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.

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.

I heard you like black sites

Hey Donald, I heard you were reconsidering CIA  black sites overseas. I have a few notes for you. It will take more than 140 characters or less to explain the obligations of human rights law under counter terrorism, but I am hoping against hope you will pay more attention to this than you do your own intelligence briefings. 

Let us first agree on what we colloquially refer to as a “CIA black site”: those are secret prisons, detention facilities operated by the Central Intelligence Agency in which detainees are held incommunicado (without access to a lawyer, without knowledge for the International Committee of the Red Cross), for indefinite amounts of time, without charge or trial, and subjected to ill-treatment and torture for the purpose of interrogation. Those “black sites” – a shameful collection of legal black holes, where truth, memory and sunlight never shine – were built overseas.

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The reason they were built overseas is because of legality. This is no secret our profession bypassed ethics (albeit successfully, to our greatest dismay and fatal sadness) in the name of a government-led and government-approved definition of security. The Convention Against Torture, adopted by the General Assembly in 1984, holds torture as an absolute prohibition. The reservations emitted by the US Congress during the ratification process in 1992 established a definition that made torture only possible overseas, outside US jurisdiction – physical custody or control of another party. And thus, Donald, if you want to lift the ban on the use of torture on terrorism detainees, you will need partner countries to assist you in reviving a horror that is very much present: 41 men are still held in Guantanamo Bay, after having transited through one of those sites. I am here to tell you that you will not get what you want, at least not from European member-states. See, we have obligations to uphold: we have a Court tasked with trying violations, and an entire supranational Committee which mission is to ensure the enforcement of this Court’s judgments.

In a hearing in that same Court in December 2013, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson QC, described the CIA Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) programme as a “vast conspiracy”. It is: the number countries that have assisted the United States illustrate a form of international deference to the war on terror and the damage it spurred, to the detriment of efficacy and human rights. The Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) has conducted two investigations into states’ collusion with the CIA, one via the rapporteur Dick Marty in 2006, and another via the rapporteur Claudio Fava in 2007. Both yielded reports that represent a seminal work of independent parliamentary scrutiny. In early 2016, the European Parliament closed its investigation, reaching the same conclusion: not only were states aware that this was happening, they chose not to collaborate with investigations, and raised classification issues. All of this works in the Trump administration’s favour. A culture of secrecy largely cultivated under transnational security agreements; his Democratic predecessor’s distaste of judicial scrutiny and accountability; a conflict in Syria that never ends, creating millions of refugees and destabilising the entire region. A celebrity fascist was elected because Americans, on top of being angry, were afraid. Europeans, on top of being afraid, are also angry at what took place in Paris, Brussels, Ankara, and Berlin, to name a few.

Ireland, the United Kingdom, Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Italy, Macedonia did everything from facilitating the CIA jets’ refuel, to building black sites on their own territory. To this day, only Italy has carried out a domestic investigation into its own intelligence services’ collaboration with the CIA, resulting in the conviction of CIA agents in absentia. The case itself is fraught with procedural errors, deliberate smokescreens, and abusive use of state secrets. Poland has been found guilty by the Court, and now finds itself in the position to ensure Al-Nashiri’s trial and sentence. None of those states have disclosed the agreement – called a memorandum of understanding (MoU) – with the Court, presumably to preserve their special relationship to the CIA, invoking the absolute necessity to remain on the US’ good side while they seek to participate in the purported “eradication” of terrorism. All of this, again, works in the US’ favour. Except for this tiny, insignificant, fraction of a detail: the rule of law.

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Now, we know. It’s been a long, painful and traumatic road since the first rumours, investigations, and articles about secret Gulfstream IV jets flying unidentified “detainee combatants” from one secret prison to another first came light. The European Court of Human Rights has issued a judgment that clarifies that, even in the absence of disclosure of those MoUs, there had been enough substantiated and corroborated evidence published in the press and through legal and academic research to make a conclusive finding on a gross violation of human rights law. A report compiled by the Senate Special Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), still classified but with its executive summary released in December 2014, remains an formidable excercise of domestic parliamentary scrutiny. The SSCI report, dubbed the CIA torture report, reveals the location of several black sites, the budget the CIA required to carry out that programme, in addition to recordings of interrogation sessions, legal memos in preparation of the establishment of the policy, and photos obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The question, at this point, is whether the truth is as objective as it should be, and if its existence can replace accountability.

