Northern Ireland in the age of Brexit

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I have long written about how disastrous the Brexit referendum was for the region where I grew up. The future of the Good Friday Agreement, turning 20 this year, and the practicalities of the Northern Irish question – power-sharing, effacement of the border, and co-authority from Dublin and London – have fallen by the wayside in mainstream commentary. Few remember that the “UK” is in fact the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that our specific history carries specific responsibilities, the least of which preserving political stability, or the appearance thereof, to keep violence at bay.

With the referendum result came fears no one had truly buried in the nine counties of Ulster, the first one being identity. Identity drives everything, from places of residence to political representation and legal positions. This is a region where people would endanger their neighbour’s lives and safety over a flag, where the colour of the passport really does matter. With European membership, those elements were allowed to take on a different dimension. It never saved Northern Ireland from its sectarian self, but it provided the Good Friday generation with freedom of movement, Peace programs’ funding, and the legal protection of legacy adjudication. For children like me, it became a way out, a ticket to the great unknown: the continent. The story that remains true for the rest of the 27 applies with outstanding relevance to Northern Ireland which future depends more on EU membership than any other conflict-ridden area in the European Union.

What sets Northern Ireland as a priority is the endless shades of green that cross it horizontally east of Co. Donegal: the Border, a fault line that my phone still capitalizes even though colleagues have already documented that it has anything but disappeared physically. There are commuter trains that link Belfast to Dublin on an express, regular basis; cash machines dispense both sterling pound and euro currencies; the region voted to Remain in the European Union, because 20 years is hardly enough to forget the wounds, still occurring, still dangerous, of a conflict over the territory that EU membership in 1973 blew in the open outside of the former “British Isles”.

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I grew up Irish. In my area in Belfast, that has been Gerry Adams’ consistuency since the year I was born, this was no question. We were “Irish, of the Northern kind”, as one of my followers recently described in her Twitter bio. Being Irish is different from being Northern Irish; being British is nothing like being Northern Irish. What the Good Friday Agreement brought about is the possibility of a third identity emerging out of the cards that had been dealt, a way out of the political endgame and the constant DUP / Sinn Fein battle for leadership. Brexit threw a wrench in the machine, and forced a reckoning. Laura Coyle lives in Co. Donegal, in Ireland, but works in Derry, in the North. Directly affected by the referendum, as her livelihood and the legacy of the conflict, a commuter worker, she speaks:

Speaking from personal experience living in and around NI having discussions with NI friends and family, that after the vote, the feeling was one of palpable anger. That once again the people of NI’s existence seemed to matter very little.  Regardless of where they stood politically, the majority of NI voted to remain, and it seemed at least at first, that those who didn’t hold an Irish Passport before but wished for one post-vote viewed it as a ‘ backup’ rather than an stand with any kind of Irish identity. Which to be honest, I found perplexing. People who would have before,  harshly corrected those who described them as Irish – instead preferring Northern Irish, or indeed British, were all of a sudden fine with holding an Irish Passport when it allowed them the freedoms their own government were keen to take away. A shift yes, but one of convenience.

So how do we approach the legitimacy of this shift? Are those passports petitioners less worthy of EU membership and EU identity than those who have fought for reunification their whole lives? This is the dilemma that divides and devours Northern Ireland. Suddenly, republicans are validated and vindicated in their quest of absorption within Ireland, loyalists sold out to the highest bidder as Brexit threatens the power-sharing agreement and exposes London’s lack of concern for Ulster. As of this week, it’s been 13 months since Northern Ireland did not have a sitting Assembly, with ongoing threats that the region’s budget would be directly voted in from Westminster. Following the resignation and death of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, the lack of leadership in Northern Ireland is another thorn in Brexit’s side. Coyle continues:

I think the ‘balance’ of power in NI is still as delicate as it has always been. The hope is that the new year would bring further steps to an agreement of power sharing amongst the current parties, for the sake of the people, hoping to, for all intents and purposes, to just keep things on an even keel. However, failing that I think there is a fear that any push from Britain in favour of a particular party over others may kick start events we have long hoped to have left behind.

That push is real: the fear of direct interference – direct rule – would be the spark to reignite the fire of violence that was never that far behind. In many ways, the convenience of which Coyle speaks is an understandable one: if being Irish means no longer being subjected to London’s destructive whims and condescending approach to the peace process, then being Irish is the identity that can save the region as a whole, and not be the divisive affiliation that has underpinned the conflict for several decades. Being Irish is not just about claiming attachment to Dublin, it is being part of a broader, larger, more inclusive entity – the European Union. In a way, it is an avoidance, a way to escape what is perceived as English ineptitude towards the maintenance of Northern Irish institutions and devolved structures. The preservation of the power-sharing agreement, described in the press as a “Good Friday Agreement failure”, is in fact worth fighting for in Northern Ireland. It is disheartening that, a couple of months’ shy of the peace treaty’s twentieth anniversary, it is such dismissive behaviour and speech that characterizes English approach to conflict transition. Kathryn Beirne, a social and care worker in Belfast, explains: 

Some people are having to face the darkness of the dismissiveness of the UK government. When the assembly is running local politicians are the focus and they are usually responsive (positively or negatively they usually aren’t backwards about coming forwards). The UK government has been far less so, no real voted in NI after all. They either treat the particular issues around the border or the Good Friday Agreement as no big deal….or as something someone should have told them about earlier (clearly people did but were ignored). This, I believe is causing some people to think about how much a part of the UK they really are. 
 
The media coverage from rest of UK is often equally disheartening. Brexit really has played out as an English referendum so the media focus is primarily on English parties, English cities, English needs. When it is pointed out that NI (and Scotland) voted to remain, it is quickly said that it was a UK vote so everyone else can go whistle. Even things specific to NI are framed in ‘rest of UK terms’…Even by Remainers. When the rest of UK learned that NI folk would retain the option of EU citizenship through the option of Irish citizenship hit the fan. Remainers cried discrimination and Leavers cried ‘Brexit means Brexit’. No one was for listening that the whole Irish citizenship for Northern Irish folk is nothing new.

It was only this week, before this piece was brought to light, that the ignorance of Northern Irish issues became more of a devastating, crushing blow. It came first with a Guardian editorial describing the Stormont stalemate over the Irish Language Act as a deliberate Irish republican attempt to undermine the peace process and stability, that can, according to the Guardian editorial board, only be found in British identity; and this British identity would apparently be incompatible with the existence of other languages on the island. The de-politicization of the Irish language in Ulster is indeed a sensitive topic, that the EU has attempted to defuse by recognizing Irish as a language of the European Union; to be part of a cultural heritage landscape, a historical reckoning, one that was part of identity not so much as a political symbol but as an individual choice of legacy the way other minority languages are preserved across the continent. This week also saw the opportune and timely Mother Language Day at UNESCO, highlighting that the absorption of minority languages in larger transnational identities for the purpose of convenience did not mean that those languages did not have a cultural significance in the preservation of plurality of identity in the world.

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Because Northern Ireland has characterized and illustrated its Irish identity with the practice of the Irish language, the very fact that it could be open in Northern Irish schools is “weaponized”, to use a term we thought obsolete but was revived in the Guardian editorial, against unionism, against its otherwise predominant symbols in the region, as an instrument of pro-reunification ideology. It must be said: we are not anywhere close the possibility of reunification with the Republic of Ireland, but what we see is a considerable fluidity that is solely attributable to English isolationism from devolved regions. The reality in the North is that learning Irish is no longer a feature of political grandstanding. In East Belfast, an area with a large, historic, predominant Unionist (with a capital U) population, classes have been offered and have found their audience. The possibility that Unionists could still wish to attach their identity to the Crown whilst recognizing they could also be Irish is no longer mutually exclusive. In the words of writer Malachi O’Doherty, who self-describes as a “unionist with a lower case u”, being Irish is not necessarily an issue. One can be Irish and not seek reunification. This end of a dual vision for the future of Northern Ireland, the suppression of a strictly either/or affiliation, appeared threatening, and it started with the Irish Language Act. The DUP, a party that can only be described as an extreme, has spearheaded the rejection of Irish believing that the whole of Ulster would suddenly be absorbed in the Irish identity curriculum and administrative support – including bilingual road signs, god forbid – present in Ireland. It is worth noting the DUP is alone in holding that view.

