A champion for human rights

Spotlight on Douglas Johnson, head of the Center for Victims of Torture

In 1967, a young Kansas native came to Minnesota to attend college and, unknowingly, to begin a mission to protect human rights worldwide. Now a Kenwood resident, Douglas Johnson heads a local organization that broke ground in offering services to victims of torture.

The Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) is a Twin Cities-based nonprofit organization devoted to providing resources for survivors of government-sponsored torture. Johnson became the executive director of the center in 1988, three years after its formation.

Johnson was inspired to tackle human rights issues by what he learned from professors, demonstrators and friends from all over the world during his college years.

"I came to Minnesota to go to Macalester [College]. I was there in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and this was the height of the Vietnam War. I came in thinking I knew a lot about it because it had been a high school debate topic and discovered I had had access to very little information about what was actually going on. It was the exposure to human rights violations in Vietnam that really set me on my path and put me in working on human rights issues ever since," Johnson said.

Johnson hitchhiked across India during the most explosive period in the Vietnam War to study nonviolent organizing.

 "All that was really supported at Mac, to be inquiring, but also to be involved and strive to make a difference," Johnson said.  

Johnson began advocating for human rights in the 1970s after earning a graduate degree from Yale University. He acted as the chair of the Infant Formula Action Coalition, which launched a boycott against the Swiss-based Nestlé Corporation. The boycott was prompted by concerns over Nestlé’s promotion of infant formula over breast milk in developing nations, which the coalition said was harmful to infants because the water that needs to be added to infant formula is often contaminated in poor countries, and mothers with little money often use less formula than is needed in an attempt to make a container last longer. The boycott forced the corporation to change its marketing of baby formula.

"It gave me a real appreciation of the difficulty of putting together effective strategies. It made me very curious about better ways of doing things, and it was out of what I did learn that I invented the New Tactics for Human Rights Project as a way of searching out new ideas that could be put to work to end torture and other human rights abuses," Johnson said.

The New Tactics in Human Rights Project is a database containing close to 170 tactics to create and maintain human rights campaigns.

"Really, what it shows is that everyone sitting where they sit has something they could be doing to further human rights," Johnson said.

The project is one sign of CVT’s growth under Johnson’s leadership.

"The CVT has become a leader and a trainer, providing services to other torture centers, reaching out to peers and giving them the benefit of what we have learned over time," said Nancy Feldman, a member of the Center for Victims of Torture’s board of directors and the executive director of UCare Minnesota.

Johnson made this growth possible by developing a focus on the assets of the organization’s staff.

"What Doug’s leadership and vision has really led us to see is that investing in the expertise of the staff and their interests in terms of ways to make a difference in the world of human rights has allowed the center to grow exponentially," said Ruth Barrett Rendler, deputy director of CVT.

The center offers torture survivors individual care in the form of medical and psychological treatment, referrals, and social services, while advocating for human rights and supporting 17 torture treatment centers worldwide. In addition to serving 300 clients in its Minneapolis and St. Paul facilities, CVT serves torture survivors at its facilities in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

CVT aims to make torture survivor treatment a standard service across health care and social service agencies worldwide. This work is also fulfilling a crucial need for Twin Cities youth.

"In the schools there are a number of young people who are refugees from Somalia. Many of these young people are in families who have been traumatized by torture or displacement or war. It’s clear that the schools need help in order to work with these young people," Rendler said.

This need extends statewide. Currently CVT’s Twin Cities facilities have the capacity to serve 0.01 percent of the estimated 30,000 torture survivors living in Minnesota.

"We have the highest per capita refugee population in the United States [in Minnesota]," Johnson said. "Refugees are created by human rights abuses, by fear, by conflicts, by the use of torture. Whenever you have people who have been driven from their homes by fear and by atrocities, you’ll find a high percentage of torture survivors in that group."

Preventive measures are the key product of CVT’s efforts, as torture exists or is sponsored by the government in more than 100 countries, and more than 60 countries invest in the development of torture methods, Johnson said.