For all the bragging and boasting about enjoying the infliction of long term and damaging suffering on other human beings, for all the speeches given at Langley on extending covert operations, you have not created anything. You are simply considering lifting a ban on a period of American history that has not seen any closure because of an admission the government had “tortured some folks”. The United States is still in violation of UNCAT for refusing to prosecute officials that have authorized the use of torture. For the lawyers, this has led to successful careers. For the military, “harsh interrogation” is still present in the books. The black sites, meanwhile, enjoy a second life: the building in Temara, Morocco, has been used, once the CIA had left the premises, by the domestic intelligence agency to torture dissidents. Wherever the CIA has visited and stayed, visible scars are identifiable. Wherever the CIA tortured in secret, the impunity is perpetuated. Lifting the ban Obama enforced in 2009 isn’t the hawkish, vicious, cynical, dangerous and violent regime the Electoral College wished into existence. It is a pathetic, weak, ignorant, and self-destructive vision of counter-terrorism.

Torture is not efficient. Torture does not provide reliable intelligence. Torture has never made a country safer. Torture has never facilitated the end to illegitimate political violence. The unlawful detention of hundreds of men, some of them sold to US forces by bounty hunters and acknowledged as having suffered on the basis of false information, testimonies or mistaken identity, has provided ammunition for insurgency, has encouraged the use of imagery for the dissemination of similarly atrocious behaviour, and has stripped the United States and participating countries of any legitimacy in denouncing, and acting against, other states engaging in such horrific operations. It has reawakened the trauma of those same interrogation methods used in Northern Ireland at the height of its own conflict, mentioned in the footnote of a legal memorandum discussing, at length, how much pain can be inflicted on a human being without crossing an admittedly arbitrary threshold. You are not making America great again, Donald. You are simply returning to a very recent place in time when large-scale, international security operations were launched to the detriment of the rights of the victims, circumventing international law and international institutions, in the name of an irrational appetite for vengeance.

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Whatever the domestic framework, if you attempt to hire John Yoo again, will be hindered by the current National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), through an amendment introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein; it will be blocked by the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), both texts acknowledging the veracity of reports of the CIA’s conduct, and furthering the importance of ECtHR rulings against offending states. But most importantly, torture is an absolute prohibition; a war crime; indefinite detention without charge, the refusal of access to a lawyer, the denial of access to the ICRC, the removal of detainees to a military base, are violations of both humanitarian law and human rights law; several protocols of the Military Commissions Act (2006) violating fair trial rules. Donald, this is simple: the only national security position you are entitled to take in regards to the RDI programme is instructing the Department of Justice to prosecute officials that have created the programme, the private contractors that have devised interrogation methods, the intelligence agents that have supervised it and carried it out, as well as cooperating in every possible way with every request emitted by the ECtHR in order for our organization to respect our own obligations. Anything else would be in violation of international law; and every step of the way, there will be lawyers, legal academics, researchers, and journalists ready to expose the mechanisms you will use, because we know them by now.

You will drown under the weight of lawsuits, and you are already at odds with the medical professionals that had once assisted the 43rd President of the United States. For every government lawyer that will attempt to argue our role, as international human rights lawyers, is illegitimate foreign interference, that we are a fifth column, there will be the survivors of Guantanamo Bay to testify of what they have been through, there will be the families of victims of terrorism that seek fair redress, and there will be judicial oversight of counter-terrorism operations reaffirming that efficiency is a human rights obligation resting upon states. Including the United States. Including you, as the depositary of executive authority.

The only way to rid your administration of those pesky international lawyers such as myself is to comply with international law. There is no way around it. To quote the wonderful Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American who marched against you in DC, “I will respect the presidency, but I will not respect this president”. On this note, I bid you good night, Donald, and there is no need to tweet at me at 2 in the morning. 

The case for re-opening the Gibson Inquiry

“They were accusing me of fighting with Bin Laden in the battle of Tora Bora; of being in charge of weapons stores; of being a terrorist recruiter – though I’d only been in Afghanistan for a few weeks. I start to try to talk but everybody is just shouting and screaming around me. Then suddenly I feel it – douff – this American guy grabs me by the head, and he slams it backwards against the wall. In my mind I think I must try to save my head so I tried to bring it forwards, but as soon as I do he grabs it again and bashes it: douff, then back again, douff, douff, douff.”

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In a interview with the Daily Mail published on December 12, 2015, Shaker Aamer reenacts being hogtied during interrogations at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.

Shaker Aamer may be one of the most notorious of Guantanamo detainees, imprisoned on a naval base that once housed more than 700 “enemy combatants” in the so-called war on terror. The ordeal he suffered at the hands of US interrogators during 13 years of detention, as a British national, will not be the subject of a legal challenge against the United Kingdom he accuses of collaborating with his captors: “I do not want to prosecute anybody. I do not want anybody to be asked about what his role [was] in the past. I just want people to tell the truth (…) I don’t believe the court will bring justice because of what happened in the past.

Although we seem to know quite more about him than we do about other prisoners, there is a still a lot that remains unknown, mostly the treatment to which he has been subjected. An independent psychiatric evaluation ordered by his lawyers in late 2013 and released in early 2014 paints a picture of non-therapeutic medical administration, force-feeding, repeated beatings, and submission to the infamous “enhanced interrogation techniques”, or EITs, investigated by the US Senate’s intelligence committee.

