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I faced worse mental torture compared to the intelligence prisons in Iran. We have been under severe mental torture for three years. We see it clearly and exactly: there is no way behind—to return is a torture—and there is nothing in front of us but hell. There is no hope, there is no future.

—Ariobarzan, Manus Island detainee, quoted in They Cannot Take the Sky

The Rapporteur concludes that the Government of Australia, by failing to amend the provisions of the two bills to comply with the State’s obligations under international human rights law, particularly with regard to the rights of migrants, and asylum seekers, including children, has violated the rights of migrants and asylum seekers to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment…

—Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez

‘Can a great nation, liberal by tradition, allow its institutions, its army, and its system of justice to degenerate over the span of a few years as a result of the use of torture, and by its concealment and deception of such a vital issue call the whole Western conception of human dignity and the rights of the individual into question?’ So begins Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s classic study of the Algerian War, Torture: Cancer of Democracy (1963). For Vidal-Naquet, the horrors committed by French troops in Algeria were transplanted back into French society once the war was over in very material ways: the techniques once reserved for use in the colonies began to be employed by the gendarmerie and prison guards in ‘civilised’ Europe—in the nation that gave us the Enlightenment, no less. These were symptoms of a state, he argued, that had lost its moral authority. But writing just one year after the end of the war, Vidal-Naquet could only guess at the path this would lead France down.

He was pessimistic, but with a single footnote about an incident in 1962, one can draw a line between the worst days of the colonial enterprise in Algeria and contemporary France:

While M. [Jean-Marie] Le Pen was serving in Algeria in a Parachute Unit, he asked a Muslim hotel night-porter in Algiers for a drink. The latter replied that it was after hours and he had not got the key of the cellar. M. Le Pen dragged the porter over to the nearest military post and had him ‘interrogated.’

His daughter, Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, is today France’s most prominent racist, but this isn’t just a familial malady—it’s a broad cultural trend. Racism is implicit in the colonial enterprise and its legacy continues to plague politics today.


Australian security contractors working in the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru might not be waterboarding or administering electric shocks to the genitals of men who fled to Australia by boat seeking protection (as happened in Algeria and described in toe-curling detail in Henri Alleg’s La Question (1958)), but the government is engaged in a concerted effort to make their lives so miserable, so devoid of hope and so psychologically crippling that they will return to the country they—fearing persecution—once fled. But this sustained campaign of cruelty also serves another purpose: it is intended to be so punitive and so draconian that it acts as a deterrent to those thinking about seeking protection in Australia. The government wants to create an environment so repressive that those fleeing some of the most oppressive regimes in the world—the most illiberal societies—consider the chance of ending up imprisoned in one of Australia’s Pacific island concentration camps worse.

Leaked documents from the Manus Island camp manager, Broadspectrum, and the security contractor, Wilson, published in The Guardian on 17 May 2017 outline how, for more than a year, ‘camp managers and security staff have waged a campaign to make Australia’s detention centre for refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island as inhospitable as possible’. The plan, which was drafted in 2016, outlines efforts to coerce refugees to accept resettlement in Papua New Guinea (PNG). The documents also show that staff members were fully aware that it was unsafe to release refugees who’d been ‘institutionalised’ into the community and acknowledged that there was a high probability that they’d face violence.

The death of Hamed Shamshiripour, an Iranian national, who was found in the forest on Manus Island on 7 August 2017, is foreshadowed in these reports. Instead of taking steps to mitigate the risks, the Australian government actively sought to exacerbate them. The initial cause of death was reported as suicide, but asylum seekers contest this and The Guardian reported seeing photographs of his body with visible wounds. In any case, Shamshiripour’s mental-health issues were well known and he’d previously received treatment in Australia. On 13 June 2016, fourteen of his fellow asylum seekers and refugees filed a formal complaint that Shamshiripour had been beaten by guards instead of being cared for:

We, the signatories to this complaint form, want to know why you are not providing mental health support to Hamed…and instead you have subjected him to ill-treatment and corporal punishment because he is not behaving normally due to his mental ailment.

Shamshiripour was the fifth asylum seeker to die on Manus Island—that’s five more than have been resettled in Australia.

Since then, things have only got worse. In April last year, PNG’s Supreme Court ruled that Australia’s detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island was illegal, on the grounds that it breached the right to personal liberty in the PNG Constitution. The detention centre, which at the time of the ruling imprisoned 850 men, about half of whom had been found to be refugees, was decommissioned and set to close on 31 October 2017. The refugees and asylum seekers were to be moved to new accommodation, paid for by the Australian government, at East Lorengau, West Lorengau and Hillside Haus. Many of the men expressed concerns for their safety, as there have been several violent attacks on refugees in Lorengau—they began a peaceful protest against the planned relocation. As the deadline loomed it also became clear that the new facilities wouldn’t be ready in time.