Language, in fact, should be celebrated as a welcoming, inclusive, expansive and pluralistic approach to identity. Gareth Woods, a translator currently based in Dublin, explains what the learning of minority languages means and how it could in fact play a significant part in the peace process in Northern Ireland:

It is a widely accepted fact that minority languages are in danger of extinction unless given the required care and attention in the form of comprehensive and cooperative language legislation. Following the recent recommendation from the Council of Europe on 7 February 2918, that the UK should introduce legislation to protect the Irish language and the rights of Irish speakers, as well as being listed as “definitely endangered” by UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, it comes as no surprise that the Irish language is one that is dangerously heading toward extinction unless local governments stand up and act on behalf of all citizens. Given that Foras na Gaeilge (FnaG), a cross-border body that promotes the use of the Irish language, is set to bestow Belfast in Co. Antrim and Carntogher in Co. Derry as official “Irish language network” communities as well as strong support from south of the border, it is clear which side is putting more effort into making sure the Irish language isn’t lost forever and which side needs to put bias aside to ensure representation for all communities in the North of Ireland.

But it is not only the ILA. The Good Friday Agreement itself has been under fire after Kate Bradley, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, reported on the failure of power-sharing talks in the Commons. Suddenly, the peace treaty was attacked for being a failure, and for implementing too many roadblocks between the necessities of Brexit and Northern Ireland’s legal obligations under EU and international law. This criticism did not only come from DUP representatives present in the House. They also came from Labour MP Kate Hoey, in quite virulent terms; from alternative-reality Brexiteer and Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan; outside of the political spectrum, such dangerous views were espoused by academics finding room in the Telegraph. For most of Northern Ireland, which voted in favour of the peace treaty at 71.1% in 1998, this was a direct attack on their newfound way of life, their desire to see a different future for their children. In April, a brand new generation would have come of age under the Good Friday Agreement and never known what life was before John Hume. While the conflict is certainly not over and violence continues to interrupt daily life, it is in no way as intense as it used to be, and the more time Ulster spends away from it, the more accustomed it becomes to sharing civil, political, legal, and educational space. It is completely unfathomable to ask parents to tell their children they might see their stability, however relative, revoked because of the self-defeating attempt of leaving the European Union, a decision Northern Ireland, once again, did not approve.

For Lyra McKee, a freelance journalist based in Belfast and who has extensively reported on legacy cases and victims of the conflict, Brexit has harmed Northern Ireland:

I’ve never felt as furious with Westminster as I did as the day of the results. Northern Ireland did not vote for this – our democratic will is being completely and totally ignored. Our needs, the position it puts us in – all of it was completely ignored by the Tories. For the first time in my life, I was wondering what a United Ireland looked like. A friend of mine, another Catholic, once said to me, “You’ll prise my free healthcare away from my cold dead hands” and I’d agreed with him but the UK looks like a sinking ship right now and I’m afraid we’re going down with it – and we didn’t even vote for Brexit!
Being however tied to Ireland as the only other option is not yet something to contemplate in 2018, and comes with very practical, straightforward issues that Dublin has not addressed and is unlikely to in the coming years:
I feel Nationalist desire for a United Ireland has, until now, been completely oversold by Republicans and completely misread by Unionists. It’s not that they were against one but they were completely apathetic on it. If a United Ireland is Unionism’s worse nightmare, well, Nationalism’s worse nightmare has already happened – a United Kingdom – and the sky has not fallen in on us. We’ve been through the worst – The Troubles (the Unionist community obviously suffered hugely through that too) – but we came out the other end of it. And until recently, we had a decent healthcare system which was free and a welfare system which wasn’t great but a damn sight better than what it is now. (…) Then we have an Executive that continually topples or is on the verge of toppling and the “crocodile” rhetoric from the likes of Arlene Foster – that was the biggest own goal of the decade. All that did was rally the Nationalist vote. Collectively, it all ends up fatiguing both of the main two communities, to the point where they’ve lost faith in the institutions.
Has the Good Friday Agreement failed Northern Ireland, or has it failed to provide the leeway that Brexit needs to circumvent the impact on devolved region? It is undoubtedly the latter. The Good Friday Agreement does and should supersede the political insanity and legal overhaul that Brexit requires; the obligations pending upon London were reviewed before the referendum, and were the topic of research conducted by the Human Rights Commissioner for the Council of Europe. The preservation of the rights and funds afforded to Northern Ireland so the region finds its footing away from an endless cycle of violence remains present as ever, whilst simultaneously continuing to be politically manipulated to achieve ends that have little to do with the region itself. For Northern Ireland, it’s more than just a political bargain: it’s survival.

So what is next for Northern Ireland? From the testimonies provided above it appears that many are seeking an outlet for their voice, the complexity of their individual and collective stories as well as an opportunity to see what the next twenty years may hold under the Good Friday Agreement. The resentment created by a Brexit no one truly wanted and the lack of political representation at home and in Westminster is a textbook breeding ground for instability that the region knows too well. The imagination and creativity of the pro-Brexit crowd with regards to the border and to the Good Friday Agreement – drone patrols, a custom-made customs union, a new treaty – would all require the support of Ireland, but most importantly the consent of the Northern Irish people. In all this rattle and hum about the will of the people, we never hear about what Northern Ireland wants, let alone needs.

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Hypervigilance

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The NYT alert, after the emergency alert.

On Friday, journalist and writer Ian Dunt proclaimed his exhaustion with Donald Trump. Coverage of the surreal incompetence and permanent scandals of his presidency overshadow what is at play on the world stage – actual crisis, outside of those he created himself. It’s time-consuming, and draining, to have to pay attention to a petulant child whose vision of governance is that of a reality TV show. I responded to Dunt’s piece adding that, while he makes a formidable point on feeding Trump attention on social media, there is a responsibility incumbent to those of us in the professional line of work that is scrutiny, be it judicial or political. When Trump’s words affect policy or translate into the use of lethal force, no matter how flailing the intelligence level, we have to pay attention.

Less than 24 hours later, a vast majority of Americans received an EAS message on their phone warning of mass, impending death. It was then corrected – by a following EAS text, and a statement (on Twitter) from Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. On one hand, this is illustrative of the new lows of which Dunt spoke. On the other, there is one more line drawn in (quick)sand: that the incapability to govern or keep citizens safe, a positive human rights obligation, extend to all branches of government under Trump administration. 38 minutes passed between the first signal pick up of the EAS and the push correction. Luckily, Hawaiian authorities managed to send their own correction within 10 minutes. Thirty-eight minutes is still an awfully long time to spend in fear for those for whom the threat of missiles is incredibly near, nearest than anywhere else on the continental United States. This was another day in the Trump administration, and this constant instability takes a considerable toll.

