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Eric Rosenthal, MDRI

Eric Rosenthal, Executive Director, Mental Disability Rights International:

“The EU was permitting torture to take place”

by Yana Buhrer Tavanier

What are, from your perspective, the major violations of human rights in institutions for adults in the region?

The issue of long-term segregation from society is the biggest issue. When people are in an institution, they are usually in an institution for life. And very often they go from being a child in an institution, to being an adult in an institution. And if you don’t develop skills in functioning in the community, then you lose all hope for ever leaving the facility. So life-time segregation from society is a very, very big issue.

And, you know, there are enormous physical dangers. When we were in one of the two psychiatric facilities which are documented in our 2007 report on Serbia, there were adults who were tied down to wheelchairs, dressed in thick and heavy robes – it was a very hot day and these were people sweating, with literally no water available. And we saw people faining. There were tied people falling together with their wheelchairs. Horribly inhumane conditions exist in these facilities.

And psychotropic medications tend to be used as a form of restraint. [In some institutions] everyone is drugged with a major sedative. Since there are no activities and no rehabilitation, people are drugged so they are easier to control.

Has anything major changed in Serbia since the release of your report in 2007?

Serbia had some stated policies on community integration. And some of the things they said they are going to do were amongst the most progressive things we have heard from any country. They promised that they would end the institutionalisation of children, and create a broad range of community-based services for children and adults. However, what we found was that their policies are clearly not being implemented.

We identified, what we consider to be torture for children and adults with disabilities. Children tied down to beds. We found one man, who was in bed for 11 years. The question is have those abuses been brought to an end. I do not know the answer to that question.

Since the release of the report, we have been very engaged with Serbia’s governmet and the social ministry told us that they were creating new community services. But my understanding is that there still is a lack of services across the board, and that implementing their promise to end institutionalisation of children will be difficult, if not impossible, until more services are created. And the policies, the practices, that can be changed immediately, are still not being changed. For example doctors are still telling family members that a child with a disability needs to be placed in an institution.

What do you think the role of the EU should be?

The EU has stated that enforcement of basic human rights, as well as certain economic and social rights, are essential and those are the criteria to which countries will be judged – accession countries, as well as member countries. I have seen – more in Romania than in Serbia – the most extreme human rights violations any population has been submitted to. It is torture when a child is tied down to a bed, or left in a crib for a lifetime. If political dissidents were tortured the way people with mental disabilities have been tortured, there is no question that Romania wouldn’t have been admitted to the EU. Or that Serbia would not be considered. So the EU was permitting torture to take place.

I saw conditions in institutions that were clearly life-threatening. In Serbia – children, whose lives were clearly at risk, denied medical treatment. A child with hydrocephalus in Kulina – it is not expensive to treat this condition. That child died. Because of a failure to provide basic health care. Letting a child to die like that is a severe human-rights abuse. People that we saw in the adult psychiatric facility, who were wearing heavy clothes and not being given access to water, or tied to beds – those people are going to be dying, from exposure. In Romania we saw children tied down with bedsores all over their body. When we ask in one of these institutions if they could remove the straps that were tying the down, we saw children’s skin peeling off their bodies. Because they had so many bedsores from being tied down that way. These children are going to die from those bedsores.

So these are life-threatening abuses on a large scale and I believe that the EU has not begun [to act] and it is mere lip-service that they are giving the human rights issues. They have included them in the progress reports and I support that, but they have to demand an immediate end to the most serious human-rights abuses. The life-threatening conditions, the inhuman conditions, the degrading conditions, the torture, the arbitrary detention, the stripping away of legal capacity without due process – those are all issues that an be solved immediately and the EU has the capacity to do so. Immediately. If they insist on it. That progress will not go forward unless those human rights abuses that are taking place are addressed.

The issue of deintitutionalization is obviously more complex. But I am also very critical of what I have seen of the EU. That they gave Romania a pass – because you will see in our report – we have documented that many children without disabilities have left the institutions, but essentially the children with disabilities have been left behind. Very mildly disabled children, who might even not be considered disabled in other countries, are integrated into communities. But the support services on the ground do not exist to allow most children with disabilities to be integrated into the community. So the children with disabilities are being hidden in psychiatric hospitals like we saw, or simply moved to other facilities.

Romania has claimed that they are downsizing institutions. What we’ve seen was large institutions, literally divided in 2 or 3, but the same people are sitting in the same building, which is now with different names. And they are saying that that is a move towards community services.

Romania closed some big old facilities and they moved the people to what they call family-like environments. Well, we’ve seen some of these family-like environments, institutions of 20 or so people, in the center of the city, where children sit on the floor rocking back and forth in lack of attention.

I believe that the government of Romania did what it needed to do in order to show Europe that it is making progress, and the EU did not cut beneath the surface to look [if this is true]. And what is truly sad is that they put in a lot of money into these so-called solutions. And it will take Romania even longer to fix the new problems it created. So if the EU has asked for true community integration, it would have saved time and it would have saved lives. And the EU needs to take a strong stand on that matter.

I got a letter from the EU after the release of our report on Romania. It was frankly one of the most disgusting things I have ever seen. It – number one – questioned the factual accuracy of our report, without any evidence to the contrary; and number two – the letter said, that every country in Europe institutionalizes children with disabilities. And it will be wrong to hold Romania to a double standard.

The convention on the rights of the child speaks about an obligation to promote the maximum possible social integration – we were merely calling for implementation of what is in this convention. We are not holding Romania to a double standard, and certainly – if Belgium improperly institutionalizes a child with a disability that is not an excuse for stopping the deinstitutionalization in Romania on a large scale.

Why is it so difficult to change the way we think about people with disabilities?

It has taken the US many, many years since the first abuses were documented in our institutions. And we have made progress, enormous progress, but there are still abuses in the US. Deinstitutionalization is a very hard thing. It requires changing attitudes, the investment of money, and so I understand that it may take time. But what we in the US have learned is how not to do it, what mistakes not to make. So countries like Serbia ought to do it quicker than we did it in the US. To learn from the way we did it wrong. To learn from our mistakes. Change can certainly happen quicker.

The prejudices – those can actually be challenged the quickest. What we’ve found is that when you get people out of institutions and into the community, you don’t wait for the prejudices to go away, once you begin, the prejudices start to fall away immediately. Within days, months of living next to a person with a disability – you discover that they are a wonderful neighbour, a human being just like any other. So it’s important not to wait and not to let that be an excuse.

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