Which was the first country to be demonized
"Terrorism has become a fighting term to demonize the political opponent"
What is terrorism This question is at the core of the vote on the federal law on police measures against terrorism (PMT). The law, which will go to the polls on June 13th, has been sharply criticized from various quarters - from the Greens to the SP, the Green Liberals to the Auns. Massive criticism comes primarily from law professors, but also from international experts whose core area is the so-called "war on terror". The focus of criticism is the new, vague definition of terrorism.
The devil is in the detail, explains law professor and UN special rapporteur Nils Melzer his fundamental criticism of the law: In the passage "or with the distribution ...", for example, where a "and" should actually belong. Because where terrorism is decoupled from a serious crime, it enables the persecution of political opposition, political movements and the media.
"This definition of terrorism is used by authoritarian states to suppress the opposition," said Northern Irish law professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin in an interview with the republic, UN special rapporteur for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the fight against terrorism.
One of the most important lobbyists against the PMT in recent years was a man who was once in the middle of the storm of the so-called "war on terror" in Afghanistan and whose colleague was murdered by the Taliban: Patrick Walder, then a delegate to the International Committee of the Reds Kreuz (ICRC) and now campaign manager at Amnesty International. A man who in Kabul in 2003 was probably the first to find out about the secret CIA torture programs with his team - a discovery with far-reaching consequences that he spoke about for the first time with the republic.
"In fact, Switzerland has already expanded its anti-terrorism measures in recent years so that criminal law also covers the preventive area," says Patrick Walder. “Anyone who is a member of a terrorist group or supports it, who prepares an attack, who threatens with violence or posts videos of terrorist groups, can be arrested and convicted today. Several people are currently in prison in Switzerland for such crimes. " The PMT, on the other hand, which equips the Federal Police with far-reaching competencies, he sees as part of a worldwide dam breach since 9/11, where legal certainty is being increasingly undermined in the name of the fight against terrorism.
Patrick Walder, you were working in Afghanistan when one of your colleagues, ICRC delegate Ricardo Munguia, was ambushed by the Taliban in March 2003 and was deliberately executed. You have lost a colleague to terrorism - at the same time, as campaign leader of Amnesty International, you have been one of the most important lobbyists against the PMT law in recent years: the police measures to combat terrorism. A law that, as FDP Federal Councilor Karin Keller-Sutter claims, is supposed to make us safer against Islamist terrorism. Can you explain your attitude?
I have to go back a little.
Here you go.
Back then, while working in Afghanistan, we discovered a kind of system of secret prisons. Only later did it emerge that these were operated by the CIA. At the beginning, when we went to prison, we only realized that there were movements of prisoners. That people are hidden and moved before the ICRC visits the prisons. So that there were prisoners to whom the ICRC had no access. People who, as it later turned out, were kidnapped somewhere in the world, taken to Afghanistan, where they were kept away from everything, systematically tortured and ill-treated.
How did you find out about it in the first place?
The ICRC has the right to visit prisoners of war. The organization is mandated to do this via the Geneva Conventions. We visited Taliban fighters captured in Afghanistan, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that prisoners were being transferred from their cells to an undisclosed location prior to our visits.
How did you fix that?
I do not want to go into detail on this, but we have been able to determine with certainty that prisoners were hidden from the ICRC. We investigated this intensively with a team for a year and then wrote a report that the then ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger presented to the Americans in January 2004. He made a special trip to the USA for this and met with the heads of the US government. The then Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz from the Pentagon learned personally from Kellenberger what we knew about the secret prisons. I can only say what is publicly known today: Our investigation was the first intervention by the US government on this subject. And it is quoted in the so-called Feinstein Report, the US Senate's investigation report into the CIA's global torture program, which was published in 2014.
What kind of prisoners was it?
They were people of very different nationalities. What united them was a suspicion that they might have something to do with al-Qaeda. We were able to make a list of names, find out where they were detained, what it looked like in those secret places, approximately how many people were detained there, and how they were treated there. That there was systematic mistreatment and torture. And also that the places were obviously not under Afghan control, but under American control. It was the first indication of the CIA's involvement. We were also able to establish that there had to be a network of such secret locations, because some of these prisoners were transported back and forth across different continents. Prisoners who did not show up anywhere.
Are you talking about people you didn't even know were prisoners?
