CEO - Keith Best
"Torture is no respecter of class, status or achievement," says Keith Best as he takes over as the new CEO at the Medical Foundation. "I met people who have been deeply traumatised by the experience of torture – they bear the scars both physically and mentally.”
Thankfully Best is a man who thrives on challenges having spent 20 years in the voluntary sector, advocating for the rights of people on the margins of society. He initially worked for NCH Action for Children, as director of Prisoners Abroad, and most recently as chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service for the past 16 years. Best was named in Society Guardian as one of the 100 most influential people in public services in the UK.
Now, more than ever, survivors of torture need a powerful advocate. At a time when the UK government is facing allegations of complicity in torture and the treatment of asylum seekers fleeing violence is heavily criticised there is much for Best to do. Concerns are raised in the media and among children’s charities about the plight of young children held in detention centres yet innocent of any crime. Harsh treatment in Yarls’ Wood has lead to riots and hunger strikes and women fleeing systematic rape and torture are subject to gruelling interrogations and institutional disbelief when seeking safety in the UK.
There is no way you can legitimise the use of torture in a civilised society.
Best says, “Sometimes it is impossible to fathom the depths of depravity to which police, prison guards, military personnel, let alone political leaders who condone such actions, will stoop in order to inflict pain on captive human beings. At the Medical Foundation I am confronted by the reality of the atrocities that human beings inflict on one another. There is nothing remote or diffuse about this, it is in your face. The atrocities they have experienced are hard enough to hear by experienced counsellors – they are met so often with disbelief by anyone else.”
Best is eager to see the organisation grow as one of the world’s leading rehabilitation centres, and develop its capacity to campaign for an end to a practice that should not be tolerated and forces some 2,000 people to seek the MF’s help every year. In a global climate where thousands of families flee countries where governments show no sign of eliminating the use of torture it is not an easy task. But it is one that Best is confident that the MF is uniquely placed to take on. “There is almost infinite capacity for the MF, subject only to the provision of resources, to expose what torture is, to share its knowledge of what it does to individuals and the enormous damage it does to the cohesion of society. We intend to use the political processes as well as the press and the public to motivate a concept of unacceptability. There is no way you can legitimise the use of torture in a civilised society."
He sees the organisation promoting its clinical expertise and correlated to that is the MF’s development as a campaigning human rights organisation, sharing its knowledge about torture and embarrassing governments into ensuring that they don’t stray into a world where torture is legitimised.
“Evidence obtained under torture is notoriously unreliable – none of us can sleep more easily even if some attempt is made to justify torture as necessary to extract confessions,” says Best. “In so doing the apologists diminish their own humanity and civilisation. At the MF we are at the coal face and that is why we feel so strongly about the work that we do as well as our moral obligation to speak out against the use of torture and to render it unacceptable.”
Ultimately, his vision for the MF is motivated by a sense of addressing the injustices that thwart the lives of people victimised first in their own countries and then in the UK, where they are often demonised, largely, as he describes it, because of a prejudicial culture engendered by the political focus on asylum and immigration.
Evidence obtained under torture is notoriously unreliable – none of us can sleep more easily even if some attempt is made to justify torture as necessary to extract confessions“The Government has sought to sanitise the treatment of asylum seekers by talking only in statistical rather than human terms. That’s very dangerous because behind those statistics are individuals who are survivors of torture who need to be treated individually. I’m hoping that we can get away from this idea of numerical targets and move to what is realistic within the framework of the human condition.
“The question I always pose to sceptical audiences is this: what would it take to make you pack a small suitcase of a few prized possessions, put your life into the hands of smugglers and to go through all kinds of deprivation, not knowing where you might end up, and not knowing if you will even end up alive? It’s only then that people start to break out of their comfort zone and really think, ‘what would it take for me to have to do that?’ that they begin to comprehend the plight of those who flee seeking sanctuary.”