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Emergency

The Emergency Alert System is, so far, relatively efficient, and is mostly used to warn residents, usually with a local focus, about dangerous weather. The last alert I received on my US number, a 917 area code, was for a flash flood warning (see above). The EAS frequency is also picked up for Amber alerts, that spreads – again, locally – information about a vehicle in which a possibly abducted child would be riding. The EAS has significant potential to inform and hereby extend protection, and avoid the strain on resources for emergency response. It has also transmitted messages regarding active shooters situation, police lockdowns, and anything of a nature to affect the daily routine of any resident. The EAS allows the broadcast on very specifically limited areas, but of course can also be transmitted nationwide. To put it mildly, this is not a tool to be abused.

Other countries have their own EAS or have attempted to develop a similar system, especially after the wave of terror attacks to have swept across western Europe. Applications have been launched more or less successfully, with a view to either alert law enforcement to suspicious activity, to report oneself safe, or simply to warn anyone within an affected zone to seek shelter or move away from windows. The goal is always the same: smartphones have long replaced radio waves, and what would have otherwise interrupted radio broadcast is now able to intercept any signal on any network to preempt further damage or injury. It is difficult to conceive a situation that would be more conducive to sending an EAS threat than an incoming ballistic missile on the northwest of the United States. The context is essential: if weather-related EAS often arrive when televisions have already warned of a problem, or if police activity is, sadly, a regular occurrence in large cities, not everyone has lived through or remember the most tense moments of the Cold War, during which the nuclear threat was heightened. My generation remembers drills, schools teaching basic safety regulations, and has emerged after German reunification with the sense of political terror this generation has not known.

This is, however, the Trump administration, a government that regularly ignores all rules of law or diplomacy and tweets out threats to rogue states in possession of the nuclear weapon for no discernible reason other than the entertainment value on social media. This is the presidency of Donald Trump, where even despots in South America or Eurasia believe there is an exaggeration in bellicose rhetoric. The EAS text could not be ignored, not only because the EAS frequency is specifically designed never to be ignored by recipients, but because the context could have, perhaps, especially to those not in our chosen profession, been believable.

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An exemple of a weather alert for the New York City area, June 2017.

Fear

Something about the EAS is anxiety-inducing. Receiving one while walking down the street means everyone’s phone around you is buzzing with the same alarm-like ringtone. Everyone is alerted simultaneously and this sense of ominous, impending event falls on the group, populated by strangers or friends, that there is a requirement to act at this moment. A weather alert is one thing; ballistic missiles are another. The issue is that, under such politics, the definition of a threat has now largely expanded from what we considered to be an imminent attack on our collective security: it’s not just lone attackers with a van on the West Side Highway; it is the very occupier of the highest office making repeated mistakes that endanger the position of the United States and US citizens as a result. It could have been an irresponsible one to relay this information to a mainstream media, such as CNN for instance, that would have carried the headline for 38 minutes. It is beyond dangerous to use the EAS for something that isn’t verified, isn’t endorsed, and is described as “not a drill”.

There are no more drills. The only use the US could find for them in early 2018 are the immensely saddening fact that school shootings are unimaginably frequent, and institutions have taken upon themselves to teach schoolchildren to hide underneath tables. The United States has been under a state of emergency for almost 17 years now, a fact that has since been forgotten, or perhaps more accurately assimilated in political analysis. France’s 2 year-long stint under emergency protocols and legal derogation pales in comparison despite the damage done. The question is whether Western states have normalized violence – the violence they suffer but also the violence they inflict overseas – to the point that those 38 minutes carry little water in terms of social response. Of course, it was localized; it was also on a saturday night; it was not on the continent; and it was easily dismissed because Trump’s words and actions can be so easily dismissed. It however wasn’t the case for everyone. Some Hawaiian restaurants have reported that people fled en masse, others throughout the world have helplessly tried to corroborate the message. An EAS text should not need to be verified. It should in any instance be sent in error. That this is a possibility discredits the entire notion of emergency, an otherwise legitimate tool of protection, the way the Trump administration has made a joke of UN Security Council sessions.

Should we ignore it?

Dunt was right, as he so often is, but with his decision comes the privilege of being geographically distant from the nightmare that is the Trump presidency. Yet we in the EU remain affected to an extent: that our institutions have to continue interacting with Trump as if he respected his own office, as if his administration and officials carried their work with the expected gravitas. That such a mistake took place a day after we all pondered the possibility of dismissing and “muting” the happenstances across the ocean illustrates that we perhaps do not have that option, and we have a responsibility to understand that Trump’s logorrhea translates into policy. It also translates into formidably impossible hires (Betsy DeVos at Department of Education, for instance, or Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice); that it impacts the safety of human lives in the US and abroad; that it fails to recognize the importance of governance in this day and age.

Of course, many have claimed that the Brexit shambles in the UK could give the Trump administration a run for its money, with its legal illiteracy and lack of foresight. There is nothing strong nor stable in May’s actions but we can’t ignore them altogether. This goes for a commander-in-chief bragging about having the capacity to launch nuclear action at will and believes he can bypass the Security Council to launch a missile strike on a Syrian airbase. This is a crisis of democracy many more qualified than I, including Dunt, have discussed before. We have a duty to observe and challenge, the way we have right to trust our emergency services and not be told we are at constant risk of immediate annihilation. The easiest way to endure is to be selective with the information we choose to read, to discriminate our sources and the energy we elect to spend on a given event. As a lawyer, this piece not being legal commentary, I find myself speechless, and indeed exhausted. As a citizen, I can’t help but wonder how long such a mess can possibly last, as attracted as we are to the Truman Show- moment in our global history.

It’s impossible to approach coverage with a sensible mind: Trump’s travel ban and May’s immigration policies impact directly the refugee crisis. Brexit and Five Eyes agreements are in the way of international security. The war in Syria and the damage done to Iraq are impossible to remove from the actions of coalition member-states. We should not care about Trump, but we have to. The question is who will outlast whom.

the best of (one of the) worst

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2017 has been marked by symbolic images: of Nazi marches in the United States, genocide in Myanmar, destruction in Syria. Few photos that have featured in end-of-year round ups – Time, the New York Times – have illustrated hope, vision, progressive ideals. So has the written word, a literary record of how the disastrous 2016 has only extended into a nightmare that led to the UN Human Rights Commissioner to lose faith in his office’s capacity to protect and promote.

Below are ten articles that I’ve appreciated reading, that demonstrate commitment to defining what may come to be a historical era and to highlight the intolerable.

 

Making of an American Nazi – Luke O’Brien, The Atlantic

This profile is necessary because it highlights the various complexities of political identities over the course of one’s lifetime. Starting on the fringes of the left then moving completely across the spectrum to the point of terrifying entire communities, this very American Nazi illustrates the banner-carriers of the Trump era: angry, and needing direction, any direction, toward violence.

“The hospitals were slaughterhouses” – Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria, Washington Post

If we are to document years-long systematic human rights violations, taking place amidst one of the most dangerous conflicts of this era, we must rely on a courageous local and international press to listen to victims and cross information with surviving on the ground. The scale of the torture inflicted upon thousands and thousands by Syrian regime in incommunicado prisons located inside hospitals is stomach-churning. This is one of many pieces that makes denial, especially on international scale, especially egregious.

The Uncounted – Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, New York Times

Documenting the crimes committed in conflict requires a critical and stable approach to data collecting, and a strong sense of empathy transcribing survivor’s story.  If the Pentagon has attempted to clarify the discrepancies between its own investigations and claims by human rights agencies, the truth lies in those lives, those elements, those near-certainties – it lies with those uncounted, because of a category that no one bothered to reveal. The interactive piece compiled months of research and humanizes those we barely see as dots on a screen.