A lot is known about it today. But then we could only guess at all of these things. Because what was revealed here was something completely new: They weren't prisoners of war, but prisoners outside any legal system, especially because the CIA has no license to hold prisoners. We already knew about the US prisons in Bagram in Afghanistan and on Guantánamo in Cuba, which in itself was highly problematic because there were people imprisoned there who were never charged or convicted and some of them are still sitting there today. We looked into a black abyss. We discovered an underworld, a kind of forecourt to hell that nobody knew about, not even the heads of the American government at the time.
Who authorized the matter?
These are the stories you are trying to clear up. It was a CIA program that was apparently funded by then President George W. Bush. After the 9/11 attacks, the requirement was: You have to take off your velvet gloves now. We will now take all means, including brute force, against this terrorist threat. And in the process, many legal and moral boundaries were broken. Today we know: In these places that we discovered, people were subjected to the most severe torture. We know about waterboarding and that at least one person was tortured to death. It was a dramatic discovery that we made, and it was almost a year and a half before the ICRC received a response to our report from the US government.
What did that answer say?
I do not know that. The Feinstein Report states that our report had sparked heated discussion in the US government because they obviously knew they had a problem. The same year we were working on our report, ICRC delegate Ricardo Munguia was stopped at a Taliban checkpoint on a field trip north of Kandahar. They took him out of the car, his translators let them go, and executed him deliberately. Even though they knew who he was. It was another deliberate escalation in this conflict.
What do you mean: another targeted escalation?
If the Taliban attack ICRC delegates who are building well projects in villages, then it is clear to everyone: There are no more borders in this conflict. And the neutrality that we always insisted on is no longer respected. Both sides, the US and the Taliban, were convinced that they were good themselves and that they should fight evil, and that therefore everything was allowed. The ICRC in Kabul heard this from the American military: "This is a battle between good and evil: Either you are on our side or you are on the side of the enemy."
How do you see it
This is insane. The ICRC is a humanitarian organization that advocates the rules of martial law and the protection of the civilian population. For not torturing or shooting prisoners. The room for maneuver for organizations like the ICRC has clearly diminished during this period. The “war on terror” also led to the militarization of humanitarian aid: the American military flew aid teams with helicopters to areas that were unsafe. The ICRC rightly refuses to do this type of work because a neutral, humanitarian position requires a distance from military actors.
In Switzerland, the Council of States took2019 a motion that foreign terrorists can be repatriated, even if they face torture or the death penalty. A violation of international law. There seems to be a common belief that we can no longer afford human rights in this struggle.
The “war on terror” cannot of course be equated with the situation in Switzerland. But the principle is comparable. One begins to give up the rule of law. The standards have been massively relaxed over the past twenty years. Once you start to commit blatant injustice, you end up on a steep path where things escalate and violence is trivialized. If a little torture isn't enough, then you have to torture a little more. If the prisoner still holds up, then you just torture your wife. Both sides in the "war on terror" have found themselves on this sloping path, on which there is no stopping. After Afghanistan, in several countries where I have visited prisons and encountered torture or ill-treatment, I have heard the same thing over and over from those responsible: "If even the superpower lets the USA torture, what should we do?"
So the “war on terror” primarily achieved that violence was trivialized?
That is certainly a consequence of it. Another consequence was an escalation that ultimately shapes our politics to this day: the war in Iraq. The US government's 2003 attack on Iraq was based on allegations made under torture by a prisoner in a CIA prison. Foreign Minister Powell quoted these statements in his famous speech at the UN: Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and had worked with al-Qaeda. These statements were wrong, as we know today. You have been extorted from a Libyan prisoner in a secret prison using CIA torture. The lies fabricated under torture legitimized a new war. And we know the consequences of this war: a country in ruins. Hundreds of thousands dead. And finally, the emergence of a new terror group that has preoccupied us even more than al-Qaeda in recent years: the Islamic State.
So the “war on terror” did not make the world a safer place, but did the opposite?
I really cannot be accused of having sympathy for Islamist terrorists. The fact that one of my work colleagues was murdered while I was in Afghanistan hit and shook us extremely hard. At the same time it was an expression of a broken escalation on both sides, where no more resources were spared. We are caught in this escalation to this day, and it also explains my commitment to counterproductive and dangerous anti-terrorism policies. And also against the Federal Council's new police law. I find it incredible that this kind of security policy, which has been practiced for twenty years, is still seen as a success. It is obvious that this narrow focus on terrorism no longer enables political conflicts to be understood or resolved. If, after twenty years of the “war on terror”, one were to draw an honest balance, one would have to come to the conclusion: this war has failed, we have to focus differently.
