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Ahlam Chemlali is from Copenhagen, Denmark, where she works as a programme manager at DIGNITY – The Danish Institute against Torture. In her work and research she has dealt with torture, migration, human rights abuses, forced labour, etc. 
Mrs. Chemlali, you have been working for DIGNITY – the Danish Institute Against Torture, since 2011 and have been on more than 70 missions to document the use of torture and organized violence in countries such as Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Uganda, Kenya, the Philippines, Nepal, Tunisia, South Africa and Liberia. To what extent is there an overall rise in violence and dehumanization of people around the world? Why is there an overall tendency for people around the world to vote into power tough guys who broadcast the idea that they are strong politicians because they can apply repression?
Torture is still used in two-thirds of the world’s countries. These atrocities take place every day around the world. At the same time, we are seeing a rise in extreme far-right nationalism, not just in Europe, but across the globe. You have extreme far-right populist taking power in Brazil with Bolsonaro, Modi in India, Duterte in The Philippines, Orbán in Hungary, Salvini in Italy and of course, Trump who several times has turned a blind eye to Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. We are seeing the extreme right move from being outside the corridors of power to the center of power itself. And the global trend about this are alarming. Latest reports show that one-third of the world’s population lives in a backsliding democracy.
There are common traits or tendencies among these ‘strong-men’ or to be more accurate authoritarian leaders. One is projecting strength, often military strength, a grand display of force. Second is demonizing enemies, by identifying and even sometimes manufacturing a group that they perceive as a ‘menace to society’. To give an example, during Duterte’s “War on Drugs” I was working in The Philippines and talked with victims of violence in Bagong Silang, a poor urban area in Metropolitan Manila, severely hit by president Duterte’s bloody ‘War on Drugs’. I have been and worked in many countries, that are gripped by fear, violence and death. But what I experienced in the Philippines, felt like a new level of ruthlessness and brutality. Since President Rodrigo Duterte came to office in 2016, there have been more than 20,000 drug-related killings, many of them extra-judiciary. At that time, it was close to a 1,000 people a month. The police systematically targeted mostly poor and defenseless people across the country while planting “evidence”, recruiting paid killers, stealing from the people they killed and fabricating official incident reports. Death squads perpetrated thousands of extrajudicial killings of so-called ‘undesirables’, including street children as young as 12. Victims are overwhelmingly from the urban poor, in a campaign that could amount to crimes against humanity. The impunity that currently reigns has facilitated killing on a massive scale, hitting the poorest and most marginalized segments of the urban population. As one of the young guys from Bagong Silang I talked to said, “This is not a war on drugs, but a war on the poor.”
And surprisingly (or not) Duterte is applauded, especially by Trump, who has praised him openly. And both of them advocate for torture. Trump’s views on torture are extremely dangerous when coupled with his statements about vulnerable minorities. He has contributed to a reinforced dehumanizing enemy image of Muslims and immigrants in particular. Research shows that people are more likely to accept torture if they believe that the victim poses a threat. It is also important to understand that Trump’s statements not only deal with US domestic policy, it goes far beyond, and has global consequences when violating the laws of war and the prohibition of torture. Just as with free abortion, gender politics, and human rights, fundamental principles and international conventions are being violated that have consequences for millions worldwide.
Apart from dealing with torture and violence, you are also work on migration. We have recently marked the 18th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attack in the United States. It led to a wave of military interventions in the Middle East with hundreds of thousands of victims and millions seeking refuge in the region or in the EU. To what extent is it justified to use torture in prisons such as Guantanamo or Abu Gharib, claiming that the West protects itself from terrorists?
Torture is never justified. There are no exceptions to the international ban. If the goal is to destroy people, physically and mentally, then torture is extremely effective. Torture dehumanizes and demoralizes, and it is important to remember that torture not only has consequences for the victims of torture, but also affects the family and ultimately society.
We know from research that torture causes a very great fear of dying and dissociation, which means that the brain disconnects and that one cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality. At the same time, torture harms the short-term memory, and you will say anything to stop the torture. Then there is a huge amount of verification work that makes torture very ineffective as an interrogation method. The CIA itself documented this in the 2014 Torture Report, where conclusions were clear: Torture had not produced any viable information that the CIA could not have obtained through normal intelligence.