As 31 October came and went, around 400 men remained at the decommissioned detention centre, where they continued their peaceful protest. Food was withheld from the men, and water and electricity to the centre were cut, but the men continued to resist. They dug a well and collected rainwater; they rationed their dwindling supply of food. The guards left and, fearing they’d be attacked by locals, the men locked themselves inside their own prison every night. But they knew that the real threat came from the PNG security authorities. Throughout this ordeal Behrouz Boochani, a journalist and Iranian-Kurdish refugee imprisoned on Manus, continued to tweet and report on the evolving catastrophe.

On 23 November the standoff came to a head when PNG mobile-squad officers stormed the detention centre, destroying the refugees’ property and beating them with metal poles. Boochani writes:

A day before the ‘massive transfer’, while I was handcuffed and kept at the back of the prison, I personally witnessed that in Mike compound (one of the four camps of Manus prison), a group of officers attacked people with metal poles and sticks and, after just a few minutes, forced 40 refugees onto two buses and transferred them to the new camp using violence. They dragged one of the refugees while he was vomiting. After a while, he was transferred by an ambulance. He stayed at a local medical centre for three days and rumours about his death spread around the camp, making us dreadfully worried.

Once the men had been forcibly relocated to the new camp, the sadism continued. Boochani writes of seeing one man who’d been beaten by PNG authorities, half-naked, bloodied and sitting silently in the mud; he wouldn’t—couldn’t?—speak; the men who’d beaten him had also killed his dog.

One of Australia’s preeminent psychiatrists has called Australia’s detention centres factories for mental illness. The system is designed to destroy those subjected to it; they are isolated, detained indefinitely and routinely subjected to brutal treatment. Following the assault on 23 November the men were suffering both physical and psychological trauma and were in need of medical care. In a move of questionable legality and unquestionable cruelty, the Australian and PNG governments initially refused Médecins Sans Frontières access to the Manus Island compounds to examine and treat the men.


In ancient Roman law, the homo sacer (sacred man) was someone who could be killed by any member of society without fear of sanction but who could not be offered as a religious sacrifice. The concept was brought back into use by Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998) and is useful in thinking about the Australian government’s treatment of boat-borne refugees since 9/11.

In the month prior to the 2001 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, the Howard government had already taken a decidedly militaristic approach to a humanitarian crisis: when the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa—which had rescued 433 refugees from a distressed fishing vessel—entered Australian waters, the prime minister sent in the special forces. The 9/11 attack came at the perfect time for the coalition, who spent the ensuing election campaign hammering home its ‘we-decide-who-comes-into-this-country-and-the-circumstances-in-which-they-come’ message. These were the first refugees sent to Nauru and the beginnings of the so-called Pacific Solution. That it coincided with 9/11 was, of course, mere coincidence, but it shaped perceptions of refugees as potential terrorists whose rights are not inalienable but subject to the whims of the Australian government.

For many, 9/11 changed the way they saw and understood the world, for example, you can view Australia’s crime statistics provided at Ly Lawyers and view the trend of crime rates and the type of crime, before 2001 compared to after. To the extent that people in the West thought about these things at all, terrorism and war were events that took place in faraway lands. Shortly after the attacks, Newsweek ran an article entitled ‘Time to think about torture’ (5 November 2001), which contained a final paragraph that would have been unthinkable just three months earlier:

We can’t legalize physical torture; it’s contrary to American values. But even as we continue to speak out against human-rights abuses around the world, we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we’ll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that’s hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty.

The thinly veiled euphemism—‘court-sanctioned psychological interrogation’—soon became US government policy in the form of ‘advanced interrogation techniques’. This kind of thinking endured beyond the initial shock of 9/11. Sam Harris became one of the world’s most celebrated public intellectuals on the back of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004), a book in which he advocates for the use of torture in the hypothetical case of the ticking bomb. In Australia, as recently as 2015, Sharri Markson, writing in the Spectator Australia, revelled in the torture of David Hicks (‘…Hicks has the temerity to demand compensation for being tortured in Guantanamo Bay. Torture away, I say’).