"It has been our view, and the view of our board, that a good health-care organization also has a preventive strategy, and that the cause of torture is bad politics. Therefore, we have to be engaged in trying to develop political opposition to those politics, and to help decision-makers understand torture, understand its role, and the importance of fighting against it," Johnson said.

These efforts ultimately protect CVT’s clients and sustain its staff.

"Our doctors and psychologists really said, ‘Thank God we’re doing this.’ Because their job is pulling the people out of the river, they want to know their organization is also trying to prevent people from being pushed in the river upstream," Johnson said.

The United States government’s use of torture has impacted the role of CVT clinicians and advocates. Photos released from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004 revealed that U.S. soldiers used physical, sexual, and psychological torture during the interrogation of suspected terrorists, and raised questions about the treatment of suspected terrorists at other American facilities.

"Once the U.S. started to be visually engaged in using torture, we found this so frightening for our clients," Johnson said. "It’s clinically visible the impact that this has had on torture survivors living in Minnesota. Now, our asylum system does much too little to protect people and quite often sends them home to places where they were tortured."

Johnson believes the administration has dismissed the importance of torture and the country’s values surrounding the issue.

"The debate going on now is whether water boarding is a legitimate form of interrogation, and it’s clearly a form of torture," Johnson said. "It has been outlawed in the U.S. since 1902 when the U.S. Army had used it in the Philippines. The U.S. prosecuted the water boarders of the Japanese Army as war criminals. It’s just another form of asphyxiation."

Waterboarding is a torture technique that simulates drowning in a controlled environment. It consists of immobilizing an individual on his or her back, with the head inclined downward, and pouring water over the face to force the inhalation of water into the lungs.

CVT articulates the experiences of torture survivors to lawmakers and groups the government depends on for political support, encouraging them to speak out against torture.

"We have always had very strong support from members of both parties who have seen [the CVT] as a good way of acting on human rights issues," Johnson said. "People as diverse as Paul Wellstone and Rod Grams worked together on behalf of torture victims."

CVT advocated for the passage of the Torture Victims Relief Act in 1998 and the McCain Detainee Amendment in 2005, which both received bipartisan support,
Johnson said.

While elected officials are vital advocates for human rights, Johnson is open to new solutions from community members as well.

"Doug always has time to listen to a new idea. He is also discriminating about bringing in many ears, many voices, many thoughtful people to help sift through those ideas. Some of the most interesting and challenging things that the organization has done were because people know Doug is open to thinking about things in new ways and trying things out that aren’t typical," Rendler said.

Johnson’s leadership and charisma inspire, Feldman said.

"He has such integrity and such commitment to the work, and that comes through in
everything he does. It’s a force of his personality."

Johnson finds interacting with CVT’s staff and clients rewarding.

"There’s a wonderful community of people that are attracted to good work and so we have a very smart and very committed staff, board, and volunteers who are wonderful to work with. It makes it a pleasure to come to work," Johnson said. "And certainly with this work, with survivors of torture, we meet brave people who have come back to life and become engaged in the world again, and that’s truly inspiring."

Johnson sees Minnesota as a good home for the Center for Victims of Torture.

"What makes Minnesota unique is that we have a much denser set of networks of civil society organizations and nongovernment organizations than any other places in the country. [The CVT] certainly couldn’t be here and couldn’t survive without the support of the community," he said. Johnson cites the state’s investment in poverty reduction, education and the arts as things that make living in Minnesota a pleasure.

While he has roots in Minnesota, Johnson and his wife, Kathryn Sikkink, a University of Minnesota professor, have built a second home in Uruguay.

"It’s just a little thing, like a vacation home. It is definitely a place for us where when we retire we’ll go down during the winter. We have friends of 30 years from Uruguay who were students at the University of Minnesota, and my wife was an exchange student in Urugugay in her college days. These are very long-standing relationships, so it makes a lot of sense for us," Johnson said.