Shaker Aamer is not the only victim of British collusion in the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) program. Belhaj, a dissident who fled Gaddafi’s Libya, was flown back and thrown into the jails were he was submitted to torture, courtesy of the MI-6. Several other detainees recall being transferred to Guantanamo via the base in Diego Garcia, a British overseas territory. Shaker’s prolonged detention – he was cleared for release twice, in 2008 under Bush and in 2009 under Obama, only to see British soil in October 30, 2015 – gained political traction and mass outrage thanks to media coverage and a strong push in Parliament. For a decade, the UK government has replied to calls for information with the same line: that they had sought assurances from the US government that the last remaining British national was receiving fair treatment, and that any conditions of release, if it was to take place, would be solely a matter for US authorities. For a long while, campaigners for Shaker thought he would die in Cuba, without charges, without a trial, and submitted to abject treatment.

Shaker Aamer survived, and is now reunited with his wife, three sons, and daughter. It is a testament to his resilience that he is capable of recalling what he was forced to endure, and feels ready to speak. Many, including former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, called for former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to answer questions on Aamer’s detention and continued collaboration with US authorities under the cloak of the “special relationship” that has come to signify gross human rights violations; it is absolutely necessary that the truth emerges. This would not, however, be the first attempt. The Detainee Inquiry, also referred to as the Gibson inquiry, shelved in 2012, released an incomplete report in December 2013 that left many questions unanswered, while raising brand new ones that some feared would never be addressed. The document isn’t as unnecessary and useless as its harshest critics claim. While not shedding light on many areas touching on intelligence-sharing and the modus operandi of British security services in their relationship with American counterparts, it clearly identifies key issues. 

Shaker Aamer’s release, his accusations against the British government, against Tony Blair, and the security services are an opportunity to open an inquiry – not just on Aamer’s detention, but on collaboration in the RDI program as a whole. The momentum is one not to be missed: in addition to Shaker’s release, it has been a year since the US Senate (SSCI) released the executive summary of its own investigation of the CIA torture program; the European Parliament, through a resolution passed in February 2015, has also launched a third inquiry into EU member states’ participation, and accountability systems, in the 8 year long program that claimed many lives and remains a kafkaesque nightmare to this day. It should therefore not be an insurmountable obstacle for British officials: the blueprint already exists.

“We tortured some folks”: A question of truth

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Obama, during a White House press conference on August 1st, 2014: “When we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques and that I believe and I think any fair minded person would believe were torture, we crossed a line. And that needs to be understood and accepted.”

 

The Convention Against Torture specifically provides mechanisms of accountability at domestic and international level; most importantly, it makes it an obligation to investigate, prosecute and sentence perpetrators of what is considered an absolute prohibition. Obama’s 2014 speech and that saddening line, “we tortured some folks”, urging the general public to make political amends but move on beyond a previous administration having simply erred in pushing interrogation to the brink of torture, is not enough. It is not satisfying the legal standard. It is not satisfying in terms of moral responsibility. It is not looking at the ethics of the Yoo and Bybee memos. As national organizations engaged in a years-long battle to face their own collaboration, as the APA did, finally passing a motion this summer to ban its members’ participation in interrogations conducted by the CIA and/or the Pentagon, there is simply silence at the highest level of the executive.

There is no US exceptionalism. Everywhere, a blanket denial is applied to any attempt to investigate CIA rendition and the torture of terrorism suspects worldwide. Chastised by the European Court of Human Rights in a July 2014 judgement for negative inference, Poland continues to deny it has ever been complicit in the Stare Kiejkuty black site that once covered up the detention and torture of at least Al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah. Ireland, which would have let the CIA’s Gulfstream IV jets land at Shannon Airport for refuel, has arrested two of its TDs (members of Parliament) for trespassing as they investigated. Romanian authorities have also denied knowledge of CIA activities despite Bright Light being located in the basement of Bucharest’s City Hall. The second EU report on collaboration in rendition, compiled by rapporteur Claudio Fava in 2007, lists the names of heads of states and defense secretaries who refused to testify before him in the course of his inquiry, citing national security exemptions. The latest hearing led by the European Parliament’s committee investigating rendition has also recited a long list of states and their officials refusing to collaborate or continuing the now well-rehearsed line that the CIA would have operated for years in at least 14 European member states without anyone’s knowledge.

