2015, the year of exodus? A proportionality check

by Ask Foldspang Neve

The current refugee crisis did not start in 2015, nor will it end there. Rather, the singular case does little justice to describe the situation of the people around the world. People have obviously been fleeing from a number of conflicts for years, although they have been largely ignored. The long plight of people fleeing either too much political order, as in Eritrea, or too little, as in Somalia, Congo, and the Central African Republic, are examples. Yet it is often repeated that the number of refugees is now higher than anytime since the Balkan Wars in the 1990s – or even since World War Two, with the worsening of the war in Syria and the collapse of any resemblance of a state in Afghanistan being the two main contributors to the rise in numbers. Still, the 972,500 refugees who came to Europe in 2015 make up only 1.6 % of the at least 60m people forcibly displaced worldwide; and there were less than half as many people reaching Europe last year as there were refugees staying in Turkey.

What spurred the change in the level of attention citizens and governments in the West pay to the change was the appearance of refugees in Europe, where disunited governments who could reasonably have foreseen the currently unfolding events years ago claim that they were caught unaware. In reality, all Western governments were caught unaware of was the ability and determination of displaced people to make their way across state borders once their situation had become sufficiently hopeless. What mattered to European governments was not that people were fleeing; it was the direction they were fleeing in.

The myopia became crippling when Western governments failed to fund UN agencies doing one of the few things they are really successful at: responding to humanitarian crises outside of a political context. This forced the UN to halve its rations to refugees in Kenya and cut a third of its aid to Syrian refugees and to healthcare to internally displaced Iraqis. Stripped even of food and the most rudimentary medical attention, the cross-border exodus gained pace. While nation-building or even ending conflict remains firmly out of range of our social technology, providing food, shelter and basic sanitation and healthcare is not, and the price is small: the 500,000 refugees in Kenya cost less than $10m a month to feed, yet even this paltry sum was too much for increasingly inward-facing authorities in rich countries. (The same scenario also played out in the end of 2014, when a last-minute call for donations finally staved off cuts for refugees in Kenya for another half a year.)

Refugees and the population of Europe

Not a lot, if you ask the nationalists. Sources: UNHCR and EUROSTAT

In a debate that seems to have lost all proportionality – and is rapidly leading to political despair in Europe and the incapacitation of the Schengen agreement spurred by the demands of nativist and right-collectivist parties – a sense of proportions seems to be more important than ever. We should us remind ourselves that the cumulative number of refugees arriving in Europe by sea since 2013 is still only 1,305,630. That is the equivalent of less than a third of a per cent of the EU population of 508 million. And even if Europeans decided to foot the entirety of the bill for the ‘record-high’ funding appeal from the UN system for humanitarian aid for 2016, it would cost them only $19.9b, or 0.1 % of their GDP. In other words, if Europeans decide to let European unity be shattered by a few million refugees, it is entirely of their own choosing.

Torture and Guilt

By Ask Foldspang Neve

To the limited attention of the world outside New York City, Eric Garner was choked to death on July 17 of this year; he was suspected by police officers of the crime of selling ‘loosies’, single cigarettes, whereby he could have made a profit of several dollars. The case was not given wider attention until the common law system under whose jurisdiction Garner and his headsman found themselves, decided that immediate capital punishment without trial was not necessarily too harsh given the circumstances: Garner was, after all, standing while black (even if that same offence used to be punished only by arrest).

One should think that a legal system that defends without trial the immediate, violent death of a suspected loosie-dealer must have unfathomably harsh punishments in place for those responsible for those responsible for well-documented, systematic, organized, intentional torture and killing of prisoners?

Not so. The accused have already absolved themselves of any blame. This did not work well for the alleged cigarette-seller, but it does seem very likely that it will indeed be enough for the politicians and CIA leaders and operatives responsible for the American torture program. The defenses invoked so far have been mostly predictable, tired tropes: torture ‘saved American lives’, a fully unsubstantiated claim that rests on a counterfactual, the evidence about which the accused claim they have to keep to themselves; and, techniques such as waterboarding and “insects placed in a confinement box” did not constitute torture. (As if Orwell’s Winston would have reacted very differently in Room 101 had his phobia been about arthropods instead of rodents.)

CIA Confinement Box

The “confinement box”, as drawn by a survivor. (photo: hrw.org)

There is, of course, no good reason to think that a bureaucrat or a politician, any more than other person, is simply speaking in his or her own interest when asked to witness about the factuality and circumstances of a crime in which he or she is suspected to be involved.

Just as any other individual is entitled to state his or her case, so is a government official, especially one that has been accused of anything as terrible as being responsible for a program of systematically torturing prisoners placed under their supervision. The idea that the facts of a case can be interpreted differently, and that a defendant’s stating his or her case can change the perception of whoever is judging the case, is integral to our interpretation of justice.

