To Hear the Cries of the World

March 28, 2018
karen tse
HDS alum and Gomes honoree Karen Tse. Photo handout.

Karen Tse, MDiv '00, walked into a prison in the African nation of Burundi and found children: an eight-year-old boy tossed into jail for stealing a mobile phone; twelve-year-old girls imprisoned for "sex crimes"; a two-year old girl who had spent most of her short life behind bars with her mother, who was convicted of stealing two diapers and an iron.

Tse (pronounced “cheh”) decided to have a talk with the warden.

"I said, 'You've got to let [the mother] out,' " Tse recalls of her 2006 visit. "’She's been in prison for years. Her daughter's growing up in prison. It's ridiculous.’ He said, 'Look at my prison. There are 3,000 people here and 80 percent are waiting for trial. There are no lawyers for them. We have no public defense. Half the people here shouldn't be here. So what do we do for them?'"

As founder and CEO of the NGO International Bridges to Justice (IBJ), Tse does all she can to enforce due process rights and to eliminate the use of torture by law enforcement around the world. For this work and for her lifelong devotion to human rights, Tse will be recognized by her fellow HDS alumni/ae Thursday, April 12, as a Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 Memorial Honoree.

“The meaning of leadership came alive for me while I was at the Divinity School,” she says. “HDS gave me the chance to look within myself, understand that there were answers that I had, and gave me the confidence to go out and do it. I discovered the kind of leader I wanted to be and what I wanted that leadership to look like."

‘It can be done’

Tse came to HDS in 1997 with a law degree from UCLA and years of experience working in overseas refugee camps. As an attorney for the U.N. Center for Human Rights in Cambodia, she had come face-to-face with men, women, and, worst of all, children tortured and imprisoned for the smallest offenses because they had no access to a lawyer.

Horrified at what she had seen, Tse enrolled at HDS "thinking I would spend some time hiding from the world," she says. Instead, her Divinity School experience showed her that it was possible to transform fear and anger into hope and good works.

"At HDS, I learned to take the pain that I had in myself, to connect it to a problem that we have in society, and to transform it into structures that lead to a better world,” she says. “I learned that human beings—working together and with God—co-create history. And because of that, great things are possible."

As an MDiv student, Tse traveled to Vietnam to fulfill her field education requirement. There she met with lawyers defending prisoners and found, to her dismay, the same kinds of abuses she had witnessed in Cambodia. Some inmates were children, tortured and thrown into jail for minor crimes. The vast majority weren’t political prisoners—the types of cases that most often catch the attention of the media. They were poor people who didn’t have access to a lawyer. The world looked away.

“It’s shadow work,” she says of the effort to help those deprived of due process of law. “We prefer to think about good people that we help and bad people who ought to be in prison. [Investigative torture] has not traditionally been an area that people want to look at.”

As a second-year student at HDS in the late 1990s, Tse imagined founding an organization that would end the use of torture by law enforcement around the world. She even made her dream the topic of her master of divinity thesis. Still, she was unsure about whether or not she could succeed. When she received her thesis back from one of her advisors, Professor David Little, she found at the top of the cover page four words that gave her confidence and courage.

“It can be done,” Little wrote.

Tse worked with Little and Dudley Rose, associate dean for ministry studies, to refine her vision and actually found IBJ while she was still as student. She says that Little, Rose, and others at the School helped her to understand that, to be successful, IBJ’s work had to extend well beyond the “legal tools.”

"At HDS, I learned that ending torture was about who we are as people, what we believe, and what we can do together,” she says. “When I first started working in China, for instance, I brought a resource book that I used all the time with my congregation when I was interning on the Unitarian Universalist ordination path. It was a way to bring people back to their own inner values and the kind of world they want to create. That's why our trainings are so successful. The work we do isn't just related to law. It's related to what it means to be a human being."

‘We don’t torture people anymore’

Today, IBJ is active in more than 40 countries around the world, training scores of defense lawyers, police, prosecutors, and judges and providing early access to local attorneys. Named one of "America’s Best Leaders" by US News and World Report, Tse has served as a United Nations Judicial Mentor, negotiated measures for reform in China and Vietnam, and expanded IBJ’s programming globally to include country programs in Rwanda, Burundi, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and India.

Tse says that Cambodia, the country that most inspired her to found IBJ, is a place where she has seen some of the most profound changes. When she went to live there in the mid-90s, the nation was still reeling from the Khmer Rouge’s massacre of intellectuals—including most of its lawyers. Torture by law enforcement was common, as was detention without access to counsel. Today, thanks to the work of IBJ’s defenders, public information campaigns, and trainings for judges, prosecutors, and police, only about five percent of prisoners experience investigative torture, down from nearly 100 percent in years past.

“[A police officer told us] ‘Even if the lawyer doesn’t show up, we don’t torture people anymore,’” Tse says, “‘because we know that an IBJ defender is coming.’”

Much remains to be done. Tse points out that there are millions of people around the world in pre-trial detention without access to counsel. Over 90 of the 113 developing countries that practice torture have passed laws against it, but they often go unenforced. Even so, Tse says that she believes the world can eliminate investigative torture within her lifetime. The path to progress lies in a quote from the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, which she paraphrases.

“What do we need to do to save the world?” she asks. “In order to save the world we must allow ourselves to hear the cries of the world. If we allow ourselves to hear, then we can also see what we can do.”

—by Paul Massari

(Join the HDS community Thursday, April 12, for the 2018 Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 Memorial Honors.)