Torture, mass surveillance, and Dr Sheila Cassidy


Audacity to Believe, is Sheila Cassidy’s fine and moving memoir of her time as a young doctor working in Chile. During that time the US organised a bloody coup against the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, which brought to power the despotism of Margaret Thatcher’s close friend, General Augusto Pinochet.

Cassidy was herself caught up in the terror that Pinochet unleashed upon his own country. After having treated a wounded rebel she was betrayed, arrested and tortured.

Cassidy is forensic in detailing what happened next, and her descriptions are chilling. She describes two sessions of electric shock torture to the most sensitive areas of her body. In the first session she made up a story about who put her in contact with the rebel she treated. Having wrung this story from her she was dressed and put in a car with the secret police who took her to check out her story. Having found it a farrago of lies they brought her back, stripped her naked again and resumed the torture. This time she broke and told her torturers everything they wanted to know.

There is a common practical, as opposed to moral, objection to torture, which is that, as Cassidy attested, a person being tortured will tell their torturer anything to get the torture to stop. So it is difficult to know what is true, and what is false. However as Pinochet was under no existential threat after he seized power the cowards and rapists of his secret police had plenty of time to check the stories of their thousands of victims and bring them back to the torture chambers if the original stories proved false.

In war, or under the proverbial ticking bomb situation where time is of the essence, it is considerably less likely that torturers would have the luxury to test the accounts of each of their victims. At least until now.

In his book The Finish, about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, Mark Bowden provides some detail of how the information technology of US defence and intelligence services has advanced in the years since the slaughter of the 11th September attacks on the Twin Towers. The result of this is increased capacity for rapid analysis of data from mass surveillance and cross-checking of interrogations, including those obtained under torture. In other words we are moving into a world in which the intelligence and defence communities of the US, and much of NATO presumably, can render obsolete the practical objections to mass surveillance and torture.

 This is a distressing prospect for a number of reasons. As Mark Bowden has shown elsewhere, in his book Roadwork, the permitting of even limited provision for torture can lead to much wider acquiescence in it as a routine practice. This inevitably comes to ensnare the manifold innocent along with the fewer guilty, and can become a deep source of alienation from and resentment of the perpetrators. As the lessons of Abu Ghraib prison showed the violence of torture will inevitably give rise to the violence of insurrection, as torture not only corrodes the souls of the perpetrators and erodes any of their claims to moral superiority, but instills in its victims a burning desire for revenge.

We seem to be moving into a time when Orwell’s prediction of a permanent state of war is becoming true. In part this has arisen from a glib attitude amongst Western leaders towards war, an ignorance of the political contexts in which they have meddled and an abject failure to understand the political implications of the violence they have unleashed, which has included the incarceration, mistreatment and torture of thousands who have been swept up in these wars.

The erosion of practical constraints on torture increases the risk that in some future conflagration military and political leaders will be enticed by the promise of it delivering some easy tactical advantage. It is vital that they remember that one of the political implications of this form of violence is that it will sow dragon’s teeth that may blossom as armed men in years to come.

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Dictator, by Robert Harris

 Dictator is the final volume in Robert Harris’ fictionalised three-volume biography of Cicero, covering the years up to his death and with it that of the Roman Republic.

Cicero did have a biography written by his secretary Tiro, the inventor of one of the first systems of short-hand which still echoes into contemporary English, for example, e.g. Fortunately for Harris, that biography has been lost to history, so he has constructed his own trilogy as if it were Tiro’s biography of Cicero, with Tiro as narrator.

As with the previous two volumes of the trilogy, Imperium and Lustrum dealing with earlier phases in Cicero’s career, Dictator is a gripping political thriller, covering the period from Cicero’s exile to the downfall of the Republic with the establishment of the second triumvirate of Antony, Lepidus and Octavian.

 Contrary to Goldsworthy’s Caesar, or Massie’s fictionalised accounts of the period, with Harris Cicero is presented as a hero, albeit a flawed one, a proponent of rule of law against arbitrary and tyrannical rule in spite of personal threats and the moral cowardice of his contemporaries.

Unlike Goldsworthy who typically tries to explain his subjects in the contexts of their own time, Harris deliberately seeks parallels with the present. Here he presents a warning for a polity that disdains basic principles of rule of law.

But, Harris does not allow the vital political-philosophical points to interrupt the narrative, which is gripping, as Cicero with only logic and argument in the face of shocking violence seeks to maintain constitutional principles in the face of the vanity of warlords.

The result is a fine political thriller, with much to recommend it for the student of the ancient world.

