Heard Episode 113? Then you’ll know this is the bonus episode with extra chat with the fascinating Steve Crawshaw (@stevecrawshaw) about his work at Freedom From Torture (@freedomfromtorture), the UK’s involvement in torture and rendition after 9/11 and aiding survivors of torture. You can find out more about Freedom From Torture and the good work they do at their website www.freedomfromtorture.org
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Tiernan Douieb: So, as well as writing books about global protests and their effectiveness, you also are Policy and Advocacy Director for Freedom from Torture. Can you tell me a little bit about what Freedom from Torture do, obviously a bit’s in the name, and what your aims are?
Steve Crawshaw: Well, since I work there, you won’t be surprised to hear me say they do amazing stuff, but I can say that also since I arrived so recently, I joined early this year. I worked previously for Human Rights Watch and then for Amnesty International, and I knew the organisation from afar but I didn’t know it from inside. I have to say it was truly inspiring to have got to know the work better of what we do. So, Freedom from Torture, as you say, it’s kind of all in the name in many ways, it used to be called the Medical Foundation for Care of Victims from Torture, which was a bit of a mouthful, but was also, in many respects, an accurate description of the core of the organisation’s work, which is helping to rebuild people’s lives who have gone through the unthinkable of being tortured, which of course is not just horrific in the moment but has knock-on effects for years to come. Torturers seek to silence people, to break people, and what Freedom from Torture is doing is rebuilding those lives, so we have a large number of doctors or therapists with people working on the legal and welfare stuff helping people to rebuild their lives. That’s a large chunk of the organisation’s work. My work as Policy and Advocacy Director is, if you like, the other plank of that, it’s the influencing work, how do we make change? That’s on two levels, on the one hand it’s being part of the global anti-torture movement, saying, ‘Enough is enough, this cannot happen and this is why.’ I mean, the rules are obviously in place already so that’s not the question, but people couldn’t continue to do these terrible things. We now have a US president himself who says torture absolutely works, which, well you can only put your head in your hands at the depressing indications of that, not just for the US but globally that green light. So, on the one hand you have confronting the torture that’s happening, trying to stop it happening, and then also trying to get the UK government to be more humane simply in its approach to torture survivors, giving them what they need and, above all, not putting them on planes back to places where they are likely to be tortured. Part of it is just doing lobbying work, I’ve been working in parliament or elsewhere, but also documenting in unbelievable forensic detail. I mean, I felt pretty proud of what was put together at Amnesty or Human Rights Watch where you checked and you double checked and you quadruple checked, way more checks than my own work as a journalist was ever subjected to even though we were reckoned to have quite high standards at the paper where I was working on that. Organisations will have high standards but Freedom from Torture was basically dealing with forensic medical legal reports, which is what it sounds like of putting together both the medical and the legal implications of what a person has gone through, and we used that to say, ‘Okay, so this is how serious the problem is in this place.’ In Sri Lanka, for example, we had significant impact, stopping people being put back on planes to Sri Lanka where it was clear they were likely to be tortured if they were. The British government was in denial about that and we made enough noise that that stopped happening. We’ve got some upcoming work in Sri Lanka but also in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, where again the same thing, we have truly horrific testimonies that are more than just testimonies, they’re forensically checked. Again, what’s really heartening is to see them genuinely have an impact there. The Home Office, I’m glad to say, did actually listen to us on what was happening there so their guidance to the tribunals who will be looking at who can be sent back or who can’t (?) was in the work of Freedom from Torture. To cut a long story short, it’s helping individuals rebuild, the hundreds of thousands have come through our doors and we do whatever we can to help that. Crucially, which I think is pretty much unique, although it’s now set the pattern elsewhere, working with torture survivors are part of the survivor-lead activism. So, the survivor voices are themselves driving a lot of the work that we do, what do survivors think most needs to happen? In the report we’re working on now on Congo, survivors’ voices will be a crucial part of that of this is what we think ought to be happening. So, helping people rebuild, making the change and working with survivors for the changes that we’re making.
TD: We’ve just had this report about the UK involved in torture and rendition after 9/11 and how it was a lot more than previously thought. I sometimes think quite naively, ‘Oh, we don’t do that here,’ or, ‘We’re not involved in that here.’ There was a point in the early 2000s when obviously with 9/11 and Iraq that we were hearing about it more, it was being glorified on television with shows like 24 and things, but in my mind it felt like we’d moved past that in the western world, but then we’ve had Trump saying that torture absolutely works. We’ve now had this report that the UK were quite heavily involved in it. Is it still very prevalent in our society?