The battle must continue; the right to truth must be achieved, and if judicial activism seems to be on the side of some inquests – for instance, the Al-Hawsawi case in Lithuania – it’s representative instances in democracies that most often push against the executive Glomar responses and insist on transparency. In the UK, the Joint Committee on Human Rights conducted a public hearing in March 2014 questioning the little mechanisms of accountability and transparency in war on terror, revealing most MPs do not possess the necessary security clearance to access documents related to the activities of intelligence agencies. In France, however, the push was external – through the lawsuit of two former Guantanamo detainees of dual French and Moroccan citizenship seeking reparations for their treatment before French courts. The proceedings long stalled due to French judicial authorities showing reluctance to demand cooperation from US officials, but eventually summoned the former Guantanamo chief, Gen. Miller, to testify. The process is still ongoing. Italy famously convicted 12 CIA agents in abstentia for the rendition of Abu Omar, abducted in Milan, but the Italian Prosecutor failed to obtain convictions for agents of the SISMi, citing state secrets opposition.

The work of an inquiry as vast and difficult as that of the Gibson Inquiry requires time; and time requires the push for action to be maintained. However, the lack of accountability and the complete culture of impunity has left the idea of torture to fester and arise at the first sign of revived trauma. While the release of the SSCI report was celebrated, and for good cause, despite only being a partially redacted executive summary, the results – shocking, nauseating, and a surprise for some – did not yield an charges, let alone convictions. No investigation has been launched. Torture leaves traces. It seeps into the fabric of society in a way that leaves it permanently tainted, and seeks to re-appear after any apparent vulnerability. Without accountability for crimes of torture, the lingering question masquerading as a legitimate debate – does torture work? – continues to be omnipresent and places anti-torture advocates and victims in a situation of having to defend their innocence, as if anything could have justified the treatment they suffered.

And so it happened following the November 13 attacks on Paris, in which 130 people died in the city of lights, the largest attack on French soil since World War II. Suddenly, the threat posed by ISIS, until then elusive on western territories, became very real, and the state response to it, inflated at a high and perhaps unnecessarily rapid rate. In the US Congress, debating a possible new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against this new traveling, transnational enemy, Senator Lindsay Graham opposed the closing of Guantanamo; his colleagues reiterated the tired argument of the necessity and efficiency of torture in the face of such a grave threat. Until the truth comes out and is maintained in the public discourse, at government and popular level, that acts of torture are unspeakable ignominies that do not belong in a democratic society, torture will continue to be perpetrated. It will not just be applied to a foreign, distant enemy in covert, extraterritorial prisons: the mechanisms and protocols might also be used by domestic law enforcement against citizens, so convenient the practice is to obtain confessions and recruit informants. Torture, once granted right of passage on a society, tends to stay, unless it is effectively, with the gravitas that it deserves, condemned unequivocally.

An amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in the US, proposed by Sen. Feinstein, who was Chair of the committee investigating CIA torture, bans the use of torture in the US in the conduct of war – but as psychologist and former APA member Dr. Jeffrey Kaye explains, this does not remove the methods detailed in the Army Field Manual’s Appendix M, nor does it change the 1990 Congressional reservations emitted during the process of ratification of the Convention Against Torture: as long as those are maintained, the US understanding of what constitutes torture and where it applies are in stark contradiction with the requirements of the UN Committee Against Torture, as mentioned in the country’s 2014 review.

While EU member states are bound to the European Convention on Human Rights, banning torture as well as cruel, unusual and degrading treatment in its Article 3, the available domestic remedies are not being used to their full potential, and it is likely that the ECHR’s caseload on CIA rendition cases will continue to increase as Guantanamo and/or Bagram detainees possibly access a lawyer. None of that is new for the European Union, as “legacy” cases – historical inquiries – related to British military intelligence activities in Northern Ireland between 1971 and 1998 are only just emerging. This includes the documents provided by the British government to that same Court of human rights, in an application made by the Republic of Ireland against the United Kingdom. In 1978, the ECtHR ruled that those methods of coercion during interrogation did not amount to torture. 23 years later, the US would use this decision, and British past counter-terrorism policies, to justify and legitimize theirs.

“A slap and a tickle”: from Northern Ireland to the Bradbury memo

96. Twelve persons arrested on 9 August 1971 and two persons arrested in October 1971 were singled out and taken to one or more unidentified centres. There, between 11 to 17 August and 11 to 18 October respectively, they were submitted to a form of “interrogation in depth” which involved the combined application of five particular techniques.

These methods, sometimes termed “disorientation” or “sensory deprivation” techniques, were not used in any cases other than the fourteen so indicated above. It emerges from the Commission’s establishment of the facts that the techniques consisted of:

(a) wall-standing: forcing the detainees to remain for periods of some hours in a “stress position”, described by those who underwent it as being “spread eagled against the wall, with their fingers put high above the head against the wall, the legs spread apart and the feet back, causing them to stand on their toes with the weight of the body mainly on the fingers”;

(b) hooding: putting a black or navy coloured bag over the detainees’ heads and, at least initially, keeping it there all the time except during interrogation;

(c) subjection to noise: pending their interrogations, holding the detainees in a room where there was a continuous loud and hissing noise;

(d) deprivation of sleep: pending their interrogations, depriving the detainees of sleep;

(e) deprivation of food and drink: subjecting the detainees to a reduced diet during their stay at the centre and pending interrogations.