The UK Modern Slavery Act and the continuing constraints on forced labour eradication

The first thing to say is that the Modern Slavery Act is a decent law with some very important provisions: the measures on victim protection, particularly of children, and the transparency in supply chain clause both represent significant steps forward in government understanding of and action on combating the realities of contemporary slavery.

Of course, as with any law or policy, particularly anti-slavery measures across the world, the challenge is in implementation. And this is where it gets difficult, because, of course, this law does not exist in isolation but in the wider context of national and international law and policy.

Slavery occurs at the conjunction of three factors: individual vulnerability, usually, but not exclusively as a result of poverty; social exclusion; and failure of rule of law. So it is a truism to say that anyone can be enslaved. Generally speaking those who are enslaved are poor people who come from communities that the wider society does not particularly like: Dalits and Adavasi in South Asia, for example, or migrants in Europe.

Understanding that, we see that the cataclysm of war that the West has exported to the Middle East has rendered millions more people, both in the camps and those who have made it to the shores of Europe, vulnerable to slavery. It matters not that the government has spent much of the summer disingenuously describing the phenomenon of refugee flight as trafficking. It is the failure of Europe to establish safe migration routes in the context of a coherent humanitarian and security policy that renders these people vulnerable to slavery, not those in Libya or Turkey who cynically rent or sell those refugees dangerous boats. And let me remind everyone, safe legal migration routes are strategies to prevent trafficking. It is lack of safe migration routes to the gulf states that presents us with the prospect of seeing the 2022 World Cup in Qatar brought to us by the enslavement of tens of thousands of South Asian migrant workers and the manslaughter of thousands more. Qatar front page

The risks are of course exacerbated by the rising tide of xenophobic rhetoric that is being bandied about in this country and in other parts of Europe. I may be idealistic but I still believe it is the duty of politicians to demonstrate moral courage in leadership, not to pander to the prejudices of the ignorant. That path leads only to rising tides of hatred which, in turn, make it easier for traffickers to enslave and exploit vulnerable migrant workers, secure in the knowledge that national political leaders in the countries in which traffickers operate have told their compatriots to resent and fear migrants as sources of all their woes.

And these are not the only obstacles that the effective national anti-slavery strategy in the UK faces.

domestic worker protestThere is of course the Overseas Domestic Worker visa which in remains a government-issued license for trafficking for domestic servitude to the UK.

Then there is limited labour inspection in the UK with the remit of the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority restricted to food and agriculture, with other risky industries such as construction, catering, cleaning, hospitality, care and, of course, and perhaps most seriously, domestic work, uninspected. Even with the guidance of the Modern Slavery Act it is difficult to see how the police can compensate for this lack of inspection, when, apart from a few outstanding specialist units, they lack a culture of slavery awareness.

And, even if they had one, it is difficult to see how they will fulfil all the anti-slavery expectations of the government given the prospect of eye-watering cuts to the police that we are being warned about.

The conflation of labour inspection and immigration patrols that is being mooted around the new UK Immigration bill threatens to worsen the situation even further. Such an arrangement would effectively break trust between potential victims of crime and the inspectors who, if the history of the UK Borders Agency involvement in anti-trafficking work is anything to go by, would prioritise the deportation of trafficking victims, who would also, by the way be witnesses to crime, over their recognition, protection and rehabilitation.

It is in this context that we should also understand the government’s antipathy to the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights. Nothing upsets the PR bandwagon like a judgement against a country for failure in its human rights obligations. In the past the UK has been held to account in the Court over its failures in anti-slavery law and policy, notably the case of CN versus the United Kingdom in 2012. Given some of the wrong-headedness of UK policy relating to slavery, even with the Modern Slavery Act on the statue books, I would anticipate it will be held to account again if it remains subject to its jurisdiction.

But while it may feel politically expedient to evade this possibility the UK pulling out of the Court will be a signal to other countries, with less robust institutions and shallower human rights traditions, that the UK, one of the moving forces behind the Council of Europe, itself a legacy of Winston Churchill’s vision, now regards key ideals of international rule of law as optional. In such a future mistaken, ill-advised, racist or just plain stupid government behaviour across Europe on the issue of slavery in particular, and human rights in general, could go unchecked if other countries follow the UK’s example.

The government will of course counter that a British Bill of Rights will provide proper protections, at least to people living here. But cuts to legal aid will make into a forlorn hope any recourse to the courts for remedy in the face of bureaucratic incompetence or official indifference.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights argue that businesses have the responsibility to respect human rights and that governments have the responsibility to protect them. It is of course difficult for business to respect the rights of workers if governments are not doing their job of protecting them. This was a matter that compelled UK businesses to seek the transparency in supply chain clause in the Act. I hope that the reports of businesses will not limit themselves to accounts of the management measures they have introduced in order to counter risks of trafficking in their supply chains. I hope the reports will also, as I have attempted to do here, enumerate the law and policy failings in the states in which they are working that increase risks of human trafficking. Because it is a fundamental truth of contemporary politics that the voice of business carries greater weight than that of conscience. With that great power comes a responsibility for business to use its voice to help set out the laws, policies and practices that are necessary to eliminate slavery in their supply chains and, ultimately, in the world.