The Unclaimed Dead – Ryan Devereaux, The Intercept

For well over two years Devereaux has carried with him the weight of covering US border security and US immigration police, with increased risk and danger under an administration that has waged war on freedom of movement and right of entry. Border patrols, ICE raids, and the burden of undocumented immigrants feature prominently in the work that, again, is meant to highlight those never addressed, never spoken about out loud, those who died at the feet of an outdated and unlawful vision of state sovereignty littering those dark lines on bureaucratic maps.

A Journey Into the Destroyed Heart of the ISIS Capital – Martin Chulov, the Guardian

Strikes on Iraq were well covered, but strikes on Syria were seen as part of interference in an internal conflict and benefited from much less transparency. The destruction of Syrian civil spaces however, between Russian and coalition air drops, disappeared at an appalling rate, killing civilians even as they fled. A few months before most of the west declared victory on ISIS-held territories, and with Lebanon already processing the return of Syrian refugees, this illustrates that there is not much, if at all, to go back to.

The Ungrateful Refugee – Dina Nayen, the Guardian

Grasping the full picture of displacement is almost impossible, but we must never lose sight of what refugees and asylum seekers have suffered to reach the place where they can live rather than survive. The myth of the “good refugee” endures and perdures, requiring lack of political confrontation, immediate and unconditional gratitude, despite the rights granted to them under the 1951 Convention to fully participate in civil and political society where they have settled.

Of Course Ireland Was Going To Be a Thorn on the Side of Brexit – Dr. Alan Greene, his own blog

It was too late when most of the British commentariat realised that Northern Ireland was an unstable issue in Brexit negotiations underpinned by international legal obligations and the threat of ripping the extremely thin safety net of the peace process. For all the talk about the existence of the border between Ulster and the Republic, mostly from local commentators like Siobhan Fenton, the one that stuck was a half emotional, half resigned interdisciplinary take on border-living in our generation, stuck between the conflict and transition, by a legal scholar.

Freed From ISIS, Not the Torment – Rukmini Callimachi, New York Times

Of all the war crimes and crimes against humanity that ISIS has compiled since its existence, one element has been a painful reminder of the group’s capacity to commit genocide: sexual slavery. Women were routinely dehumanized, but industrially so when they belonged to a group they considered to be unworthy, such as Yazidi. With photos by Alex Kay Potter, this piece gives women who have lost everything a space and a relay to the world at large.

A Most American Terrorist – Rachel Kaadzi Gharisah, GQ

It’s a very long read that digs deep at the American heartland, at its myths, its intentionally disregarded history, and the figures that trailed Donald Trump’s run for presidency. Dylann Roof has been sentenced to the death penalty for the murder of 9 churchgoers in Charleston, SC, and his lank, sickly disposition casts a long shadow over 2017 America’s struggle with a more persistent and emboldened white supremacy.

UN Rights Chief Will Not Seek New Term “In Current Geopolitical Context”

I will end on this sour, bitter note that has shaken the foundations of many of my colleagues and their institutions: the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, has circulated a memo explaining why he will not seek a new term at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva: politics – and political context – have made it nearly impossible for human rights promotion and advocacy in 2017.

 

 

 

France toes a thin line on Salah Abdeslam’s detention

Salah Abdeslam, captured on video surveillance inside the prison, 2017.

Disclaimer: the author is a member of 13Onze15, the association of victims of the November 13, 2015 terror attack in France, for which Salah Abdeslam is currently detained. 

France had been doing so well.

Following the simultaneous attacks in November 13 2015 that killed 130 people in the heart of the country on a Friday night, France declared a state of emergency that only ended this week, after almost 2 years. Said state of emergency, based on a law from 1955, led to a declaration of intent to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) under Article 15. Since then, counter-terrorism measures enacted by France in reaction to the attacks, and those that followed, were scrutinized to determine whether they amounted to a possible derogating right. Little has been written about terror detention.

Salah Abdeslam is the only perpetrator of the attacks to be in detention and to be able to face trial. Six judges are currently investigating the case. Other members of the organization are said to have died in Syria, possibly in drone strikes; Abdeslam, who didn’t detonate his suicide vest, fled to Belgium. A significant portion of the investigation rests on what prosecutors hope to find through his testimony. While there is no consensus on the exact role, determining or not, he would have played in the attack, he will likely be the only one on the stand for those charges, to face victims and answer them. A lot rests on his shoulders.

But as the opening date of the trial approaches, his mental state has been severely deteriorating due to his conditions of detention. Last year, he filed to ease his surveillance, a request that the High Court refused to access. Has France tested the limits of the derogation and Article 5 in detaining Abdeslam in prolonged solitary confinement? Are his human rights violated, a question many refuse to ask given the profile and influence of the attacks for which he is detained?

BACKGROUND OF DETENTION

Abdeslam is portrayed as a key element of an investigation many has claimed is stalling. How crucial role was in the plot, though, there is no way to know. Upon his transfer from Belgium to France, Abdeslam communicated through his lawyer that he intended to cooperate with French authorities. His arrival and subsequent detention at Fleury-Merogis was immediately met with a hearing with some of the six judges instructing the case. Not only has he refused to answer questions, but he has since walled himself into silence. Criminal defense attorneys will correctly point that this is his right. It however took his French representation, then Me. Frank Breton, by surprise. This was not the planned strategy.

Then began a game of chase that could very well lead to a breach of Abdeslam’s rights. As planned by counter terrorism legislation at the time of his arrest in March 2016, a period of solitary confinement was recommended for radicalised prisoners and preserving instruction. Abdeslam had already been interrogated by Belgian authorities, which then in turn shared the information with their French counterparts. At the time, it was unclear whether Abdeslam was aware he was the only suspect that could be reasonably arrested and detained on EU soil as opposed to captured or more likely killed overseas. His lawyer in Belgium, Sven Mary, had famously described his client as a “petit con” – a “wanker”, if you allow such language – “with the intelligence of an ashtray”, hereby inferring he was not the mastermind French authorities were looking for. He was unlikely to had either fabricated the explosive devices, recruited other bombers, let alone devised the plan as a ring leader. But Abdeslam was the one who fled to Belgium, leading police all over Europe in his pursuit to an arguably wide network of recruits guided from Syria, accessing prohibited firearms, and traveling between England, Germany, Belgium and France for the site of their new attack.

Salah Abdeslam, on videosurveillance on a street in Brussels, 2014

Abdeslam’s initial confinement itself is not the contentious issue. The frustration caused by his stubborn silence in court moved from prosecution to victims to his own attorneys, who had come to realise by then no judicial cooperation could ever lead to a more lenient sentence. Given the scope of the attack, the shock it caused in the country and the constant prolongation of a state of emergency, the detainee was the only individual in custody capable of answering questions that extended far beyond the issue of criminal process. Days later, 32 died in an explosion in Brussels’ national airport. The first concern raised by intelligence services continent-wide was whether this specific terror cell was linked to those responsible for the attacks on Paris, for which Abdeslam had only been in custody for four days. The conditions would always been tightening as the attacks grabbed the heart of Europe.

CONDITIONS OF DETENTION

Salah Abdeslam, now 28 years old, is held 22 hours a day in solitary confinement. He is allowed one hour outside, alone – he is walking outside the usual hours of detainees at the prison; he is also granted access to the sports equipment, as long as no other detainee is using it at the same time. This treatment was falsely depicted in the press as Abdeslam benefiting from “his own gym”, a far cry from the reality of total isolation.

Then-attorney general Jean-Jacques Urvoas placed Abdeslam under constant surveillance in his cell by an ordinance filed on June 9, 2016, applicable for three months and renewable. The provisions for this were then allowed on June 21, 2016 when the state of emergency was extended for another 6 months. At the time, Urvoas argued of Abdeslam’s central role in the Paris plot, his connection to a Belgium network for which he was interrogated by Belgian authorities, and his lack of cooperation with the investigation. Three weeks later, a truck driver deliberately ran into a busy boardwalk in Nice during the Bastille day celebrations, and killed 86 people. To this day, investigators, either law enforcement or intelligence, can’t confirm a link between ISIS and the truck driver, who died shot by police. It however entrenched the permanence of the state of emergency and the need to keep Abdeslam on, and talking, at all times.