‘The war on terror’, writes Pankaj Mishra in Age of Anger (2017), ‘aimed to abolish war as an institution with specific laws and rules, including regard for the rights of prisoners; it criminalized the enemy, and put him beyond the pale of humanity, exposed to extrajudicial execution, torture and the eternal limbo of Guantanamo’. In Australia the moral justifications for torturing terrorists intersected with the demonisation of refugees as potential terrorists, which led to their being tortured in detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. Under the current regime, they’ve been stripped of any political agency—even those granted refugee status are denied resettlement—and reduced to ‘bare life’ (that’s to say they don’t exist in any sense beyond their biology; they have no political or legal rights).

For years, despite the government’s best efforts to suppress information about camp conditions and the treatment of asylum seekers, a constant stream of horror stories—beatings, intimidation, rapes, self-harm, suicides, stabbings, murder and self-immolation—have been reported. These tales of violence and grotesquerie are designed to act as macabre deterrents to others thinking of seeking asylum in Australia. By off-shoring its responsibilities, the government has ensured that the depravity of the policy has remained out of sight, but this has also allowed the government to create a physical space where what Agamben calls a ‘state of exception’ has became the norm. This ‘state of exception’ is a place in which the usual laws don’t apply—a place where the people aren’t accorded universal rights:

Insofar as its inhabitants were stripped of every political status and wholly reduced to bare life, the camp was also the most absolute biopolitical space ever to have been realized, in which power confronts nothing but pure life, without any mediation. This is why the camp is the very paradigm of political space at the point at which politics becomes biopolitics and homo sacer is virtually confused with the citizen.

The usual question—how can such atrocities be committed against another human being?—is, Agamben argues, not only the wrong question but a hypocritical one. It is

more useful to investigate more carefully the juridical procedures and deployments of power by which human beings could be so completely deprived of their rights and prerogatives that no act committed against them could appear any longer as a crime. (At this point, in fact, everything had truly become possible.)

Herein lies the danger: left unchecked, the ‘state of exception’ comes to the foreground, begins to shape the political discourse and fundamental political and social structures and, ultimately, becomes the rule. Torture-as-deterrent has already become an unofficial government policy. The department charged with responsibility for administering these policies has undergone an accelerated process of militarisation since the special forces boarded the Tampa: the ominously named Border Force is now decked out in military-style uniforms of its own; Immigration is arming (it spent over $200,000 on weapons in 2014–15); it’s ramped up its pseudo-military honours system (Immigration spent $1.3 million on medals for staff in 2015; by way of comparison, Defence spent $300,000); and in July 2017 Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced his intention to create a ‘Home Affairs portfolio of Australia’s immigration, border protection and domestic security agencies’ including ‘ASIO, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre and the Office of Transport Security’.

The threat of terrorism has been exaggerated and co-opted by politicians from both major parties to subvert the rule of law and justify the further encroachment of the state into the lives of its citizens. Under the guise of counter-terrorism legislation, the state’s powers have been greatly expanded: restrictions on access to metadata have been eased and people can now be detained without charge for extended periods. Is this what Agamben’s creeping ‘state of exception’ looks like?

Australian politicians are not unique in using refugees as, in the words of Pankaj Mishra, ‘both scapegoats for the race- and class-based anxieties of many insecure individuals and the raison d’être of a growing industry of violence’. But Australia is unique among developed nations in its policy of subjecting refugees to indefinite, systematic torture as a means of encouraging them to return to their country of origin—where many risk persecution and death—and as a deterrent to others.

On Manus Island and Nauru, ‘the state of exception has been realised normally’.

It may seem hyperbolic to suggest that the daily horrors experienced by refugees could migrate to the mainland and threaten mainstream Australian society, but, in some ways, it’s already happening. Australia has become a more hostile and parochial society that sees boat-borne refugees as superfluous; civil liberties continue to be eroded and taken away under the pretext of keeping everyone safe.


In a recent New York Review of Books review of Marcel Ophüls’ film The Memory of Justice (1976) Ian Buruma is dismissive of the criticism that the film is weakened by what some consider the false equivalence between the Nazis’ atrocities, France’s war crimes in Algeria and America’s in Vietnam. ‘What is comparable’, he writes, ‘is the way people look away from, or justify, or deny what is done in their name, or under their watch’.

Manus Island is not Algeria. And Malcolm Turnbull is certainly not Jean-Marie Le Pen. Nevertheless, the technocratic view of violence that has so often been a cloak for justifying war crimes and human-rights abuses is today being employed by the Australian government to validate indefinite offshore detention. Retrospectively examining these justifications throws them into sharp relief. The end never justifies the means. And history will not judge the torture of asylum seekers as the price we had to pay to ‘stop the boats’.

(This was originally published in Arena, Issue 153, 04 2018 – 05 2018.)