SC: I think we turn a blind eye is prevalent. You’re quite right, we have this weird self-deception that I guess we’ve all practiced in the past about ‘oh, my country wouldn’t do that’. There was a brilliant book published several years ago by a journalist called Ian Cobain, a Guardian journalist called Ian Cobain, called Cruel Britannia, which documented the history going back of colonial Britain and Kenya and other places, and like, ‘Wow, this is what we did and this is how we covered it up?’ It wasn’t just the practice of it but the very deliberate cover up on incredible practices of torture. In France and Algeria there was a story recently that was really heartening to see, finally President Macron has apologised slightly for the horrific torture that was committed by French forces in Algeria. One of the stories in my book in Street Spirit is about a French general from then who dared to speak out against torture and himself kind of got punished at the time. Now I’m glad to say that streets have been named after him, so many decades later people are recognised. Going back to what you’re saying, it’s interesting. So, that curve has gone in both directions. We had the UN convention against torture, which came in the second half of the 20th century and that seemed to nail things down and that’s great, it’s why everyone could stand up and say, ‘Yes, this is what needs to change.’ We then had after 9/11 George W. Bush who softened the rules. He denied it was torture, it was called ‘enhanced interrogation’, but it was torture, absolutely waterboarding has always been recognised as one of the most dreadful things of torture. Gradually the revulsion of that was pretty much worldwide and it seemed to have consequences with one brief moment of hope that Obama might actually be pursuing prosecutions on that but he bottled it, I think it’s fair to say. Perhaps one of the consequences of that was Trump who dares to his grandiose way, as you say, that torture absolutely works, it’s his line and he just puffs himself up and says, ‘Yeah, that’s great, let’s do it.’ It doesn’t necessarily mean the Americans are doing it, I have to say, but it clearly opens the door for those possibilities for others. Then, in the British context it’s really interesting. So, Britain, as we all know, was eager to be in bed with the US in the Bush era. We knew a bit about the complexity of Britain in the US rendition programme, and more and more there were flat denials. I mean, I was yelled at, and many others working for human rights advocates at that time, for even daring to suggest what we couldn’t quite prove but kind of half knew there were these secret prisons that the US had in Poland, in Lithuania and elsewhere where terrible things were happening. All of that came out very gradually and there was no desire for real accountability. Then we had glimmers of positive stuff, there was enquiry (?) prosecutions, this is in Britain to do with people from the Bush-Blair era. Then where was very recently, this year, came out a report of the Intelligence and Security Committee chaired by Dominic Grieve, the leading Conservative, which was absolutely searing on the failures and the extent of that. The British security services basically being in bed with the torturers in so many different ways. It was a very powerful report, actually a couple of reports about what had happened and where we go. That report also said, ‘We haven’t been able to interview some of the people we’d like to, we’ve been blocked in these kinds of ways and more needs to be done.’ We hear from powerful people from all parties. To take one example, Kenneth Clarke the former Justice Minister, a leading Conservative, and spoken out very, very strongly for the need of a judge-lead enquiry, in other words something that could really get to the bottom of these things with the implication that things won’t happen again. Theresa May said she was going to come back with an answer on whether they were doing the enquiry. I can’t remember how long exactly when it was now but basically we’re long since passed that deadline, we’re now a month or more beyond that deadline. She still hasn’t announced, and what it seems to be is that she is torn between morally she must know what’s the right thing to go but MI6 and others are presumably, MI5 and MI6 and others, are presumably putting pressure saying, ‘Don’t open up the can of worms.’ So, that’s the kind of thing. Going back to the conversation that we had about protests and what it can achieve, that’s the kind of thing where we really need voices to be heard saying, ‘We need to have this enquiry into what the British government actually did.’ We’re seeing Theresa May is fighting a different government, of course, it wasn’t her government, but the fact that she’s still frightened of opening up that can of worms is just the kind of thing where pressure is really needed. If you don’t have that enquiry, you’re kind of sending a signal in some way that it’s not quite as bad as we think and let bygones be bygones, and that, I think, would be the worst possible outcome.
TD: Like you mentioned earlier, the inaction means that you’re implicit.
SC: That’s right.
TD: If there was an enquiry and it came out our involvement was quite heavy, surely that would have implications on what you were mentioning earlier of the UK’s current treatment of survivors of torture and the way in which they’re often sent back to the countries where they’re still threatened. I’m guessing that would have lasting implications on those policies as well.