Political violence and armed groups are well-known phenomena that have accompanied our history. You don't have to have any sympathy for the aims of an armed group at all, but you have to try to understand what the political concerns of those groups are. Anyone who does not want to understand this will not find any strategies for conflict resolution and management.
You consistently speak of political conflicts. But politicians quite consciously speak of terrorism. In Switzerland too, with the law that we will be voting on in June. This term alone suggests that it is not about goals, but about destruction.
Terrorism has degenerated into a term that means almost nothing anymore. Over the past twenty years the term has been expanded in many countries - and now also in Switzerland with the PMT. An extremely broad definition is to be introduced so that in future terrorism will no longer be tied to a violent crime in Switzerland either. This turns terrorism into a fighting term against political opposition. There are already many examples of this in other countries.
Can you name a few?
The terrorist charges in Turkey against several NGO employees, including the president and the head of the Turkish amnesty section, are particularly absurd and blatant. They were charged with supporting terrorism with absurd and fabricated allegations and imprisoned for months. Some of the proceedings continue to this day. Or a refugee worker in Hungary who was imprisoned for ten years for supporting terrorism. Refugee activists in England covered with terrorist lawsuits. Dozens of people are charged with terrorist propaganda in Spain, including people who staged a puppet theater where, in addition to the puppet and a policeman, an ETA member turned up. This shows that today's concept of terrorism has little to do with political violence.
What are the consequences?
Terrorism has become a battleground to demonize political opponents. To delegitimize him. You basically rob him of any authorization to have a concern. You no longer assign an agenda to your counterpart that might be justified. This depoliticizes it, demonizes it and reduces the conflict to a security problem that has to be resolved militarily or through the secret service. Conflict resolution strategies, on the other hand, are given far too little consideration.
This shift has now also arrived in Switzerland. With the “Police Measures to Fight Terrorism” (PMT), terrorism is also decoupled from a serious criminal offense - and legally enables the prosecution of political opposition, from political movements to journalists. The law has been severely criticized internationally. The UN special envoy Fionnuala Ní Aoláin saysthat Switzerland uses a vague definition of terrorism that is otherwise only known from authoritarian states. How could it possibly come this far?
The states obviously want to obtain more instruments for security, which is understandable. We all want to live in safe societies. The only question is whether these instruments are suitable for this. In the United States, after the assassination of George Floyd, in the face of mass protests, Donald Trump equated Antifa with terror. Above all, this demonstrated the government's complete refusal to deal with the motives for these protests. If you equate Antifa with terror, then that entitles the government to use massive violence against these protests. Such an approach is not suitable for creating more security.
But what happened in Switzerland that we are where we are? With an extremely broad concept of what a terrorist could be.
Ten years after 9/11, after ten years of a tough fight against terrorism, there was a wave of attacks that really got the problem of Islamist terror into Europe: the devastating and cruel attacks by the Islamic State in France. This was followed by a wave of new counter-terrorism measures and laws across Europe - including Switzerland, which until then had maintained a sensible policy. Up to now, the attempt to enforce political endeavors by force has been regarded as terror.In the new police law, however, the violence passage has been deleted. "Spreading fear and terror" with political intent is enough. Ultimately, this can affect everyone who is politically active. Climate activists and ETH professors in particular argue with fear and horror when it comes to climate policy. With this law, political movements are threatened with persecution as "terrorist threats". To this day, this has not been well received by the public.
One has the feeling that the constitutional states are throwing themselves up as a result of 9/11. That you undermine freedom. That every measure, no matter how far reaching, gets a majority: Those who have not done anything have nothing to fear. How do you see it
It is interesting that criminal offenses in Switzerland have been declining for years and we still have the feeling that we are living in great uncertainty. You have to ask yourself what that builds on. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the positive future narrative has wavered? That social security is missing? Or the safety of the environment? And then you project that onto hard security issues as a skipping act so that you don't have to ask yourself central questions. It is a fact that one can always make a name for oneself in politics with the call for more security: No matter how absurd a proposal is, more security always has the support of the general public and politics. There is practically nothing you can do wrong.