This goes to the heart of the matter. The elimination of slavery is a political issue. It is not a simple criminal justice challenge or a matter that can be resolved by giving material things, like mosquito nets or vaccines, to people who don’t have things. Those who are enslaved are excluded from power in part so they can be enslaved. So in addition to the national and European issues of government policy and law that I have set out that are essential to effective anti-slavery practice domestically, there are a range of measures in diplomacy and international education, aid and trade policy that are necessary if the UK is to truly provide a leading voice in the struggle against slavery in the world today.

The Modern Slavery Act is an important measure and let me it is a tribute to the good work of Karen Bradley, the minister responsible for bringing this law into existence. I hope people of conscience in the government, in parliament and beyond will recognise this and work to build a more comprehensive anti-slavery system rather than dismantle the foundations that have barely been laid.

Which side are you on? Ending caste-based apartheid in South Asia to end poverty

Manual scavengers in South Asia are Dalits enslaved to clean up other people's shit

Manual scavengers in South Asia are Dalits enslaved to clean up other people’s shit

The issue of caste based discrimination is fundamental to the wider question of slavery eradication: it is technically true that anyone can be enslaved, particularly if they are caught up in the cataclysms of war. But that truism masks a more fundamental truth: that the weak who are subject to the prejudices of others are the ones who are vastly more at risk of enslavement: migrants in Western Europe and the Americas; women and children everywhere; Dalits and Adavasi in South Asia.

South Asian apartheid based on caste has provoked surprisingly little international fury over decades in comparison to the more infamous South African version. Both systems confer economic advantage to some based on the human rights abuses of millions of other human beings. But, in comparison to South African apartheid, the South Asian variety is considerably less renowned in significant part because it is less well understood. The ignorance of the rest of the world insulates it from the anger that it should provoke. And we in the North are rewarded for that ignorance with lucrative trade deals many involving forced labour using industries providing cheap goods and commodities to our high streets. For example it is still probable that everyone reading this in the global North is wearing at least one garment that has been tainted with the forced labour of Dalit and Adavasi girls and young women.

So it may be understandable why the bulk of citizens are ignorant of these issues and so have not raised their voices in protest at caste based apartheid in South Asia. But it is not excusable that development and anti-poverty organisations remain so circumspect. There are honourable exceptions of course such as Christian Aid and Action Aid, but the disinterest of the wider community is striking.

Brick kilns across northern India, Pakistan and Nepal enslave Dalit men, women and children to work in them

Brick kilns across northern India, Pakistan and Nepal enslave Dalit men, women and children to work in them

I would contend that the blissful ignorance of this issue that many anti-poverty and development organisations affect will prove less tolerable over the coming years. The Sustainable Development Goals, while not explicit on the issue of caste, are explicit in their recognition of the importance of inclusivity to achieve effective development and the need for slavery-eradication in order to obtain poverty reduction and a sustainable economy. National and international NGOs alike must recognise that both these Goals imply that poverty reduction is a political issue requiring fundamental changes in the contemporary status quo. As such they bump up against the prejudices and pretensions of the privileged, most significant the caste based prejudices of the elites of South Asia with the resultant consequences for hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people.

Unless we recognise these political dynamics at play in our contemporary world we will never grasp the sort of political pressures and processes that will be necessary to change the laws, policies and customs that are still used to subjugate others.

The Kafala system of the Arabian peninsula, which provides employers there the right to unilaterally change terms and conditions of employees, and prevents employees from changing employers or even returning home, is used to provide the legal basis for the enslavement of South Asian migrants. It positively rewards political elites who indulge their prejudices against South Asian migrant workers by enslaving them, including for the World Cup construction in Qatar. In South Asia itself the rule of law does not extend to hundreds of millions of Dalits and Adivasi and hence the powerful are able to enslave them with impunity.

Different political economic models are unappealing to the elites in these situations because they would involve treating those they disdain with decency and recognition of our common humanity.