In an open letter published in the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, Abdeslam’s former counsel, Me Breton, explains that Urvoas’ imposition of surveillance is a violation of the detainee’s human rights, specifically the right to privacy under Article 8 ECHR. At the time, a member of Parliament, Thierry Solere, had visited the prison and had had unexpected access to the videotapes, commenting on them in the press. Breton replied (translation mine) that he called for the respect of privacy “despite the charges of extreme gravity” and mentioned that his client felt “tracked”, “spied upon”. The sensationalism surrounding the press coverage of his surveillance reveals mostly mundane activities interspersed with moments of lucidity.

Reports of his mental health have shown a young man with a dwindling grasp on reality, becoming increasingly violent, aggressive towards whomever he perceives to be on the other side of those cameras installed in his cell. About to face trial for the police shooting that led to his arrest in Brussels, Abdeslam has unexpectedly petitioned a judge himself, willing to attend. He will be transferred to Belgium under a procedure not yet set (at the time of writing), likely under high security. Whether he will be present and stand at his trial in France remains to be seen. Abdeslam is kept in such conditions for an extremely flexible and volatile reason: that of the threat ISIS poses to France and the EU on a larger scale, and whether possible communications he could present that would assist the investigation. The latter has been contested and will remain contestable if his mental health deteriorates. Assuming Abdeslam has ever been a crucial intelligence asset, it is unlikely he will remain one without his faculties.

Mid-June, Abdeslam writes to one of his cousins in Belgium: the letter will be listed as evidence two weeks later, a once again rare procedure that judges nonetheless exercised, referring to it as a “manifestation of truth”. The point is to gain access to the recesses of Abdeslam’s mind, a means to bypass his silence. While detainees’ correspondence isn’t protected, this notes a constant insistence that somewhere, somehow, actionable information will seep out, in his behaviour, his gestures, or his words. Little is said in the letter, besides reaffirming commitment to religious duties. Psychological assessments put forward the risk of suicide, a decision that has the contradictory consequence to both develop concerns and increase surveillance.

ECHR jurisprudence has been quite keen not to diverge too much from member states’ assessments of the threats to their national security even when it touches Article 5 or Article 8. It is likely any challenge to the Court would rest on the Conseil d’Etat’s argument that the “exceptional circumstances” of his arrest and the nature of the crimes for which he is accused justifies this detention, prolonged only after a few hearings. Salah Abdeslam is twice a prisoner: in his cell and of a state of emergency that self-perpetuated for almost two years. As such, the Commission’s long held view that solitary confinement for the purposes of addressing a public threat would be well within the larger context of the detention. Allowed to walk, allowed to work out, Abdeslam is not so much removed from the rest of the world as he is confined to himself. It’s the recording Abdeslam considers to be most intrusive, not the confinement, although solitary detention, especially before the opening of the trial and over such a long period, is detrimental to the mental well-being of the detainee.

Research conducted by independent NGOs and brought forward in a report by the former United Nations Special Rapporteur (UNSR) on torture, Juan Mendez, has concluded that prolonged solitary confinement amounted to ill-treatment and could amount to torture due to the psychological and psychiatric effect on the mind. The threshold for indefinite confinement was fixed at 15 days. However, in the case of terror detention, solitary has been in fact recommended in order to isolate the suspect from the rest of the incarcerated population, and this as a preventive measure. Yet this is not a regular case with reliable precedent: the political implications are perhaps even more significant than in previous terror detention. After all, shortly after the attacks, President Hollande referred to a “state of war”. This doesn’t trigger any change in the applicability of the Convention however. French authorities meet the criteria thanks to review and the accessibility of the Conseil d’Etat. The isolation is therefore not indefinite, whilst prolonged.

Isolation unit in Fleury-Merogis

Following the notice to the Council of Europe of possibility of derogation to the Convention under Article 15, there was much speculation that Article 5 would be the first to be tested, especially in light of a large, now controversial raid taking place in the Parisian suburb of Saint Denis in the days after the attack. Since then, over 500 arrests have been conducted nationwide, but no claim of infringement of Article 5 has been raised. The review of his conditions of detention, an element permitting judicial review in line with human rights recommendations, is working: in the spring of 2017, following a meeting between magistrates and prison staff, Abdeslam saw the separation panel of his visiting room removed so he could better communicate with his family; the texture of his cell window has also been changed so he could see (literally, might I add) the light of day. This serves two purposes: one, to reflect that Abdeslam has now been in detention for 20 months without a significant progress in the investigation related to his role; two, there appears to be acknowledgement that no information will emerge for as long as the only witness alive is kept in conditions that defy human rights standards. In Van der Graaf v Netherlands, the Court did not find a possible substantiation of an article 3 violation: the application was declared inadmissible. The legal basis for the surveillance was well-founded and the threshold for a finding of ill-treatment remains high; the applicant’s mental health was not at enough risk to warrant adjudication by the Strasbourg Court. On Article 8, however, the judges recognized an interference, but one justified by the exceptional circumstances of the crimes for which the applicant was detained.

France has not breached the ECHR with its detention of Abdeslam; while unprecedented, the penal code provisions on his detention date back to 2011, four years before the attacks and the state of emergency; his surveillance is subject to review; he’s exercised his right to access domestic jurisdictions. It’s unlikely that, according to ECtHR case-law, France would have exceeded an admittedly high threshold. The review of 23 months and 3 weeks of emergency would not find a breach of the ECHR, regardless of Abdeslam’s receding mental health. The gravity of the crime and the outstanding death toll of the attacks in which he was supposed to also die will never be exceeded by the duration of his detention. France is toeing the line of prolonged solitary and permanent surveillance with regular review and access to mental health counseling. Judicial authorities are regularly attempting to interview Abdeslam, in vain, but giving him the possibility to end the circumstances that find him in this narrow, walled-in space. Both prosecution and defense find themselves trapped in a vicious circle in which both sides require relinquishment on the part of the other. There can only be hope that as France finds resilience, its body politic finds within itself the power to adjudicate without further penal measures with the sole means to retaliate.

 

 

Against politeness

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Photo by Zach D. Roberts for Nation of Change.

I have been made aware of my European identity early, and often. I was born in France, walked my first steps in Ireland, survived my growing pains in Northern Ireland, was educated in Germany, entered adulthood in Switzerland. Every one of those places is determined and defined by war, either present or past, the scars evident for a naked eye to see. Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, the Balkans, Austria, Poland, all those bright blue lakes of my childhood and the snow-tipped cold mountain ranges have carried ghosts, whispers and whimpers of the deported, the exterminated, the shellshocked, the wounded of two world wars, at the very least. When a 20 year old student from the University of Nevada called Peter Cvjenatovic says he attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA this weekend because the “European culture” means terrorizing the local population with torches and swastikas, brown shirts and black boots is his right, my stomach churned; I blinked at the photo of his comb-over, his facial traits distorted by fanaticism as he screamed “Blood and Soil” on American ground, and the image of a young Otto Van Wächter came to mind.

It’s a nightmare, a nightmare from which we are told not to wake up; it would be an “alternative” reality, a legitimate product of economic disenfranchisement, a “fringe” not present or represented in the current Trump administration, a “rise” contrary to the decades-spanning files of the FBI’s counter extremism task force. It is none of those things, and this piece aims at explaining two things: the issue of free speech absolutism in times of violent politics, and the necessity to call to action without concession.