The Commission’s findings as to the manner and effects of the application of these techniques on two particular case-witnesses are referred to below at paragraph 104.

97. From the start, it has been conceded by the respondent Government that the use of the five techniques was authorised at “high level”. Although never committed to writing or authorised in any official document, the techniques had been orally taught to members of the RUC by the English Intelligence Centre at a seminar held in April 1971.

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Nine of the Hooded Men. (c) The Irish Times, December 2014

Those methods, here described in para. 96 and 97 of the ECtHR ruling in the Ireland v United Kingdom case (referred to as the “Hooded Men” case, as the applicants would come to be called) bear striking resemblance to methods employed by the CIA as described in a 2004 internal memo, partially declassified in 2009. It was around the same period that the “torture memos“, authored by government lawyers Yoo and Bybee, would be released, showing reliance on the legal decision (footnote 37) rendered by the Strasbourg Court in 1978 that these interrogation techniques, while in breach of the Convention, did not amount to torture.

Blurring the lines is exactly what the CIA did, has done, and continues to do when it comes to defending its rendition program. While the SSCI report’s executive summary goes in somewhat excruciating detail, it is because it is necessary to decide whether or not the Court has raised the threshold of that dotted line between cruel, unusual and degrading punishment, and torture as defined by the 1984 UN Convention. It became extremely convenient when CIA black sites routinely used sensory deprivation, “noise torture”, and methods of rapport-building with interrogators aimed at provoking psychological disorientation. In a paper called “Torturing the brain“, published in 2009, neuroscientist Shane O’Mara, a researcher at Trinity College Dublin, explains that those methods are not just coercion with the purpose of obtaining information; the long-term effects can affect the neurological structure and chemistry of the brain. O’Mara, whose book released at the end of November this year aims at answering in a scientific manner the never-ending fallacy of the efficiency of torture, may have provided information changing the threshold of acceptable treatment.

Relying on the 1978 ECtHR decision will soon prove difficult for the CIA and other advocates of the rendition program, in the US and overseas: a RTE investigation, “The Torture Files“, based on research conducted over decades by Northern Ireland-based legal charity the Pat Finucane Centre, showed that the British government deliberately misled the Court by handing over incomplete documentation on those methods. Ireland has agreed, in December 2014, to support re-opening of the case, currently under judicial review in Belfast. Because the CIA rendition program and the SERE protocols in place in Guantanamo strongly rely on the MI-5 activities in Ulster, a revision of the past, the legacy of early counter-terrorism legislations, orders, and directives in Europe will affect the process of accountability across the world; the methods of intelligence gathering will be revised, and the permanent political rhetoric surrounding the so-called exemption to the prohibition of torture – terrorism – now can be dismantled. It was affirmed in the judgement that the use of torture on suspected IRA members – whether they proved to be confirmed IRA or not – further radicalized the organisation and prolonged the war: the response to the introduction of the Internment in 1971 – administrative terrorism detention without charge – “surprised” the British government by its effects on a population already considering itself at siege.

In an opinion piece penned by Sen. Feinstein and published by the New York Times in November, the Senator calls for the closure of Guantanamo, speeding up the military commissions process, the enforcement of the decisions of the parole review boards, and, ultimately, end a program and a policy of detention that she admits has become in itself a national security threat. Referring to ISIS dressing up their hostages in orange jumpsuits similar to those worn by Guantanamo detainees, she concludes that ill-treatment, abuse of power, unlawful detention, and general conduct of counter-terrorism outside of legal framework provided by the Geneva Conventions contributes to legitimizing violent response against US forces wherever they are deployed.

It is necessary to specify that the policy the ECtHR details in the introduction to its final judgement was ended in 1974, but torture and ill-treatment by military intelligence continued in Northern Ireland well until a successful peace process could be implemented. The threat posed by the IRA was considered too much of a risk for civilians, both in Ulster and in England, that any method to infiltrate the organisation or obtain information from suspects when captured was politically endorsed. Several euphemisms, again, not unlike that of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, were used by British authorities to hide the dangerous and horrifying reality of their actions. It took Northern Ireland that long to face its past and accept to dig into it, regardless of how scared it was of what it’d find; but there can be no peace without justice, and no justice without truth. From both sides of the Atlantic, western states have to ensure, the sooner the better, that accountability for the crimes they committed in the name of their security is underway. Obama’s desire to turn over a new leaf and continue down its path is unsustainable. The United Kingdom, in 2015, has now failed two opportunities to stop its practice of torture in the name of counter-terrorism. Re-opening the inquiry in parallel to supporting the investigation of legacy cases in Northern Ireland would be unprecedented, but historically significant.