So changing these political economies requires national and international political pressure. And yet Qatar and Dubai remain valued trading partners with Europe. And the United Kingdom so values its relationship with Saudi Arabia that it doesn’t allow its enthusiasm for the enslavement of migrant workers, its creation and sponsorship of DAESH, the Islamic State, its addiction to the decapitation of human beings, or its intent to crucify a child who protested in favour of democracy, to prevent it from supporting Saudi Arabia’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council. Though to be fair that is perhaps only the second most damaging thing the UK has done to the ideals of human rights and the principles of rule of law in recent years. Its declared intent to repudiate the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights brings an even more existential threat to the concept of international rule of law.

Furthermore the discussions of India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council seems untroubled by that country’s high toleration of caste-based violence, its shortcomings in relation to rule of law, and its paltry efforts to end slavery within its own borders or for its citizens overseas.

Dr Ambedkar

Dr Ambedkar

Dr Ambedkar noted that “History shows us that where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics. Vested interests have never been known to have willingly divested themselves unless there was sufficient force to compel them.
International repudiation was fundamental in bringing political change in South Africa. And yet when the present-day counterparts of Verweod and Voster attend the assemblies of the international institutions that were founded to uphold the principles of human rights and rule of law they are greeted with a warm embrace rather than a cold shoulder.

Since the days of Sparta the privileged have conspired to keep power out of the hands of the helots. That process continues to this day.

But it won’t continue forever. Brian Friel who died last week noted the inevitability of the mounting tide of resistance in his play Freedom of the City. In it a civil rights activist describes the process when ordinary people, the oppressed of a given society, decide enough is enough: “you know your children are caught in the same morass.[But] for the first time in your life you grumbled, and someone else grumbled, and someone else, and you heard each other, and became aware that there were hundreds, thousands, millions of us, all over the world, and in a vague groping way you were outraged.”

That process of outrage has already begun. The development community needs to decide which side it is on. Political leaders need to decide which side they are on. Technocratic responses to poverty, the attempt to transfer things to people who do not have things can never succeed if the reasons that people don’t have things in the first place is because they are prevented from having them by political systems constructed by the elites of their societies.

Instead hard political work is needed to confront the edifices of injustice that are meant to keep those on the bottom where those on top deign the should be. There is a need for a renewed focus on developing partnerships with civil society to empower alienated communities, conducting research and investigation to expose injustice and confront those responsible, begining dialogue and collaborations with trades unions, businesses as well as civil society that are necessary to shift power into the hands of those who have been excluded from power.

The struggle of the helots, the Dalits, the migrants, the outcasts continues. And, unless we properly understand that, irrespective of what we try to do or how we try to do it, we are fated to become part of that most accursed community in human history and society – the well-meaning.

The prospects and perils of quantification: Global Forced Labour Estimates and the Sustainable Development Goals

Symposium on Forced Labour Research, Sheffield University

8 Oct 2015

I don’t think it will be a surprise to anyone that since I was asked to speak here I’ve been thinking a lot about the number 42.

42 is, as Douglas Adams reminded us, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.

It is an absurd notion, but Adams was getting at an important point with his tales of Deep Thought in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. He was getting at that belief in large parts of the modern world that the only things that matter are the quantifiable ones. It’s part of the discourse that poverty reduction in general, and slavery eradication in particular, are technocratic challenges which merely require the rational thought of the clever and the largesse of the rich to fix.

But, of course most of the things that matter in life, the universe and everything cannot be quantified, or are things for which numbers are merely crude metaphors. How do you quantify love? Or the experience of watching a sunrise in the Ethiopian highlands or dolphins dancing off the coast of Angola? Or the pleasure of a fine wine and cake?

Or the level of contempt that one person can have for another human being that allows them to calmly contemplate working them to death?

Non-quantifiable questions about non-rational issues, are at the heart of the practice of slavery. In particular the questions of discrimination and the dehumanisation of other people are fundamental to slavery.

It is technically true that anyone can be enslaved, particularly if they are caught up in the cataclysms of war. But that truism masks a more fundamental truth: that the weak who are subject to the prejudices of others are the ones who are vastly more at risk of enslavement: Dalits and Adavasi in South Asia; migrants in Western Europe and the Americas; women and children everywhere.

So given the topic of this roundtable, my question is: how can one obtain insight into any of these issues with quantitative methods?

Of course there is a need to quantify the scale of slavery in the world, to help plan responses and assess progress. But knowing the numbers does not allow one to understand the reasons why people are enslaved nor how their enslavement may be ended.

Anyone who has done any reading in the social sciences will be aware of the sort of profound insight that quantitative methods can provide. But it needs particularly skilled and focused researchers gifted with exceptional acuity in the framing of questions. I suspect we may be some way off a sufficiently widespread understanding of the generalities of contemporary slavery and the specifics of its national and cultural manifestations before such research practice can come into its own.

