From Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, to secret ‘blacksites’ in Afghanistan, Lithuania and Poland, individuals were secretly abducted, detained, interrogated and tortured for intelligence …
Name: Gavin Sullivan.
You grew up in the Great Lakes. What did you love about growing up here?
There were a lot of things I loved about growing up in Forster, but the proximity to the ocean and the lake were both really important to me. Being able to cross the road from school and watch whales passing by, doing biology classes in amongst rockpools, having great surf available all the time and some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to, and learning how to snorkel and explore the underwater world off the rocks at Burgess beach and behind The Tanks.
I think this stuff was really important, because it allowed me (and all of my friends) to be independent at a young age and to develop an understanding of (and a relationship with) the natural world in a way that those growing up in the cities or suburbs could never develop.
Where did life take you when you finished your HSC?
I first went to the University of Queensland in Brisbane, with ambitions of learning how to be a journalist. But I didn’t like the course and found myself more drawn towards learning about history and politics.
So I shifted to Macquarie University in Sydney to study law and humanities – which was one of the best decisions I’ve ever taken. The law school there was very critical of the conventional way of teaching people about law – where one might spend years summarising and rote learning legal decisions to understand what law ‘is’. Instead, there was a real educational effort to teach students how to think more critically about law (and power) – to understand the historical development of law as a contest between opposing social forces and to impart a sense of responsibility on the students as participants in this ongoing process. It was a very valuable educational experience.
Towards the end of my time at Macquarie, I began working with Community Legal Centres in and around Sydney – to get some practical experience of working in the field and to try and use the law to help those most disadvantaged by it.
I worked for some years as a Housing Rights lawyer, advising tenants who were facing eviction. I also worked closely with, and defended the civil rights of, different social movements and protest groups who were being disproportionately targeted, criminalised, beaten and incarcerated by the police. There was a lot of social conflict simmering in Sydney at that time (and, no doubt, there still is). Rents were ridiculously high and wages were low. The lead up to the Olympic Games in 2000 saw a frenzy of speculative activity in the housing market, which led to increased evictions and homelessness, combined with repressive policing to clean the streets (and mask the problems). During that time, I became actively involved in a campaign to resist the evictions by occupying empty buildings and living in them. Together with my law centre, we used the campaign to try and force developers and local Councils to sign ‘caretaker leases’ with homeless residents that allowed them to live in empty buildings awaiting redevelopment, rather than evicting them and charging them with criminal trespass.
The campaign was successful, and in 2001 the first such ‘caretaker agreement’ was signed between squatters, developers and South Sydney Council.
But after years of living through the racist scaremongering of John Howard’s government and their policies of everyday fear, I wanted to experience life in another part of the world.
So, in 2003 I flew to the UK with my bike and a tent and spent 8 months cycle touring around Europe. In the end, I fell in love with Amsterdam and lived there for some years, editing an English-language magazine, before moving to London, re-qualifying as a human rights lawyer and litigating (and teaching law) there for almost 5 years.
You are currently working for the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in Berlin. What does your job entail?
At ECCHR I have been co-ordinating the Counterterrorism and Human Rights program. Whatever one might think about the threat of terrorism, it’s clear that the ‘war on terror’ has been a very productive vehicle for enabling states to create new, unprecedented security powers that infringe or bypass fundamental rights.
My work here has been directed towards using the courts to challenge and make visible the worst excesses of these powers – both to affirm the constitutional and human rights that we all have, as well as opening a broader public debate about how we might, as a society, best deal with threats to security.
One issue that I’ve been very involved with here are the UN-mandated terrorism blacklists – which freeze the assets and impose travel bans on those suspected of being ‘associated with’ terrorism.
I have written about these lists elsewhere, so I won’t go into detail about them now. Suffice to say, that I am currently representing clients who have been on these lists for seven years and still do not know the nature of the allegations against them. It’s a truly Kafkaesque situation that breaches the fundamental right to due process. And yet, still very little is known about these lists and how they are being used to set up a type of parallel legal system.
Another issue I’ve been closely involved with here has been challenging the legality of the Bush administration’s torture program. As we all now know, the Bush administration (together with the CIA and the intelligence services of allied states) set up and implemented an elaborate torture program against those they suspected of being terrorists. From Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, to secret ‘blacksites’ in Afghanistan, Lithuania and Poland, individuals were secretly abducted, detained, interrogated and tortured for intelligence, despite clear international and long-standing international prohibition against torture.
So, I have been actively involved in cases currently within the Spanish Courts that seek to indict former officials and lawyers within the Bush administration for international crimes. Earlier this year, I worked together with constitutional rights lawyers from the US to ask Swiss prosecutors to arrest and/or start criminal proceedings against George Bush for torture.
In the end, the case was never filed, but it did cause Bush to cancel his trip to Switzerland under fear of prosecution.
More recently, I have been undertaking work on the issue of drones and targeted killing. The use of aerial drones and specialised kill squads against alleged Al-Qaeda combatants has massively increased under the Obama administration. Deaths from US drone strikes in Pakistan have risen exponentially from 89 in 2004 – 2007 to 607 in 2010, and the Director of the CIA now openly acknowledges that drone strikes are “the only game in town in terms of confronting … the al-Qaeda leadership”.
In Afghanistan, the notorious US Task Force 373 has been operating covertly within the NATO coalition, with the express aim of hunting down up to 3,000 Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets designated on 6 different ‘capture or kill’ lists. Yet, the legal basis for targeted killing (and how one gets on or off a ‘kill list’) remains highly contestable. We know that scores of civilians are being killed, but there is little chance for their family members to challenge the practice or even find out about the circumstances of the deaths, because of the classified nature of the operations.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings has stated that the targeted killing policies currently being pursued “gives States a virtual and impermissible license to kill”. And yet, the practice continues to proliferate without legal redress. It’s an issue that I think will be increasingly important in the years to come, as western states move their drones and death squads from regions in the global south (such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia) to cities closer to home.
I am just about to start a PhD program at the University of Amsterdam, investigating the relationship between all these issues (Terrorism Blacklists, Torture, Drones and Targeted Killing) to human rights law – to better understand how the law is being bypassed by states and to identify how law might be used to challenge the new powers that are being created in this field.
What do you love about your job?
With the law, I love being able to use my legal skills to help those whose lives have been most affected by unaccountable state power. I think it is important to contest and challenge (rather than simply accept) power, and I like that my work enables me to do this while opening up a much-needed space for public debate on these issues.
At the university, I love being able to study and dig deeper into complex political and legal problems in a way that I wouldn’t be able to do if I was doing legal casework all the time. I also love teaching and trying to share skills with my students in the way that my teachers did with me.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
Somewhere in northern Europe (either the UK or the Netherlands), trying to edit and publish my PhD thesis into a book, taking legal cases to the European courts and continuing to learn how to be a loving partner and father!
On a lighter note, when you are not working, where can we find you?
I’m usually either at the swimming pool, riding my bike, cooking vegetarian food or in the cinema.