The duty of investigation as guarantee of no-recurrence

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A bomb exploded outside the MI-5 Palace Barracks in Holywood, Northern Ireland, in 2010. R-IRA claimed responsibility for the attack. (c) The Irish Times

 

“There is a need for mechanisms which are apt to examine the more structural and systemic dimensions of the rights violations and abuses of the ‘Troubles’. Such mechanisms should be in addition to, not as a substitute for, procedures that might bring satisfaction to victims in terms of truth and justice.” (…)

The human rights expert cautioned that cases leading to death have received most of the attention, leaving out serious other violations, ranging from illegal detention to serious injury and torture, among others.  “These victims, many of them in situations of particular vulnerability, and they deserve urgent attention,” he underscored.

“I am calling for a comprehensive redress and prevention policy, which must encompass also strategic work towards an integrated schooling system, including on history teaching, the establishment of a trustworthy entity to deal with records and archives on the ‘Troubles’ and more emphasis on psychosocial support to victims and their families.”

This statement from Pablo de Greiff, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence was released via the Human Rights Council on November 19, 2015 following a 10-day visit in England and Northern Ireland. Such a position as independent expert of the UN Special Procedures mechanisms highlights truth and justice as fundamental rights, pillars of the guarantee of non-recurrence, which translates into accountability as an institutional duty not to engage in those violations in the future.

The duty of investigation is set out in Article 2 of the ECHR; it demands, requires, places an obligation upon member states to seek truth and justice in any exposed and alleged violation of human rights as set out within the Convention. Northern Ireland has relied on Article 2 to maintain the possibility of opening “legacy cases” in its domestic courts, a process under threat by the current Cameron government to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act, repeal its territories from the jurisdiction of the Convention – this includes Northern Ireland, as national security issues do not benefit from devolution.

As mentioned before, the responsibility to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of torture is also set out in the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture, in both article 4 and article 12. The focus on the responsibility, the requirement to investigate is framed as just as important as the need to prevent from being committed. The language is, at first sight, difficult to interpret outside and beyond what was intended by the authors of the Convention, but the US and the UK maintained a political appearance of compliance through blanket denial and loose interpretation. The discourse surrounding political necessity to answer to hideous crimes of terrorism has become the equally as hideous necessity to commit torture, to the point even well-established lawyers felt comfortable detailing a proposal for torture under judicial warrant. Article 2 (2) is very clear: there is no exemption to the absolute prohibition.

UK Home Secretary Theresa May has several times invoked the fact that ISIS posed an unprecedented threat to the security of the United Kingdom and the safety of its citizens and residents. This implies that, despite the threat of violence being more significant than the actual acts of violence themselves on UK territory, ISIS would pose a bigger and more politically consequential threat than the IRA ever did during the Long War. Not only would this place the Terror Orders and the Prevention of Terrorism Acts in a context, not just of constant legal derogations in the name of counter terrorism, but also of political legitimacy in order to respond in proportional terms to IRA actions; it would also make the ISIS threat bigger, therefore the response stronger, more powerful, intrusive, and less likely to be limited and space and time, or subjected to parliamentary or judicial review. The fear that ISIS provokes in western country is so intense that it is reviving what Europe thought it had buried several decades ago.

The report of the Gibson Inquiry identified 30 (!) issues it would have wished to investigate, ranging from unease at raising the issue of torture with the “partner” (the US) to knowledge of the RDI programme from the executive. All 30 issues are paramount to determining criminal responsibility under domestic and international law. All 30 issues remain relevant to this day, as President Obama seeks – and fails – to close Guantanamo, and the UK seeks – and fails – to hold itself compliant with international humanitarian and human rights law while still creating areas of exemption. Through revisiting the Gibson Inquiry report and use it as a basis to re-launch the detainee inquiry, the UK could find itself in the unprecedented position to establish its own domestic system of accountability, truth-seeking, and transparency in the conduct of the war on terror – in line with the abuses it committed in the past and has yet to condemn at judicial level. With Shaker Aamer free, and 6 UK applicants seeking redress and truth in their own rendition to Guantanamo, there is a political responsibility not to let that time window close – and a legal duty to uphold.

Read the full Detainee Inquiry December 2013 report here

Read the Interim Report of the European Parliament inquiry on CIA rendition here

Read the Marty Report on EU member states and CIA rendition, 2006

Read the Fava Report on EU member states and CIA rendition, 2007

Read the executive summary of the SSCI report on the CIA rendition program, 2014

 

The collective consciousness and the lingering spectre of torture

Col. Larry James, chief psychologist at Guantanamo, 2003; director of the Behavioral Science Unit at Abu Ghraib, 2004. Retrieved at Newsweek, August 2015

More than the release of the Senate’s “torture report”, one of the defining moments of the American public’s reaction to the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) program was the moment the New York Times decided to stop using the euphemism of “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe what was and is blatantly torture. Executive editor Dean Baquet wrote in August 2014,

The word “torture” had a specialized legal meaning as well as a plain-English one. While the methods set off a national debate, the Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of “torture.” The Times described what we knew of the program but avoided a label that was still in dispute, instead using terms like harsh or brutal interrogation methods. (…) Over time, the landscape has shifted. Far more is now understood, such as that the C.I.A. inflicted the suffocation technique called waterboarding 183 times on a single detainee (…) Given those changes, reporters urged that The Times recalibrate its language. I agreed. So from now on, The Times will use the word “torture” to describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.