SC: British government always claims and always has claimed to be completely against torture, that it hates it and in certain narrow elements of that it has genuinely played an important role in ensuring that the global fight against torture happens. What you see are different faces at different times. I think you’re quite right that if you soften on one thing then it implies a potential refusal to acknowledge the pain of torture, which can also have implications as well. I think we’re seeing above all with the torture survivors being sent back is the continued knock on, the phrase is now discredited, but the hostile climate, which of course the British government boasted about. Theresa May as Home Secretary boasted about when it was first being used, ‘We will have our hostile climate.’ That hostile climate has played out dramatically for torture survivors, and others, but including the torture survivors in past years. It was really interesting, Sajid Javid as the new Home Secretary, that when he came in and was addressing the Windrush scandal, which in a different kind of way was impacted by the hostile climate that we’d seen, and basically, if you like, refusing to believe a person’s own life story. That was really interesting, I’ll tell you this is where I came from, how I arrived and when I arrived, ‘No, you haven’t got the right paperwork,’ they’re saying and deport people back to the Caribbean or whatever. In different kinds of ways, we’re seeing that with torture survivors. So Sajid Javid said, ‘We must not let this happen to any other group of people,’ and Freedom from Torture and a large number of others, we wrote to the Home Secretary to say, ‘Excuse me but this happening to other groups of people already.’ It’s absolutely happening to torture survivors and other groups that we’re with, faith groups, LGBT groups, all of these together saying, ‘Actually, you’re doing this,’ I hate to use the word ‘demonising’ because in their minds they’re not doing the demonising, what they are doing is refusing to believe the credible and documented stories of people’s own lives. They’re saying, ‘No, no, it’s not really like that,’ and then they will also refuse to accept the documented risk that it’s happening in the country where they’re trying to send people back to. So, partly you’re quite right, the idea of even the softest tolerance for torture may somehow mean that you’ve got less sympathy for the torture survivor but I think, in parallel to that, because they would claim to have sympathy for a torture survivor, in parallel to that is more that the lingering impact of the hostile environment, which we really need to end.
TD: A very important question, how can listeners help with Freedom from Torture’s campaign?
SC: We need all the support we possibly can. One of the reasons we can be strong is because we have an incredibly energised and vibrant community. There’s of course the plain (?) stuff, the funds are what enable us to do the work of both rebuilding those lives and also be influencing work, but also the voices of making change. So, the website is freedomfromtorture.org, and a number of the campaigns that we have there, so we are active on the (?) against torture, one of the very big campaigns that we have is in connection with the vulnerability of detainees. A torture survivor who’s already suffered so much and has been so traumatised, including in custody, and then you re-lock them up and you re-traumatise the person who is seeking safety in this country and who believes in (?) and they end up being re-traumatised by being locked up. So, we’ve had key people speaking out, Steven Shaw has written and made recommendations at the government’s request on the conditions for vulnerable detainees and what should be happening. He’s been very critical and we at Freedom from Torture are highly critical of what’s been happening, so there are a couple of campaigns on that. Our voice matters, we’re going in, we’re talking to ministers, we’re talking to officials, we’re trying to make this happen, we’re making noise in the media, but the bottom line is that actually this is just the kind of case of where we have people speaking out and joining out campaigns and those kinds of things, we know that we can make change. As you and I discussed in the conversation all about protest and where that goes, I’ve seen so many occasions in my life where protest and people have said, ‘It won’t change anything,’ but actually it really does change things, and that’s true in the most brutal context and it’s true at home with our (?). So, yes, if people can go and look at the website, see the different things we can do and support us in whatever ways can be done for making sure that torture survivors are enabled to get their own lives back, I think I can put it like that. Here are the people who have done these terrible things to them, have basically sought both to silence them and to remove their lives from them basically. Even those who remain alive, their souls will have gone, and we can push back against that but we do need governments to understand the humanity imperative of allowing those people to rebuild their lives after the terrible things they’ve been through.
TD: That’s all been very fascinating, thank you. I just wanted to ask you one last question, which is a thing that I ask everybody that we have on this show in an effort to expand people’s resources and knowledge. Apart from yourself, your books and your writing obviously, the Freedom from Torture site and the information there, who else could you recommend that listeners follow or read or look out for on both issues of effective protest and also on the issues of torture?
SC: So, yes, on protest, obviously there are lots of different things. I was intrigued by a Serb activist who I mentioned, Srda Popović, who wrote a book called The Blueprint for Revolution, and that’s a frontline description of things and that’s also a description of hope, of what hope can really achieve. There’s another funny and interesting book, although slightly sociological, about why civil resistance works, it’s really interesting with bunches of statistics where things go. On torture, a book I mentioned by Ian Cobain, Cruel Britannia, I think is a real wake-up call for anybody who upholds torture, and I hope that’s all of us, but it’s very, very shocking to learn some of the details in that, it really is, it makes you think. I suppose the second one I might go for, Freedom from Torture is doing this work on Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that is close to my own heart. One of the most powerful political books that I’ve ever read really of understanding colonial legacies is a brilliant book by Adam Hochschild which is called King Leopold’s Ghost, and that describes the truly horrendous crimes committed by the colonial power, by Belgium, and then (?) in the 19th century, since the 20th century, and how that colonial poison is seen today. The torture committed by the colonial authorities, you can see how it feeds through more than 100 years later into the terrible torture that’s happening in Congo today. So, it’s a powerful read, it may sound like a really dark read, which in a sense it is, but actually it’s a gripping read about an extraordinary and fascinating place.