Yet just as such a defense should not be discounted in virtue of being the defendant’s claim, so it should not be counted as anything more than a defense. Whether the facts are disputed or not and whether the defendant is in fact – in the eyes of the system of law in question – culpable or not, such testimony should always be considered biased toward the interest of the speaker.

This does not become less true simply because you are a CIA boss and get to publish your defense in a Wall Street Journal op-ed where you invoke in your defense that your work environment “felt like the classic “ticking time bomb” scenario—every single day.” Stressful working conditions are of course a factor to be considered in wrongdoing, but it would hardly exonerate somebody from a speeding ticket, much less the tormenting to death of a man chained naked to the walls of what its director called “a dungeon”. Moreover, if establishing the torture program really was the right thing to do, why do you even need to invoke that you were under a lot of stress?

In other words, just because a former vice-president who has all along been a vocal advocate of torture calls a report clearly incriminating him “a bunch of hooey”, it does not mean that we should necessarily be swayed by his eloquence.

The same goes for Dr James Mitchell, who as a psychologist trained to understand the human psyche put those insights to use as the contracted developer of the CIA’s torture program, when he agrees with said vice-president that the report on torture is a “load of hooey”.

James Mitchell

How power deals with guilt (photo: VICE News).


In fact, if we are in doubt about the verisimilitude of that statement, let us look at motives: Dr Mitchell and his partner, Dr Bruce Jessen, reaped rewards of $81m worth of contracts as the former Air Force psychologists sold their services to the CIA through a newly-established company.

As the New York Times reported back in 2009, the psychologists had no knowledge of either actual interrogations aimed at uncovering the truth, of Al Qaeda, or of Middle Eastern or Central Asian cultures. What they did know about was a variety of torture techniques employed on American POWs during the Korean and Vietnam wars, knowledge they had from dealing with returned, former prisoners. If they had listened to John McCain or any medical expertise on torture, they would also have known that torture is not efficient as a means of interrogation, but highly efficient as a means of terror and repression.

As for guilt, currently only power shields the perpetrators. A system of direct authority, such as in a military chain of command, exonerates neither the actual executioner nor the officer issuing the criminal order. Hence arguments, such as former (Obama-era) CIA director Leon Panetta’s, that say that assigning guilt would be unfair to CIA operatives who thought they acted under orders are misguided. It is the assigned-to-be torturer’s responsibility to back away from torturing, at the cost of his or her career if necessary. Most sensible souls should agree that even in the narrowest selfish terms, a career is not worth becoming a torturer for.

The same, of course, governs the mutual expectations of action that rests on economic incentives rather than on (or in addition to) traditional authority. Thus it does not help Mitchell at all to say that he was “”just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best that I could.”” That is an admission of guilt, not a defense.

(For progressives, it is hard not to be gleeful when reading in the same interview with the Guardian that Mitchell “also criticized Obama’s healthcare policy – a “shit sandwich” – and his administration’s approach to global warming. [He] believes it’s a myth.”

Yet taking down Bush-era policies was always easy, but inadequate: most CIA personnel are in intelligence as a vocation and have continued their careers under the current administration.)

This is important not only for the big fish such as the CIA directors, the torture entrepreneurs and the vice-president: as the Guardian reports, the tormenter responsible for the death of Gul Rahman ‘was recommended to receive a $2,500 cash bonus for his “consistently superior work”’, when, of course, he should have been charged with murder.

But apart from the truly applaudable fact that the open society struck back by publishing the report (something that would almost certainly never have happened in, say, Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Iran), maybe we are supposed to find consolation only in the fact that even torturers now have performance reviews and must see their jobs outsourced to freelancing hacks with dubious business plans to leech on the public purse.



The case against attacking Syria

By Ask Foldspang Neve

At the moment of this writing, American, British and French warships have already been deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean in large numbers. So have a record number of Russian vessels, monitoring the situation and giving the Russian leadership the widest range of options to act.

Last Monday, when US Secretary of State John Kerry gave his casus belli speech, which was later reinforced by the vice-president, and then the President himself, it was apparently preceded by the activation of his diplomatic phone tree. Suddenly, the leaders of all of the most interventionist Western states suddenly put a strike on Syria on their respective agendas. While it is not noteworthy in itself that the European states that live under American military protection are also keen to follow the American lead, it was surprising how the rather heterogeneous group of leaders all made almost synchronic and similarly worded statements to their public audiences.

None of these leaders thought that there was much reason to deliberate the newly inspired policy. Most must have hoped that the grizzly televised images of hapless Syrians killed by chemical weapons were enough of an argument. However, Kerry’s speech obviously not only covered what everybody believes: that using chemical weapons is a crime and a moral offense. It also accused the Syrian leader Bashar Assad of ordering the act, stating that the troubled dictator had incriminated himself by not allowing the UN inspector team onto the site  of crime until four days had passed and important evidence of the crime allegedly had been destroyed  afterwards.

