political prisoners are only 5 percent of the people who are being tortured; 95 percent are actually just everyday people in broken-down legal systems.
So of the 113 countries that torture, 93 countries have all passed laws that say you have a right to a lawyer, a right not to be tortured.
But the problem is that torture continues in large part because it is the cheapest form of investigation. And we don’t have the resources to build it. And so in the year 2000, I founded International Bridges of Justice to begin to find ways of providing systemic early access to counsel for people throughout countries.
And we started doing advisory rights campaigns, building pilot legal defender centers and seeing what a difference they made. But the real 180 happened for me when I used to tell people—we used to go into Burundi and Rwanda and Cambodia and China, all the countries we work in and talk to the lawyers—okay, we’re going to do this. We’re going to change history case by case because you’ll implement the laws. You’ll provide early access to counsel and then people will no longer be tortured.
But we thought it was a really, really slow process and we recognized it would take us a long time. And then one day all the defenders from everywhere—and you keep hearing about the boy in Nigeria who is doing whatever. And that’s what happened to us at International Bridges of Justice.
People started to say, “How can we use technology? Let’s use technology because we can accelerate.”
We were working in China, and they said we’re doing this training, 100 people, but we could do maybe 1,000 at the same time if we start to use e-learning.
We started looking at how we could connect people. And lawyers said to us, you know, we’re isolated, but maybe you can connect us. So we started finding ways of doing justice maker programs, where it was only one person in Switzerland giving $5,000 to Harshi in Sri Lanka, but she managed to get a woman out of jail who had been there for nine years, but had never seen a lawyer. And after being to court 53 years, she was still in jail until Harshi came to her.
There are all these different ways that we started seeing that technology was the force multiplier to actually make it happen.