However since 2001, states have increasingly used torture as a tool. We have seen many examples of this – including the abuse of prisoners in Abu Gharib prison and Guantánamo base. Add to this the far more extensive and also ‘invisible’ torture perpetrated by police and intelligence agencies around the world in the name of counter-terrorism.
Torture is not only a frontal attack on the dignity of the individual, torture also creates a breeding ground for an uncertain and fragile world community. Today, 18 years later, the human costs of terror and counterterrorism are felt virtually everywhere in the world. And one of the victims is human rights.
Since 2015 the EU has been facing a so-called ‘migrant crisis’, which has lead to the rise of extreme right political parties and an increase of staff and budget of the European service for Border and Coast Guard – FRONTEX. One of the main reasons for the appearance of this crisis is Western, including European, intervention in e.g. Libya. What is the EU’s responsibility? To what extent does FRONTEX and European border countries bear responsibility for the many drownings in the Mediterranean Sea, or for the abuses of migrants who have stepped on European soil and to what extent are these border states right when they say that their burden must be shared by the other countries in the EU?
Frontex is currently the main agent in the context of externalized border control. We know for a fact that our EU institutions are rewarding authoritarian and autocratic regimes and outsourcing security work to militias, security services, and smuggling networks that detain migrants who are then subjected to torture, abuse, and brutal violence. Abuse is committed by security forces in Libya, which are supported by EU security budgets. As EU citizens, we cannot escape our responsibilities. Because even if it is not us who work the wall, it is us who pay it, and we should, as an absolute minimum, demand that migrants do not risk death, torture, violence and slavery on our and EU taxpayers’ behalf.
In the new European Commission there will be a commissioner on the “European way of life”, which is a curious way for describing that he deals with migration and employment.
Yes, it is very curious. I think it is a very poor and dangerous choice, which only strengthens the extreme far-right. Marine Le Pen even called it an ‘ideological victory’.
In a similar way to Italy and Spain, with regard to African migrants, Bulgaria and Greece are sensitive to migrant flows from Turkey. In 2016 the EU and Turkey signed an agreement which grants the EU the right to return any migrant who doesn’t receive the status of a refuge, and will pay Turkey for activities related to hosting Syrian refugees. But recently the Turkish president Recep Erdogan has again threatened to open the gates for migrants to enter Europe and there has been an increase in migrant flows to Greece. What’s your view of the EU’s migrant deal with Turkey? At the same time, Italy and the EU are thinking of making a similar deal with Libya, what are your thoughts on that?
I think it is a very problematic deal. A new potential ‘Turkey model’ for Libya has been negotiated. From my missions to Libya and the neighboring countries Tunisia and Egypt, it is very clear that the conditions that meet migrants are, to say the least, critical. There have been numerous descriptions and examples of systematic violence, abuse, exploitation, forced labor and trafficking, as well as cruel conditions in migrant detention camps across the Tunisian-Libyan border. These are terrible conditions, but all this still pales in comparison to the situation inside Libya. There have been reports on inhumane conditions where migrants and refugees are held as slaves, killings and rapes by guards and militiamen without legal consequences. The prisons and detention camps are so extremely crowded that migrants and refugees are thrown into zoos, as well as other unofficial camps run by militant criminal groups.
Oxfam recently published a report based on interviews with 258 refugees and migrants who have traveled through Libya. All but one of the women interviewed had been subjected to sexual violence. 74 percent witnessed torture or murder. 80 percent had been denied water or food. All studies and reports document the same. It is brutal and a humanitarian disaster, what is going on in Libya. So that the EU defends a possible ‘Turkey agreement’ with Libya is not only unrealistic and short-sighted, but transcends all moral, ethical and justifiable boundaries. The EU has to realize that Libyan detention camps are dangerously overcrowded and that the extent of migrant suffering, including random incarceration, torture, murder and sexual abuse, underscores that Libya can in no way be considered a safe country to return to or be stuck in.
We are witnessing yet again, nothing but a hypocritical migration policy. The plan is solely to close the ‘back door’. Nothing about creating safe routes, harm reduction or addressing the underlying root causes. It seems hollow when the EU prides itself on respecting and upholding human rights, but instead, consistently practices the ‘out of sight – out of mind’ principle.
Photo: Ahlam Chemlali (source: Ahlam Chemlali)
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