This happened to me in 2004. I was about to distribute a book throughout Turkey, and I was proud of myself for having done all the groundwork. I had translated an important book from English into Turkish and published it myself. This book was “Combating Torture: A manual for judges and prosecutors.” It was written by Conor Foley and published by the University of Essex. Its Turkish version would have filled a huge gap in one of Turkey’s most problematic areas. Before engaging in this project I had applied for funding from the UK Embassy, and they generously funded the project. Everything seemed perfect. However, a disaster was awaiting me around the corner. When we were just about to start to distribute the books to judges and prosecutors, all these ugly photos from Abu Ghraib prison appeared in headlines. American soldiers were doing unimaginable things to Iraqi prisoners in this war that the British, too, were involved in. Overnight, in my mind, I had turned from a holy warrior for human rights into a poor accomplice of imperial crimes. I felt very ashamed. I delayed the distribution of the books for a long time.
I just remembered this while I was reading some news about scandalous and tragic incidents in the UK and the US.
On Wednesday The Guardian published a piece on the UK’s efforts over time to destroy its archives documenting its shameful past in overseas countries. The editorial, titled “Britain destroyed records of colonial crimes,” says that “Thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the final years of the British empire were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments.”
According to The Guardian this scandal came to light after a “group of Kenyans detained and allegedly tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion won the right to sue the British government.” The Foreign Office promised to release all documents, but most of them appeared to be destroyed quite systematically. I did not know that the UK had invested so much in denying its past.
While I was reading this piece in The Guardian, I also came across another story about a controversy in The Independent. According to this paper some Libyan soldiers are now suing the UK government and in particular former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw for his role in the rendition of dissidents to Libya, where they were tortured by Gaddafi’s men. If you want to read more details about it, the title is “Jack Straw faces legal action over allegations he personally approved rendition of Abdel Hakim Belhadj.”
While all this was going on in the UK, The New York Times also published a very sad, thought-provoking article by Nicholas Kristof titled “A Veteran’s Death, the Nation’s Shame.” The article opens with this statement: “Here’s a window into a tragedy within the American military: For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands.” And the article continues with these shocking lines: “More than 6,500 veteran suicides are logged every year -- more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began.” As soon as I read this piece I remembered Abu Ghraib. I instinctively drew a parallel between these mysteries and the tragic suicides and suffering American soldiers inflicted in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. It seemed to me that not only were victims in Iraq and other countries traumatized, but most probably these tragic events traumatized many American soldiers, too.
I not only wish that somehow these suicides would be prevented but also that the UK and the US would question their roles in the global order. I wish both the UK and the US would look at what kind of model they produce for other countries. I wish they would ask themselves if they behave in ways that other countries should follow when it comes to protecting and promoting human rights.