Where does it come from?
One can make politics well with fear. I am convinced that there is always a racist or at least xenophobic dimension to this topic: it is always clear who you are talking about when there is talk of a terrorist threat in Switzerland. One does not speak of right-wing extremist groups. One means the Islamist jihadists. Fundamentalists are always the others, the strangers. You yourself don't feel affected by these laws that you are introducing now. But the losers are all of us and the legal standards.
What do you mean?
In connection with other laws that have been introduced against terrorism, you know: you pass the laws and then you soon realize that there aren't that many terrorists in Switzerland. So you start to use the laws against other people. This is what is happening now, for example, with the Intelligence Service Act.
Can you do that?
The Intelligence Service Act came into force in 2017 and introduced very extensive surveillance measures in Switzerland, including mass surveillance and data retention. That was a radical break with Swiss tradition since the fishing scandal, after which the secret service had been tied back very closely. That has changed radically with the "war on terror". In order to make this possible, the Federal Council said: We only do this in the case of very important central threats to the state, in the case of terrorism, espionage, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Only then, it was said, would these surveillance measures requiring approval be possible at all. That was three years ago. Today the Federal Council is planning a revision of the Intelligence Service Act in order to be able to extend the measures requiring surveillance to include political extremism.
What does this expansion mean?
It is part of a breach of the dam that has been going on for twenty years that is putting all sorts of means into the hands of states that are increasingly beyond control. One speaks now of "violent extremism". The definition is wide open. If a bottle flies at a demonstration, is that enough for the intelligence service to spy on these people with the tools it has been given to combat terrorism? This is an extension that PMT says will never happen. It will not even need it here, because the vague definition of terrorism means that it is already firmly established in the law.
Another problem with the Police Act is that the indications of a possible danger to a person come from the intelligence services, which do not have to identify the sources to which they rely. This process seems emblematic of a development over the last twenty years: the states are becoming omnipotent, but are hardly accountable to anyone. When you discovered the CIA torture system twenty years ago - was anyone ever held accountable for it?
That is the tragic thing: there was no coming to terms with it, no justice. A defining moment was when Barack Obama became president in 2009. In his opening speech, he said: We are stopping the CIA program, but we will not look back, we will look forward. It was his decision not to deal with the issue of CIA and torture legally. Which is a dramatic mistake. Instead, Gina Haspel, who was directly responsible for such a secret prison and for the torture of prisoners, was later promoted to CIA director. On the other hand, the Trump administration put Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, on the sanctions list because it wants to solve the war crimes of the Americans in Afghanistan. Injustice is rewarded, and those who fight for education and accountability are persecuted. Then we end up with the case of Julian Assange: He is only in solitary confinement because he exposed US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
So no one is held accountable for these war crimes?
No. It is also shameful to see that American women failed to bring justice to the victims of 9/11 and their loved ones. The trials against those accused of the terrorist attacks have not yet resulted in a verdict.
It is an example of how much you got on the wrong track and failed. Proceedings are pending against these defendants in military courts in Guantánamo which do not meet the standards necessary for a fair trial and which can lead to the death penalty. The charges are based in part on confessions made under torture by the accused while under illegal CIA detention. This story is nothing short of scandalous. And in the end it is significant that, even after twenty years, it has not been possible to speak right on this path, to give satisfaction to the victims and to enable a deal.
When there is no longer any accountability, when everything is possible - how do you assess this erosion of human rights before our very eyes?
Human rights in Europe are still quite well protected with the European Convention on Human Rights and the associated Court of Justice. Incidentally, the Court of Justice also dealt with part of this torture story, the secret prisons in European countries such as Romania, in a very exemplary manner. But the US stance presents us with considerable problems of being accountable. We have to use every margin. In 2011, for example, the former US President George W. Bush wanted to take part in a conference in Geneva. Amnesty International has handed over a dossier to the Geneva Public Prosecutor's Office containing extensive evidence of George W. Bush's direct responsibility for war crimes, torture and the disappearance of prisoners. If Bush had entered the prosecution should have arrested him. He was no longer protected by diplomatic immunity. Bush canceled the trip at the last moment. And as far as I know, he has not traveled to Europe since. There are ways to hold people accountable for decades to come. This fight is important. And it can work. It takes time and persistence.
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