So, as a general rule I would argue that, even though quantity has its own quality, increased qualitative research is more vitally required for the understanding of the root causes of slavery and the political and social remedies to the problems.

Qualitative and historical studies have shown us that effective anti-slavery action still requires the elimination of underlying discrimination practices and empowerment of those vulnerable to slavery. It has shown us the importance of provision of high quality and appropriate education to children vulnerable to slavery. It has shown us the importance of unionisation as a means to rebalance the power between exploited workers and employers. It has shown us how combinations of governmental cynicism and ineptitude contribute to the endangering of vulnerable workers both in their home countries and when they travel in search of decent work.

That is not to say the qualitative research is a silver bullet. In spite of much qualitative research, including that conducted by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group which Anti-Slavery leads, the British Conservative Government remains thoroughly convinced that the principle cause of slavery in the UK is evil organised criminal masterminds, and have proven remarkably resistant to the notions that their Overseas Domestic Worker visa, their lack of labour inspection within risky industries such as construction, and their police cuts have anything to do with the problem.

This brings me to another point. The ending of slavery is a political challenge. Or rather it is a bundle of national and international political challenges. And these political challenges bump up against the prejudices and pretensions of the privileged,, who since the days of Sparta have conspired to keep power out of the hands of the helots. Thus it is. Thus has it always been.

And, as with the British government’s notions of why there is slavery in the UK, these prejudices are deeply resistant to erosion by mere facts. Economic agency theory suggests that humans will always act to maximise their material benefit. But when Hamilton tried to establish a slavery-free economy in the US in the 1790s and when Lincoln tried compensated emancipation at the outset of his presidency, both failed to end slavery in spite of the economic benefits they promised to slave holders. The American Plantocracy were so wedded to their aristocratic privilege that their status gave them, they found it something that mere economic wealth could not compensate them for.

We see similar issues today when we carefully consider slavery across the world. In the Arabian peninsula the Kafala system provides the legal basis by which the elites can obtain economic benefit by indulging their prejudices against South Asian migrant workers by enslaving them. In South Asia the rule of law does not extend to the hundreds of millions of Dalits and Adivasi who live there and hence the powerful are able to enslave them with impunity. Different political economic models are unappealing to the elites in these situations because they would involve treating those they disdain with decency and recognition of our common humanity.

The increased complexity of the Sustainable Development Goals over the Millennium Goals, and their rooting in human rights standards hopefully will help us move on from that limited technocratic discourse.

This technocratic approach to slavery seems to me at the moment to be leading to a fixation upon a search for a menu of technical options which only require money to be plugged into in order to achieve change. Such an approach is chimeric. It can never replace the hard political work, the partnerships and community development, the research and investigations, the exposes and confrontations, the dialogue and collaborations, that is necessary to shift power into the hands of those who have been excluded from power.

In the end, I would suggest, that the visceral is as important as the rational: which side are you on? The struggle of the helots, the Dalits, the migrants, the outcasts continues. And, unless we properly understand that, irrespective of what we try to do or how we try to do it, we are fated to become part of that most accursed community in human history and society – the well-meaning.

The Cold Dish, by Craig Johnston (Walt Longmire #1)

Walt Longmire is a mess. Three years widowed, he lives out of cardboard boxes in the house he half-completed with his wife. And he is marking time until his term finishes in his job, sheriff of Absaroka County in Wyoming, Cheyenne Country.  

Fortunately for Walt, his friend Henry Standing Bear decides to take him in hand and help him get his life back together. This happens just as the body of a kid, Cody Pritchard, shows up dead, killed by a gunshot that could, maybe, have been the result of a hunting accident. But when the death is recognised as no hunting accident a further problem arises: the abundance of folk who had a motive to kill the wastrel, a convicted and unrepentant rapist of a young Cheyenne girl, who got away without serving much time because of his youth. Furthermore, as the Cheyenne girl in question is Henry’s niece, and the gunshot in question was one that only maybe half a dozen folk in Absaroka County, including Henry, could manage, Walt has to start considering, reluctantly, just how well he knows his friend.

The Cold Dish is about a lot of things, not just murder and investigation. It is about depression and ageing. It’s about the relationships between the Native American and settler communities in the West. It’s about friendship and spirituality. It’s about the legacies of the conquest of the Cheyenne and their dogged resistance. And its about revenge, the dish best served cold, or not served at all maybe.

Along with Walt and Henry the cast of characters in the book are particularly well drawn and there is great warmth and humour in the midst of the bitter winter vistas in which much of the action takes place. It is a potent combination of narrative, reflection and character that has made the Longmire series such a success. Once visited, it is difficult to imagine not wanting to return to Absaroka County.