Free speech absolutism in the age of Trump

 One of the glaring differences in constitutional rights between the US and European member-states – at range, for the purposes of this argument, states party to the ECHR – is the interpretation of the right to free speech, in freedom of expression, opinion, and information. Contained in the First Amendment to the Constitution in the US and Article 10 of the ECHR, the vast difference is of a historical nature, and can vary from state to state in Europe. When it comes to ban on political parties, memorabilia, symbols, or speech, the United States applies a blanket to free speech with a narrow hate speech caveat. In the case of France, a debate regularly arises on the criminality of denying the existence of the Shoah; in Germany, Nazi memorabilia and even performing the Hitler salute in public are banned. Those, to the outside eye, seem necessary given the specific political context inherent to those two countries. In the United States, it appears that events taking place during the 2016 electoral campaign and more recently in Charlottesville, VA have raised the issue of a narrowing, culling, and roughing up the edges of absolutism.

It started when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) represented the leaders of the “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, after the mayor refused them a permit to march. And march they did: the night before the rally itself, the crowd descended on the University of Virginia (UVA) campus in Charlottesville with tiki torches, singing and chanting slogans while marching in pants and shirts, at night, startling the local population with imagery much too familiar to the South and eerily cognizant of its effect on the western world at large. Many felt the ACLU, an organization crucial to the respect of civil rights in the country and generally affiliated with the organized political left, had let them down. The ACLU had been fundraising since the January transition on a platform of opposing the Trump administration at every turn. In that, they delivered: they took the refugee ban to court; they protected journalists targeted by the president’s desire to control the narrative; they were front and center against efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Representing a hate-filled, extremist movement’s right to protest was perceived as a betrayal. Politically, it may be. But the ACLU is a legal organization based on the equal and fair application of constitutional rights; they are not to blame, absolutism is.

There are plenty of arguments in favor of absolutism. They will all highlight that limits to free speech and freedom of the press would yield to state discretion, to judicial bias, to political suppression. They will misquote Voltaire and discern from the old English law that civil rights are not here to be restricted, and that civility will do part with the belief that all positions are equal. They will argue that it’s necessary for expression to take place so rebuttal can also be present and public, and that pushing extremist views further into darkness legitimizes their claim to oppression. In this specific example, they will say that the history specific to mid-20th century Central Europe and French occupation are not the same as the legacy of the Civil War in the United States. Meanwhile, statues of confederate leaders are tumbled down all across the South, and monuments are being used as meeting points for white supremacists. It is very possible to then argue that the legacy of the Civil War has in fact not been dealt with; that the criminal justice system in the United States continues to disproportionality punish black and ethnic minorities; that police violence is unabated and unrestricted; that affirmative action and voting rights are under attack. Is this a reason to curtail free speech? Is extending hate speech territory a violation of free speech? Should the ACLU not accept First Amendment complaints from white supremacist groups?

Legally, the ACLU is being consistent. This is the interpretation of the First Amendment as upheld by the Supreme Court. The aforementioned defense of absolutism makes legitimate points that have been demonstrated as correct: there is a long-standing trail of political bias in freedom of expression. One recent element comes to mind, and that is a much cited court case against former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen being booted off court after filing a defamation claim, the judge outlining in his decision that what is true can not be defamatory in nature: it is therefore legal to refer to Marine Le Pen as a fascist in the course of political debate. This did not prove that hate speech laws in France criminalizing historically verified facts or the ban on neo-nazi parties in Germany are a violation of a fundamental right. Speech is not, as much as one would like it to be, a fundamental right. It is not cited as an absolute because its very nature can pose a threat. What we consider when curtailing free speech is the imminence and reality of the threat said speech poses, and in that states do in fact exercise quite large discretion in determination and definition. Political positions are threatening if they dissent or attack the powers that be; religious beliefs can be seen as isolating and discriminatory. If we do consider human rights to be universal in both nature and scope, we must define them by what they are not. If we are to believe civil rights should be accessed by all, limit them to what they do not tolerate. If political rights are to be exercised safely and in the interest of the collective, they cannot be extended to beliefs that in nature are threatening and lethal. When it comes to the ghosts of slavery and Nazism, ghosts that are very much palpable and cyclically return to haunt the West, there is no debate. Refusing to tolerate such positions is not a question of specific party membership, or political affiliation. Refusing racial supremacy goes far beyond a flag, a border, or a constitution. It is committing to human rights. We should, and must, draw a line.

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Photo by Zach D. Roberts for Nation of Change.

Polarizing attitudes and the Free Ride Theory

 A rose may be a rose by any other name, but an old professor of mine coined the following concept as the Free Ride Theory, and it applies. The dominant narrative, in both glossed-over history reenactments or modern cinematography is that most French people were in the Resistance, the Vichy supporters were passive opportunists, the vote to grant Marshal Pétain full powers all but ignored. This was not the case. A small portion of the population was, in fact, supporting the Vichy regime; held anti-Semitic views; called for the end of Front Populaire policies; believed the Reich could restore order and glory to the fading empire. Another small faction found itself on the other side of the spectrum: they joined the Résistance, engaged in sabotage, conducted counter-intelligence missions, provided safe passage to England, dragged compromised comrades behind enemy lines. The large, vast majority was neither. To support Pétain was to support beliefs that could be unpalatable for many; to join the Résistance was to take incalculable risks. Activism was lethal, and for many, the decision was made for them: communists, Jews, gays, pacifists, artists, they would have died regardless. They were young, had no families to feed, and so many found themselves with the need to follow in exile, or simply rejected resistance because they rejected conflict.

When Paris was liberated in August 1944 and General De Gaulle marched on the Champs-Elysees, people rejoiced, cheered, embraced the Allied troops, whether they had been pro-actively engaged in their victory or had hidden in their rooms waiting for the war to end. The latter, according to my professor, benefited from the actions of a few: they were freed without having seen concentration camps, without having lost a limb or a relative. They rejoiced despite not sacrificing anything in the battle. It was, to him, the free ride all passengers on the merry-go-round win if one child grabs the prize. One fights for the many – and the many claim the same prize as the one. It’s the rule of activism: not everyone can contribute to the resistance as much as the other, but all must win. It is a basic fact of socio-political frameworks, and it must be understood that not every citizen was going to be physically present in Charlottesville, VA over that fated weekend during which fundamental values were tested in an almost unprecedented fashion.

But there is something to be said about commitment to those fundamental values, and to this extremely recent need not to polarize, not to draw lines, not to erect barricades, to compromise. Barack Obama was praised as a Democrat president for reaching across the aisle when most had elected him on a quite progressive platform. This created resentment, bitterness, a feeling of betrayal on the less centrist side of the Democratic party. What’s fundamental is however, by definition, not a question of bipartisanship. It is about collective identity: it is not about local policies or electoral cycles. Those values are often written (or described) in constitutional texts. As such, the United States will hold its First Amendment as a fundamental that cannot be taken away from any American. It however does not say that other American must consider this particular exercise of speech as of equal value to, say, the fight for universal health care, or a Gawker article.

Everywhere, human rights are under attack. They were held as a breakdown in national identity during the Brexit referendum. They were defined as responsible for the sharp divide between the presidential candidates in France. They are at the heart of a 5 year-long civil war in Syria. They are denied to millions of refugees in makeshift, sub-par refugee camps in Australia. Under the guise of civility and tolerance, we are accepting their violation as a legitimate political discourse. We are refraining from resisting and encouraging others not to protest them, we are classifying them as a fringe, a phase, a temporary ill to befell our otherwise civilized, evolved, democratic society. They are none of those things and history has proven that by never taking a stand, or by assuming there is a reasonable expectation of equal treatment and republican commitment, we will fail. Later, the fabric of society will be unraveled, slowly undone, until the law no longer protects the vulnerable and the body politic belongs to a violent few.

