Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia pair puts domestic torture on global radar

After two decades of pushing for non-state torture to be recognized as a crime, Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald are finally breaking ground.

Advocates pushing for new offence get international attention

Jeanne Sarson (left) and Linda MacDonald (right) help torture victims. (CBC)

After two decades of pushing for non-state torture to be recognized as a crime, Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald are finally breaking ground. 

The registered nurses from Truro have been advocating on the behalf of victims. They say they've counselled hundreds of women over the years who have shared stories of extreme abuse, which they believe amounts to torture.

MacDonald and Sarson founded the Persons Against NST (Non-State Torture), a human rights organization based in Truro.

Over the past 20 years, Sarson and MacDonald estimate they've dealt with 3,000 victims of domestic torture around the globe, including about a dozen in Nova Scotia.

In most cases, the victims are women and children who suffer extreme violence at the hands of family members, including confinement, beatings and rape. Many have been sold for sex.

In November, Sarson and MacDonald had their work recognized at the NGO Forum Beijing +20 in Geneva. More than 700 people participated in roundtable discussions about gender inequality. 

Sarson says it marked the first time their work has been officially recognized in a large international forum. 

"There was a report tabled after the third day, and success for Linda and I, we got in the recommendations of the report that non-state torture has to be considered a human rights crime," she said.

"In the recommendation report, it said members of the United Nations — all those countries — had to consider criminalizing all acts of violence that amounted to non-state torture. So that was a huge success." 

Sarson and MacDonald say the report will go to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in March. 

"Hopefully we get that pushed forward with a larger population, and start to get into more, different documents. Then we'll strategize about what we'll do from there," said MacDonald. 

The women say they've had feedback from conference participants, who expressed interest in pushing the issue forward in their countries. 

"The other thing that happened after that was we went to Portugal and we spoke there at an international conference," said MacDonald.

"We met quite a few professionals there interested in our work. For instance, we met a psychologist who works with children in France and they have a law against non-state torture, so she was really interested to take our information back and start talking to the physicians and the health professionals that work with the children in the hospital. We're helping people who have good laws in their country to start thinking of ways of applying it as well." 

Canada lacks political voice 

MacDonald and Sarson say the frustrating part is that Canadian politicians refuse to take action. 

"I went up to the acting director of the status of women, and I told him what our work was there in Geneva and he said he'd never heard of the issue of non-state torture before so I told him I would send him information, and I sent him an email," explained MacDonald.

"Then I got an email back saying the Canadian government wasn't interested in dealing with the issue right now." 

Sarson believes Canada is choosing to ignore the issue altogether. 

"It's the political voice of the day that seems to be the blockage, and it's not because they don't know," said Sarson.