I was reminded of this while reading a piece called “Lives by omission” in the latest issue of Harper’s. J.M. Coetzee published exchanges with psychotherapist Arabella Kurtz on the parallels between fiction and psychotherapy. In this particular excerpt, they examine the process of repression, that Freud explained distinguished human beings from beasts. Coetzee writes, “What we gain in repressing what we do not want to remember we have to pay for with the subterranean poisoning of other aspects of our lives.” Later, he provides a torture analogy:

But is it true that repression necessarily fails? To give an extreme example, certain people who have committed vile acts – torture, murder – seem able to construct life stories (memories) for themselves out of selected fragments of the real (the long hours they had to work, the gratitude of their superiors, the promotions and medals  they received) and to live with and by such memories, while repressing all the ugliness. Classical theory, at least in its popular version, says that such people have unhappy relations with their wives and children. It says they suffer from nightmares. It says that they are secretly haunted by the cries of their victims – by what they try and fail to repress of their “real” past. And indeed, if you put a torturer on trial or if you compel him to undergo a course of psychic rehabilitation, he may begin to recollect those “repressed” cries.

If we see the construction of a personal narrative when committing “vile acts” – and there is no doubt that the operatives, government agents or contractors, that have taken part in the RDI program have committed vile acts – as a success of the psychological process of repression, it is difficult then to legally extract an individual responsibility for said crimes. Or is it? Yes, the gratitude of the superiors, the constant political rhetoric around the efficiency of torture, supposedly scientifically supported and pushed by legal celebrities such as torture-by-warrant proponent Alan Dershowitz – provide comfort, containment, and eventually, a levee against the perhaps inevitable wound inside the human psyche that remains after the crime, a wound that extends to the whole of humanity, as Dostoevsky expressed so well.

When Col. Larry James, former chief psychologist at Guantanamo, responded – reacted – to the APA motion banning its members from colluding with the CIA and the Pentagon on interrogation techniques, he did so by claiming the motion, the legal opinion of which I have written, holds “negative consequences”. In the APA debate taking hold before the vote, James asked:

So I need to know: Does international law supersede U.S. law? Because if the answer to that is yes, this has dire negative consequences for all federal employees, particularly in the VA and the department of homeland defense.

APA president-elect Susan McDaniel said the vote was to “reset our moral compass”. And yet, there is a continued willingness to push a narrative of efficiency and most importantly necessity from which a portion of the US public had started to distance themselves. Even the paper of record had a moment of reckoning with the ubiquitous use of comfortable and convenient paraphrases – enhanced interrogation techniques – realizing their responsibility in the dissonance between public political discourse lied in telling the truth as it stood and stands, not furthering the lie. There is no way of knowing whether Col. James, as a public persona, aligns with Larry James, the private individual, on the issue of torture. Another aspect of the APA motion was that it stopped providing the CIA and the Pentagon with their medical crutch, a huge part of their justification for their actions; it also confronted APA members with themselves, their actions, and their beliefs, depending on how well rooted they were. As sole dissenter, Larry James isolated himself in a landmark decision that will affect future operations of US intelligence agencies and their collaborators. He placed himself on a different shelf, aligned himself with the US’ interpretation of the Convention Against Torture that was laid out by John Yoo. He worried about criminal responsibility if the APA took a position on the absolute prohibition that aligned with international law, not with the American political context of the war on terror.

Human rights law is not rhetorical. It was not written as such and is a difficult area of practice. It is often mentioned that legal positivism is a question of morality, conscience and interpretation – all of which being subjective – but it was meant to translate into effective and immediate remedies for those affected by the violations of these peremptory norms. The prohibition of torture, although it is an intersectional and interdisciplinary issue to approach, is no different. It is part of this body of law that holds within it the fundamental principles of humanism and a loaded collective memory. Speaking of the prohibition of torture as the absolute that it is has been derided to great extent since 9/11, as being unpractical and inapplicable on the ground. The role of the APA in supporting torture was to create a sound argument for exemption, a legally acceptable derogation, hitting back at IHRL for existing outside of a reality of constant violence, fear, and imminent threats. The world had changed, we were told; it took a turn for the worst; we would not be much of a society if we did not do whatever it takes into protect each other from those external and shapeless monsters that are jeopardizing all this stability we have created. Torture is a collateral crime; it is the result of our back against the wall; it is an answer of last resort that no one wishes to brag about, but still needs to use when – we are told – all other methods failed.

