The IRCT joins with its member in the Philippines, the Medical Action Group (MAG), in mourning the loss of Dr June Caridad Pagaduan-Lopez, an inspirational pioneer and leader in torture rehabilitation who helped found both organisations, and dedicated her life to defending human rights, who has died aged 70.
“First and foremost Dr June, as we fondly called her, was a doctor, providing her services to victims of torture. She is also well known to human rights defenders and victims as she worked for them and defended them in court,” said Edeliza Hernandez, MAG’s Executive Director. “We are so sad that Dr June died at this time when the situation of human rights violations is volatile. We give our highest salute to Dr June Lopez for a life worth living.”
“Dr. June Lopez was a powerhouse in the anti-torture movement. She will be sorely missed but her achievements will never be forgotten,” said IRCT’s Secretary General Lisa Henry.
Dr June Pagaduan-Lopez was a pioneer and global expert in torture rehabilitation, and a founding member of the IRCT.
Dr June’s commitment to helping those in need was forged in the repression and uprising of the martial law era of the early 1970s under Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marco, when she saw her fellow student protesters killed by security forces.
“I just couldn’t remain blind to what was happening. People were disappearing, entire communities were being massacred,” Dr June told the IRCT for a special report published in 2005. After graduating in medicine, Dr June went on to specialise in psychiatry and in the early 1980s was one of the founders of MAG, set up to help some of the 34,000+ survivors of the Marcos’ regime of torture.
Unassuming and mild-mannered, colleagues said Dr June came across more as a family doctor than one of Asia’s most experienced professionals in the field of torture rehabilitation. But her steely determination to act against the impunity and violence she had witnessed, first through helping to heal those left traumatised, and then fighting for justice and accountability, propelled Dr June towards ever deeper engagement.
In 1985 she moved to Copenhagen to research Biological Psychiatry at Rigshospitale where she met Dr Inge Genefke, who had recently established the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT). Both women were pioneers in the diagnosis of the health impacts of torture and the subsequent production of forensic evidence for use in court. As the global torture rehabilitation movement grew, Dr Genefke established the IRCT as the international branch of the RCT, with Dr June as Vice President tasked with leading the new organisation in Asia.
Her focus was on empowering communities to overcome collective trauma arising from torture, in marked contrast to the European approach to individual cases.
“The individual approach is even enshrined in the UN Convention against Torture, which defines torture as an act by which severe pain or suffering is intentionally inflicted on a person. The reality confronting ordinary people in Asia is often very different,” Dr June told the IRCT in 2005. “Here we have rulers that don’t shy away from using ethnic cleansing and mass rapes against women. These regimes are not necessarily targeting individuals. On the contrary, they are out to intimidate and disempower entire communities. Is that not torture?”
In 1992, the IRCT persuaded the Danish International Development Agency to support the creation of a torture rehabilitation programme within the University of the Philippines. This was a milestone for Dr June, who became Professor of Psychiatry.
“It was a much more practical way to work. And since the programme had its offices on the campus, we were given the kind of protection we needed. For a long time we had all been working as volunteers, outside our regular jobs. Now we were able to do the research and treat our clients as members of the faculty.”
Dr June used her new academic status to advance research into other causes and consequences of torture, such as poverty, domestic violence, prison conditions, and street children.
As well as the Philippines, Dr June designed and implemented rehabilitation projects in other Asian societies emerging from long periods of violence, such as East Timor, always focussed around existing social institutions such as schools and churches: “I wasn’t primarily interested in setting up specialised treatment centres across the region. I and my colleagues were concentrating on training people, the more the better.”
Women and children were always a crucial focus for Dr June, whose research helped her design innovative therapy programmes for entire societies left scarred by trauma. Children would sing together to build trust, then role play and tell stories to each other about dramatic events they had been through, sometimes drawing them or creating dolls to represent family members.
“This is where we start to elicit the children’s traumatic experiences. The key message is that you are not alone, we have all been through these things… the evacuation centres, the soldiers, the terror of war,” said Dr June.
In 2005, in recognition of her life-long dedication to human rights, Dr June was one of 1,000 women worldwide who were collectively nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. At the same time, Dr June saw the new threat to human rights unleased by the US-led ‘War on Terror’, which in the Philippines saw intensified military campaigns of arrest, detention and torture against the armed Muslim separatists in the southern islands around Mindanao.
“That is why we will have to give as much attention to prevention as to rehabilitation. To achieve that, human rights have to be at the top of the agenda as we educate people in general and health professionals in particular,” said Dr June.
Ever one to put words into action, Dr June was elected to the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture in 2012, visiting places of detention, advocating for improvements, reaching out to those most in need. In 2016, she was re-elected to serve a second four-year term, working through to her very last months for the cause to which she had dedicated her life.