Disappearing Act: The Struggle for Transparency and Humanity in Detention, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Aug

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He didn’t worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him. He was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.  Neil Gaiman,

The system does everything within its power to sever any physical or emotional links you have to anyone in the outside world. They want your children to grow up without ever knowing you. They want your spouse to forget your face and start a new life. They want you to sit alone, grieving, in a concrete box, unable even to say your last farewell at a parent’s funeral.  Damien Echols

Locks didn’t cure; they strangled.  Scott Westerfeld

God’s creatures who cried themselves to sleep stirred to cry again.  Thomas Harris

They keep us in our cells for a long time…  And, if we get out, we lug them with us on our shoulders;  Like a porter with a chest of goods.  Visar Zhiti

For me, one of the most compelling image from this often-dismal week belonged to a child in Mississippi whose father had just been arrested (with hundreds of others) by  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a child now seen crying in front of the cameras with little or nothing to reassure or comfort her, no promises that the cruelly-abrupt, information-starved distance between this child and the father on whom the quality of her life largely depends will not grow ever-longer.

This is how it is in too many places around the world.  People locked away without charges, without contact with loved ones, without anyone to defend their interests when they are brutalized, ostensibly for inconveniencing in some political or security sense the entities and their guards into whose hands they have now been forcefully committed.

The sad fact remains that in too many parts of the world, “criminal justice” is a system which refuses to scrutinize  its own conduct, which refuses to abide by its own principles, including principles governing humane treatment.  It is bad enough to arrest and detain arbitrarily.  It is another thing to prevent any thread of connection that can preserve a glimmer of hope for families and friends that their loved one will eventually be released with some measure of physical and emotional health intact.

The states that detain arbitrarily are as unlikely to concern themselves about the health and well-being of those released from prison as they were likely not concerned about their health and well-being while in detention. Indeed, it is to the benefit of unscrupulous governments that the often-grave damage lingering from forcible detention be plainly visible as a warning to the citizens beyond prison doors – all with whom the formerly abused comes in contact — that they need to watch their step, watch their words; that the psychic “strangulation” they now behold came from a facility that could easily enough have their own names engraved over a prison door.

This week the UN Security Council took up the matter of arbitrary detention and disappearances in Syria, a raucous discussion at times (including several heated exchanges between the UK and Syrian Ambassadors) that featured testimony from two Syrian activists who took umbrage at the failure of the Council to take a firm and united stand and end the suffering of those arbitrarily detained and abused during this 9 year conflict.  But these women also highlighted the suffering of the families who have endured the equally-long pain of official silence, of not knowing what is happening to loved ones, where they are being held, how they are being treated, how long their isolation might continue.  Information, even if it only references the remains of persons who have “left this world” without a fair trial, even that would provide families some small comfort.

For we human beings — faced with a cruel information void such as this — can often and easily imagine the worst.  In cases like those described in Syria, with practices such as torture and disappearances experiencing a resurgence in some regions, such vivid and horrifying imagining comes much too easily.  One can only guess what that Mississippi girl must now fear in her deepest parts, for herself and her own future, but also for her perhaps permanently absented father.

As many of you who peruse this space know, we maintain a close affiliation with the Paris-based organization FIACAT, in part because of its faith-base, in part because of its strong connections to the protection of human rights in Burundi and across Africa, and in part because they keep focus on what used to be at the core of human rights concerns – torture, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances — abuses that place individuals in mortal jeopardy, families in unrelenting sorrow, and communities in perpetual fear.

As the UN’s human rights mechanisms have grown more sophisticated, if not always more effective, and as the “menu” of human rights obligations and concerns expands in important ways, it is perhaps a bit easier to overlook the detention-related damage that continues to be inflicted by abusive states and officials in many parts of the world, states that seem to have forgotten their obligation to ensure that criminal justice embodies transparency of process, respect for both prisoner rights and information for loved ones, and in the best of all worlds a practical commitment to restoration more than punishment.

This “forgetting” is a stain on Syria’s government to be sure, and we welcome the Secretary-General’s commitment to a process of inquiry which will hopefully obtain the access needed to expose, remediate and eventually even prosecute and begin healing for the conditions and perpetrators highlighted this past week by the Syrian women.

But Syria is not at all our only problem; its prisons are not our only scourge.  At the UN this week during an event on “Peace and the Brain,” an NYU Psychology Professor noted that the times require firm commitments to adaptation as well as to ensuring that the darker sides of “consciousness” are held at bay.   Species like ours with “voracious appetites,” he noted, including the appetite to abuse, might well not survive this current “extinction moment.”  A youth speaker at the same event took up a similar theme, underscoring  the relationship between “human greed and social disorder.”

Where abuses such as disappearances reign, where “yesterday has already brought” some of the worst pain and isolation humans are capable of inflicting, we must all continue to push for access, information, rights and justice.  But we must also save some of our focus for the long-term psychic impacts of our appetites to abuse and disappear – the trust that continually eludes our grasp, the access to services we cannot promptly secure, the scars from cells that prisoners display long after their release, the tears of now-abandoned young children for whom sleep offers only temporary relief.

Nelson Mandela once quipped that we cannot truly know a society until we have been in its prisons.   In too many parts of our world, that narrative remains needlessly ugly, needlessly distanced from our better selves. We seem driven now to dig a deeper hole than we collectively have the skill and capacity to extricate ourselves.

It’s past time to put away that shovel.

 

 

 

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