Few images of British national and Guantanamo detainee Shaker Aamer exist. He insisted that this one, depicting him smiling, was the one use in coverage of his case. Aamer, who should be released by the end October, is still on hunger strike.

But the prohibition of torture is an absolute; human rights law resists against political derogations; and the truth lies outside the scope of Col. James’ arguments. We have had an opportunity to look at this torture-we-dared-not-speak-of in 2006 and 2007 through European Parliament rapporteurs Dick Marty and Claudio Fava. Their work failed to challenge overseas. Europeans, their commitment to the rule of law and their stubborn refusal to accept a war paradigm for counter terrorism will have to wait until Bin Laden is killed. It did not matter. Those reports were academic, had gaping holes where ministers were supposed to testify, untimely, and pitted natural allies against one another on questions of principle.

Feinstein’s report shifted the attention away from the purported accomplishments of special forces overseas to what they were doing in “black sites”, in Bagram, in Guantanamo, and everywhere else. It showed the general public, weary of battles of words, a side to their endless but righteous war they were not ready to face. The backlash has yet to be immense. President Obama admitted the US “tortured some folks”, and there are still no charges, no indictment. There had been a suspension of the repression, a brief moment of lucidity, during which the horror was contemplated. In those moments, there are no nuances. There are no spectrums of opinion; there is no gradual assessment. We are horrified, or we are not. It is a choice. It is fundamental to frame it as a choice, because for the first time, the general public – not lawyers, not activists, not officials-speaking-on-condition-of-anonymity – were in the know. There was an incomplete, yes, but sufficient glance at the truth. We can stare at it, as the APA did, 6 years after the first draft of the motion was submitted, and act on it, fight, struggle, and scratch beneath the surface; or we can turn away. We can pretend those practices were small moments between brackets of our collective history; a bygone footnote of a much bigger context.

The “Hooded Men”, with their legal team and Fr. Murray. Retrieved at the IrishPost, October 2015.

But if it needs repression to be worked out, it is much more important than a footnote. Repression is a tool that shapes one’s identity. The piece I quoted before imagines what a torturer on trial would face, a sort of crash course in psychoanalysis: “… If memory is malleable in one direction, obliterating what disturbs the subject, it is surely malleable in the opposite direction too.” And if the rule of action and reaction also applies to the human psyche – for a stone to roll on a plane surface, it needs a force to project its weight forward – that crucial moment in our collective memory has yet to happen. The catharsis we expected from the passing of the APA motion did not take place. The administration did not take note. The UN committee against torture continues to plead for acknowledgement, truth, accountability, reparations. Those are not symbolic; truth and accountability can begin a process of healing, and of returning to the roots of the absolute prohibition. There is still much we need to know. We need access to the medical files of Guantanamo detainees; we need the stories of those detained at Bagram; we need the memoranda of understanding between the CIA and collaborating countries to understand how the US persuaded member states to take part in the program, from simple material support – Ireland lending the Shannon airport airfield for refuel – to construction and maintenance of sites in Poland, Lithuania, Romania and many other places. Ben Emmerson called the rendition private a vast international conspiracy. How the Obama administration expects us to forgive and forget is just as unclear. Or maybe the expectations are so low in what our collective threshold of tolerance is, that it becomes acceptable to whitewash a crime of this magnitude.

As the countdown has started on the 30 days during which Congress can oppose the release of long time detainee and British national Shaker Aamer, the question of the motive for his prolonged incarceration – he was cleared for release twice, in 2007 and 2008 – rises again. It is unclear how much we will know about his medical history between his capture and his release, whether medical professionals in London will have access to to treat him, if he will be able or willing to speak. Andy Worthington, a journalist who has spearheaded the campaign for his release, has often pondered whether Aamer was the detainee who knew or saw too much. What this effectively means, we are still not sure. Aamer’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, warned us in an op-ed that a campaign of misinformation seeking to justify the treatment inflicted upon a man never charged with a crime and sold to US authorities by local warlords in Afghanistan would begin. We have a duty not to repress what we know of Shaker Aamer’s torture. We have a duty to resist and endure a debate that should last, no matter how nauseating the details and painful the recollections, until we have full accountability.

When the authors of the APA motion first contacted me, they mentioned my background: I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, under British counter terrorism policies that included the use of torture. It has been part of our small, local, contained history – or so we thought: the evolution of psychological torture, from Kubark to Belfast to Bagram, is now established as linear. On November 30, the judicial review for the case known as the “Hooded Men” will open in the city, and the battle for public versus withheld information will continue to rage. There is a responsibility that lies with those of us who have seen the future of a policy of impunity not to see it reemerge elsewhere.

And this responsibility isn’t rhetorical either.