Now is the time for a strong moral, ethical and legal line to hold against what have constituted the backbone of modern human rights law as we know it. There is no equivalency to be drawn and no position to “agree to disagree” when fundamental rights are so directly at stake and leaders of the movement discuss creating an “ethnostate”. For all the signs that dystopian pop culture has created in the last few years and the success it’s generated – from Black Mirror to The Handmaid’s Tale – the difficulty to translate this generation’s anxieties and fears for the future has not made it onto the streets nor has it formed a substantial support of the recent warning issued by Human Rights Council treaty bodies. An innate and otherwise legitimate denial of violence in any shape or form from centrist corners has yielded passivity, an apathy, lulling vast portions of the population into a false sense of security. Those movements are not “fringe”; they are not “lone extremists”; they are an armed militia, and they have long claimed casualties. For 74% of the attacks committed on US soil to be attributed to extremists in the last 9 years, it is long, long time to show solidarity in disagreement and initiate false parallels. We are who we stand up against.

It’s been a really trying year

I saw the date approach in my calendar with a nostalgic reminder of the sense of loss I felt then. A year ago, I had landed back at Heathrow in a rush in the hours before the polls opened all across the then-united Kingdom, queuing with other European citizens in the European passports line, a little uncomfortable with the referendum being held in the first place, but otherwise confident. I walked passed several magazine and newspaper stands on my way out, glanced at issues celebrating an upcoming victory for the far-right: an “independence day”, according to Nigel Farage, “freedom” from an institution few understood as anything else but a regulatory body, and most of all, “control”.

Back in New York, expats and Americans alike kept asking for predictions. Of course, 2016 was the year I was constantly proven wrong: I was firmly convinced Donald Trump, for instance, would never win the Republican nomination. I knew Europe always journeyed through cyclical bursts of far-right approval. I wanted to be receptive to criticism of EU institutions – a pet peeve of mine are references to “the EU”, just like “the UN”, neither being homogenous entities – that I often emitted myself. I had been tested, like many Europhiles, by the Commission’s reaction to the refugee crisis. I had been in opposition to a secretive and adversarial EU Council, that Ian Dunt qualified as “shady”. But it was so painfully obvious to me, from the continent, that the Leave camp as lying, over and over again, that I felt confident the British public knew better. We had spent enough time correcting statements that a Brexit vote would mean a withdrawal from the ECHR for it to be understood.
Of all the things I hate (people calling Bushwick “East Williamsburg”, forgetting the h at the end of my first name, anything written by Alan Dershowitz): being wrong. Needless to say, June 23rd was not a good day.

I work in Strasbourg. It’s not Brussels, but close enough thanks to being another seat of the EU Parliament, that the shockwaves radiated all the way to the Rhine. My colleagues and I were at the office early that day, snacking, nervously drinking coffee and checking our phones. It’s not necessarily a strange scene for people working in counter-terrorism. But this vote was about something else. It was about dismantling something we all believed in, although with different degrees of devotion. We were, are, all Cold War kids, children of Mitterrand and Kohl, great-grandchildren of Verdun, Eurostar frequent passengers, some of us coming of age with the Good Friday Agreement, Erasmus-educated, border-hopping staffers. My reaction to Brexit continues to be bipolar. On one hand, I react to it as a lawyer, interpreting article 50, issuing concerns about the Northern Irish border, attacking the arrogance of a bespoke agreement with Europol. On the other hand, it feels deeply personal. It’s a betrayal of my identity, of one growing up thanks and through the European Project – an idea separate from the European Union, with the end goal being that the two should reconcile through democratic, progressive values, pro-immigration, pro-human rights, pro-workers’ rights, an evolution a political finger to De Gaulle and Thatcher and a legal assertion away from US exceptionalism.

I was given the opportunity to let my heart on my sleeve for the legal commentary blog Opinio Juris about Europe, the European Union, the European project, and the fears the referendum brought to light as a Northern Irish citizen. I still haven’t corrected the typos.

When the result was officially announced, my office fell quiet. Sure, the referendum was not legally binding. Sure, the margin was not significant enough to call it a political mandate. Sure, the question itself was vague enough not to give a time frame for withdrawal or how exactly the UK will divorce from the rest of us. There was barely time to grieve, really. Jean-Claude Juncker became aggressive, Donald Tusk chose the bleeding heart route, and all around me, lawyers were suddenly dragged in the spotlight, a place where we feel either really comfortable or really uncomfortable, having to respond to questions for which there was never supposed to be an answer at all. If anything, to me, the UK had entered a historic phase: as a long-time partner in the creation and construction of what would later become the European Union, a major player in its most destructive wars, and an unparalleled ally in security, seeing the island decide to float away on its own in the choppy, freezing waters in the North Sea and taking Northern Ireland with it was impossible to fathom. It wasn’t “control”. It was the sort of “freedom” that one can only achieve when they jump off a bridge, for a split second suspended outside of the laws of gravity, but inevitably about to hit the ground in free fall.

As lawyers, we then had to find a way out, a legal answer to a political question. Immediately, what came to mind was a simple truth, a statement of fact: it was not legally binding, so why do anything? But David Cameron had resigned, and “mandate” and “will of the people” became such imposing terms we outlined Article 50 for everyone else. Article 50 says nothing. It provides a time frame. I started writing a few paragraphs everyday, a mock-diary of post-referendum news coverage, that I titled “Weimar Britain”. Every morning, I would call the hour in GMT, list a few highlights of the absurd positions taken by Theresa May or Michael Gove the day before, mention if Juncker or Barnier had gone for a round of golf, and finish with the weather forecast, the last sentence being, “the UK is still in the European Union”. I did that for a few months, the ritual becoming quite popular in my circles, so convinced I was that Article 50 would never be triggered. It just was inconceivable to me. Repealing every EU provision in British common law? Alienating the country from security agreements at a time of heightened security threats? What was that constant logorrhea about a sovereignty that was never questioned nor eroded in the first place? Everything was baffling, incorrect at best, surreal most of the time. And then I was told, in December if I remember correctly, by a certain British journalist, that I was delusional if I believed Article 50 would never be triggered. A few months later, he was proven right, and I was once again proven wrong.

The otherwise excellent Remainiacs podcast, started a few weeks ago, used the term “trauma” to refer to the feeling many experienced in the aftermath of the referendum. I won’t use the term, because my field of work reserves it for a different type of experience. I will continue to say what I feel is loss: a sense of unity, that was never there in terms of EU-wide political consensus; a sense of togetherness, certainly not correct considering how many opt-outs the UK placed on many EU treaties; a sense of belonging, that never extended to many immigrants much like my parents. The European project remains an idea, but it is an idea I firmly believe can translate if we empower the Parliament to oppose the Commission more and if, really, the Council conducts its work in a less shady manner. The role of EU Courts, so often maligned by UK politicians, is paramount. Brexit will not affect the UK’s membership of the Council of Europe, and the country remains part of the ECHR, at least for now. But the days are numbered: leaving the EU was never about renegotiating trade agreements or “taking control” of agricultural regulations. It was about shutting down immigration, about refusing to implement ECJ rulings on civil liberties, about the immaturity and irresponsibility of removing one state from transnational regulations that provide for medical progress and housing safety, among other things. It was a vote not based on concern for the lack of reform in the EU: it was about misplaced and misunderstood British identity, that was placed as superior to other states, and perfectly capable of raising the flag of the Empire after centuries of outward progress.

