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Ending Torture: One Skoll Story

By Tom Watson on March 29, 2007No Comment

Alternative funding, return on social investment, new structures for financing and sustainability. All important, but they hardly carry the human story, do they? With hundreds of social entrepreneurs here in Oxford for the Skoll World Forum, I thought it might be time to at least tell one story from the field.

But this begins at the taxi stand at the Oxford train station late on Monday, when your feverish flu-ridden correspondent waited for a cab in the gathering Oxfordshire evening. Ahead of me on line was a another attendee at Skoll, anxious to get to her dinner and running late. She introduced herself politely as Karen Tse. "I’m a social entrepreneur," she said. They’re everywhere, thought I, and we chatted briefly about the conference.

Fast forward to tonight’s Skoll Awards presented in the stifling Sheldonian hall. The Skoll Foundation showed four short films highlighting the work of previous winners of the award – one of them was Karen Tse. And it’s quite a story.

Karen Tse took on routine torture of criminal suspects in Cambodia, beginning in 1994, when there were only ten lawyers left alive in the post-Khmer regime. Trained as a public defender at UCLA and the daughter or Filipino immigrants, Tse had always been interested in human rights causes and wanted to put her training to work.

The stories of the prisoners moved Tse, who is also an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. She learned that the problem had less to do with abject cruelty (though cruely was certainly present), than with practicality and economics; there were no public defenders, and there was no system for legal questioning that preserved prisoners’ rights. So she started in on creating one, as described in a recent US News and World Report profile:

All of the stories carry the message of what Tse calls "the power of
transformative love." It’s a philosophy that Tse has successfully
channeled throughout her career, including with one of the first prison
directors she worked with in Cambodia. "He had a huge scar in the front
of his forehead, and he was known to be very cruel," Tse says. "The
first time I met him he said, ‘If we see any of the prisoners coming
down, we will hit them down like rats.’"

The prisoners, stuffed into dark quarters with no opportunity to
challenge their sentences, were clearly suffering, but the director
wouldn’t let Tse inside. Looking for "the Christ or the Buddha," Tse
decided not to fight. "I said, ‘Can we go for a walk?’ And I remember
he looked at me–incredulously–and turned to his guards and said, ‘Did
you hear her?’ And then he said, ‘OK. Let’s go for a walk.’"
Eventually, Tse won the director’s trust, and soon she was in the
prison every day. Working together, Tse and the director tore down the
prison’s dark cells, built a garden, and started exercise classes–for
both the prisoners and the guards.

Tse founded International Bridges to Justice in 2000; it’s based in Geneva and employs less than 20 people with a small yearly budget. Yet, the organization has dramatically improved and even saved the lives of
everyday citizens by training and supporting criminal defense lawyers
and establishing a network of Defender Resource Centers throughout
China. Plans call for expansion in China, as well as Vietnam, Cambodia
and other countries where programs are expected to reach critical mass
due to public awareness and the creation of professional associations
of trained advocates and judges.

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