Nato attacks on Libya. Source: Human Rights Watch

There is no right way to kill the innocent. Scene from Libya after a NATO airstrike, 2011 (Source: Human Rights Watch).

Apart from the fact that such evidence cannot easily be destroyed and will last for years, this is all well and good. However, following the same logic, it is hard not to argue that it is equally incriminating that the American policy right now is to defy the stated UN wish to carry out the inspections to the end. In other words, it cannot be true that Assad is deemed guilty because he delays the access of the inspectors, and that we are then not willing to wait the few days it would take the same inspectors to carry out their investigation. If the military option is really based on punishing whoever is guilty of using chemical weapons, surely it must be important to know who that was? And surely, if such proof really existed in any shape apart from that prior to the attack on Iraq, it would have been presented to the public to galvanize us into demand for action?

As of the time of publication, we simply do not know who committed these crimes. Just declaring that the culprit is the leader we like the least, and who is an ally of a prime geopolitical challenger, does not count for evidence; on the contrary, coming to that conclusion should lead to suspicion of any such evidence. Interventionists must carry the burden of proof; the default cannot be that missiles are fired or troops are deployed.

Moreover, the British concern for consulting the Security Council is an obvious sham. Since the war in Syria has important proxy aspects to it,  the Russians would never allow a military intervention against the Syrian regime, much less so before actual evidence of Assad’s guilt has been presented. After what Russia’s policy establishment consider a blunder on Libya, this defensive stance is only further legitimized internally. The hasty British Security Council consultation, which would have been technically much more appropriate after the verdict of the UN experts team had been made public, was thus a diplomatic gambit aimed at securing two things: Showing to the British public that Brits care about international law; and at the same time, that the United Nations is a failing institution incapable of solving real problems due to averse Russian and Chinese reactions.

There are, at least, two lessons we could have learned from the war we started in Iraq. Firstly, that having good reasons to believe that a dictator stockpiles or uses chemical weapons is not a good enough reason to actually go to war. Intelligence reports might be wrong from the beginning, or they might be used in biased or even knowingly wrongful manners by the leaders receiving it. The latter, of course, was what neoconservative politicians and thinkers did as a prelude to invading Iraq. So far, no clear evidence of Assad’s guilt worthy of public scrutiny has been displayed to the public. That should be a bare minimum before war is declared.

For all we know at the moment, the atrocities could have been committed by a rogue general, by one of the many jihadist rebel groups who do not refrain from beheading Syrian Christians and using child soldiers, or by a faction of the increasingly embattled and desperate Syrian National Council trying to force the West to intervene on its behalf. What we do know is that Assad would have very little incentive to use the chemical weapons now that he looks like he could be winning the conflict by traditional means. Given that president Obama bound himself politically to respond if chemical weapons were in fact employed, it must have seemed pretty obvious to the politically savvy Syrian strongman that the Americans would feel a need to respond to any such action.

Secondly, there is very little that we can hope to achieve by military intervention, even assuming that we knew Assad to be the perpetrator. As the New Yorker’s George Packer appropriately put it, we all ‘want to pound the shit out of him’ (if not for the chemical attacks, then for his blatant disregard for human lives in general), but at the same time, ‘firing cruise missiles at Damascus’ prevents nothing about the tragedy going on in Syria. As we should have realized about dictators by now, they have a sword hanging over their heads. This is also why they cannot step down; their very rule is also the only guarantee of their continued safety, and that of their families. So as Packer puts it, Assad is ‘a bloody dictator fighting for survival. He’s going to do whatever he has to do.’

What we do know from interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan is that military action short of permanent conquest and possible colonization (which can work if our desire is to create liberal institutions) is rather futile. Those, of course, would require us to compromise with our morals on an unprecedented scale, to mobilize a war effort much greater than those mobilized for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for us to stay in the subdued country indefinitely, none of which seem appealing to Western voters or leaders. With such concepts out of vogue, euphemisms abound. The ‘military intervention’ is a favorite. Changing the term we use for a phenomenon does not change the phenomenon underneath, however: a war is still a war, and all war is terrible.  Like in Libya, the scenario most similar to the present, the wrong people always get killed. Western missiles hitting Damascus, like those hitting Tripoli, will inevitably slay innocent Syrians, and if their deaths do not even have a realistic chance of changing the situation in Syria for the better or affecting the future calculations of cornered autocrats, then their blood will be on our hands.

Ask Foldspang Neve

Ask Foldspang Neve is currently pursuing his MA in political science at the University of Aarhus,  Denmark. He is writing on politics and religion from sociological and political science perspectives.