Curt Goering was exposed to humanitarian work at an early age. His father managed reconstruction projects in Europe, rebuilding homes and communities after World War II. His mother worked along the French-German border with war orphans and refugees. Their efforts taught him about devastation, hunger and grief, but also about healing and rebuilding. Goering worked with Amnesty International and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. That work led him to the St. Paul-based Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) which, under his leadership, more than doubled the number of survivors receiving care annually. Goering stepped down as executive director July 1 after nine years.
Q: I feel like we should begin with a moment of silence. How do we get our heads around the need for a nonprofit devoted to victims of torture?
A: A moment of silence is a good place to begin. As an intentional act by a public official to inflict severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental — whether it's to obtain a confession, intimidate or punish — torture is one of the most egregious of all human rights violations. It's a calculated assault to destroy one's humanity and it's one of the worst, most despicable things one human can do to another human. Despite its near universal condemnation, torture occurs in at least two-thirds of the world's countries. Whether from the physical or the mental wounds, many survivors need specialized care to rebuild their lives after such traumatic events. That's where CVT (cvt.org) fits in.
Q: Why is Minnesota the hub?
A: CVT was formed in 1985 when then-Gov. Rudy Perpich was asked by his son what he was doing for human rights. It was a time when global attention to human rights violations was increasing. Amnesty International was rapidly growing, investigating and campaigning against specific abuses; the international human rights legal framework was being developed — including the Convention against Torture adopted by the U.N. a few months earlier. To answer his son's question, the governor formed a task force composed of individuals with expertise in human rights, and they concluded that Minnesota might help address a gap in the movement: the need for specialized rehabilitative care for torture survivors. What started as a small organization in a small house on the University of Minnesota campus has now grown into the largest organization of its kind in the world.
Q: I found it notable that one of the questions on your website is, "Why is torture wrong?" Is it surprising to you that people ask that question?
A: When I first started my human rights work, it was more or less assumed, at least in democratic societies, that torture was wrong and unacceptable, as well as illegal. Of all human rights treaties, the Convention against Torture, which prohibits its use even in times of emergency, is one of the most widely ratified by the world's governments. That assumption changed in the U.S. post 9/11 when the Bush administration used torture in its "war on terror," and at first denied, then justified its use, on the grounds that torture was necessary for national security.
Q: From what countries do survivors, often refugees, tend to come and why?
A: In 2020, there were some 26.4 million refugees globally. In fiscal year 2020, the U.S. admitted 11,814. In 2020, reports say only 386 refugees settled in Minnesota, a sharp decline from earlier years. Burma, Ukraine, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia and Ethiopia have been among the most common countries of origin for refugees who settle in Minnesota in recent years. Overwhelmingly, refugees flee to neighboring countries. Only a tiny percentage (less than 1%) are resettled in North America or Europe. They come because they are seeking protection from persecution or war, and are extensively vetted to ensure they meet the refugee criteria: a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.
Q: You deal not only with physical torture, but psychological as well. How do the treatments differ?
A: Our clinicians do individual assessments at intake and determine what care is needed to address the wounds, both psychological and physical. Some care may require specialized medical care, such as reconstructive surgery to mitigate or repair the damage from torture: broken bones, teeth knocked out, or being hung from a ceiling where arms dislocate from the shoulder. Many survivors tell us that the psychological methods of torture — mock executions, threats against family, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, being bombarded with loud music or bright lights, sensory deprivation — can be more damaging than sheer physical brutality.
Q: Are some people unable to heal due to the extent of their trauma?
A: Most are resilient and go on to live lives that are not defined by the worst thing that happened to them. It's been a terrible part, but they are able to find the strength and courage they have within them and move beyond their torture. CVT is a hopeful place. Our clients get better. They reunite with their families. There are weddings, births, college degrees, new jobs. There are plans for the future. They lead lives filled with promise and potential. One Syrian man who had been strung up by ropes with iron hooks told us, "You shared with me my sadness. You rescued my life." That is why we do our work.