It’s been a year. It’s been a year of we, in Belfast, Derry, Newry, Enniskillen, having to remind everyone that our region has always been fragile and precarious, that our peace process was ongoing and needed attention. It’s been a year of sharing and re-issuing reports compiled by EU officials on the dire effects of a EU withdrawal on devolved administrations. It’s been a year of my colleagues publishing paper after opinion on the impact of Brexit on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Mostly, it’s been a year of reading about the fear, anxiety, and panic at the prospect of the border being raised. Typing this, I found myself capitalizing the word – Border – out of habit. It’s not just any border; it’s a border that symbolized a civil war. It’s a fault line I had known my entire life and that I still shudder, even if it is now disembodied, whenever I ride what is now a commuter train between Dublin and Belfast. It’s a border we were told we were never going to see again, one that Theresa May apparently just found out about, one that Secretary of State James Brokenshire discusses to provide assurances of our safety but without the necessary presence or authority required by the position of neutrality the UK is supposed to hold. There is nothing neutral about Brexit and its complete lack of interest in Northern Ireland. And so, we are entering our sixth month without a government or a Speaker of the Assembly; Dublin finds itself having to be a buffer between London and Brussels while being the key player on the chessboard, without its consent, without it having a say in the referendum being carried out in the first place. Northern Ireland voted to stay, because, as I wrote at the time, it is survival for most of us. It is for many others across the Union.

It’s been a year and I’m swimming against the tide of colleagues and friends leaving the UK to head to the continent, where their legal status is ensured, where they will not be asked for a visa and where their children can stay with their parents: I am moving to London. As I flew back to Europe a few days ago, once again from New York, but this time into Switzerland, I realized my biggest privilege wasn’t the most obvious necessarily. It wasn’t my education that the EU subsidized. It wasn’t my safety from war that the EU launched and protected. It wasn’t my health coverage that the EU ensured and funded. It is my freedom of movement. It’s the two passports – I am a citizen of nowhere – I hold, two EU citizenships, two possibilities of fast-tracking at airports, two possibilities of visa waivers. One is a Schengen nationality, the other is a Common Travel Area one. European citizens are trading this freedom at quite a cost: first the Schengen Information System (SIS II) database, and the Passenger Name Record (PNR) agreement with the US. Those will need work, reform, scrutiny, checks. We have a Parliament, we have Courts. UK citizens may lose their freedom of movement. They may be restricted, suspended, will have to re-negotiate. Education, family life, work, internships, travel, tourism, experience, all of this is dangling off the edge of a cliff.

It’s been one year. Imagine. One year, and no answer.

Going to a town

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Next month will mark 13 years since I’ve become a practicing lawyer. It’s been 13 very, very long years, during which I’ve learnt more about managing the long term effects of sleeplessness than anything else. Every year I reflect on the context of the practice of human rights law, and every year I find myself questioning this commitment, until I reach the same answer: I would never do anything else.

The last 12 months have not been quiet and comforting for this profession. Our colleagues in the magistrature have become enemies of the people. Our friends and peers in Turkey have been arrested and detained in an authoritarian purge. Across the Atlantic, we de facto represent dangerous dissent. Suddenly our work becomes more political than it’s ever been. It means it’s also more than necessary than it ever was.

This little note has been inspired by two conversations on Twitter, a platform of predilection for lawyers it seems, which confirmed two strongly held beliefs of mine: one, we are profoundly unhappy and deeply cynical, as illustrated by a thread on the (otherwise excellent and erudite) Secret Barrister’s timeline, asking practitioners to detail the consequences of their job. The answers ranged from high levels of alcohol intake to breaking down of marriages. Long hours, for some, low fees (yes), sexism, poor to execrable relationships with the press, never ending debates on jurisdiction and uncertainty of political decisions lead to the difficulty to see purpose in fulfilment in the practice of the law.

Two, in my specific area of practice, counter terrorism, defense and security, we are drowning under the weight of government secrecy on one side, and a culture of disinformation on the other. Few other issues are as inherently manipulative as security, few depend so much on perception and emotive reaction. Our attempt as lawyers not only to carry on with our day-to-day activities, monitoring emergency, accessing suspects in detention, ensuring the compliance of counter-terrorism legislation with transnational and international provisions, no small feat in itself, now also includes a self-imposed duty of information. I say self-imposed because none of us are under any obligation to develop any sort of public profile or to publish on non-academic platforms. There has been a wider desire to understand the inner workings of a system that was evidently destroying lives, to shine a light on principles of accountability at a time when moral outrage isn’t significant enough to effect change.

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I have always maintained, to the dismay of some, that the practice of human rights law is not advocacy. The universal application of norms demands universal enforcement; scrutiny must be exercised on an equal footing; and judicial redress demands unequivocal commitment to the right to truth. Alleging a human rights violation must not be lodged with the purpose of attaining a political score; it isn’t about hammering a rhetorical point home. Human rights, fundamental or derogating, translate into very real protection, in war or in peace, in heightened or low threat, against state power the same as against non-state armed groups. Yet the politicization of those rights, always predictable, too often inevitable, has now completely undermined the enforcement of those norms. If we lawyers can do a better job at explaining our role within the immense machine that are human rights organisations and institutions; if we can provide another element of access to necessary information, and spread knowledge of rights to which every individual is entitled, now is that time. We do not always reach the target, but we place critical tools into the public domain. It’s a priceless endeavour if the goal is to raise support against legal aid cuts, provide financial cushion to provide protection to refugees and asylum-seekers, to highlight changes in legislation that isolate individuals from courts.

While I have often worked alone and would continue to do so, and generally avoid large-scale debate because trained the old-school way, it matters to meet like-minded colleagues that push the practice forward through expertise, respect for the craft, and commitment to values. Public interest academics, professors and all-around commentators such as the invaluable Kevin Jon Heller have proven time and again how irreplaceable their input was. From violation of fundamental rights of refugees in Australia to briefing UN member-states on the ICC’s aggression amendments, Heller is not only contributing to a historical legacy of international criminal law, he is also steering not-so-young lawyers such as myself in the right direction. It is also more than worthy of note that Darragh Mackin, the young solicitor from Newry, whose mind absorbs information and focuses on legal detail in a stunning and breathtaking way, has now been named partner at the seminal legacy and human rights Belfast firm KRW. Few of us can boast of having achieved that level of excellence at his age; the reason why Mackin makes such a difference in the practice of his work is his unparalleled dedication to the people and causes he represents, from the Hooded Men to Ibrahim Halawa. This isn’t about publicity. It’s about the practice of law being a proxy for the maintenance of peace and the access to an equality we are sworn to uphold. It matters that it is being recognized, and that once in a while, perhaps once a year, under the sentimental cover of anniversaries and commemorations, we celebrate that we are part of a much larger group of people that, underneath it all, work towards inscribing change.

To answer that stranger in a strange social media land, yes, I am proud of the way I was educated and trained, I am humbled by the work of my colleagues, most of whom I would have never dreamt to call peers. This follows years of whispering to one another, “it will get worse before it gets better”; there will many more sleepless nights and many deplorable incidents of violence, death, torture, aggression, occupation, before we see a new dawn break, like it happened before. We are vessels; we are, in essence, the evolution of international relations away from belligerent status quo and lethal inequality.

But this is never something we could have done without journalists, without activists, without citizens of the world, without committed representatives. Before the elections in France, Brexit negotiations, peace talks in Syria, disarmament affairs, states of emergency, ad hoc tribunals, access to documentation of torture, mass surveillance, and destruction of hospitals continue to be a staple of our everyday lives, here’s to human rights defenders and those who defend them.