Sunday, March 15, 2009

...Each of these three organizations seeks to eliminate physical suffering by using words...

Atrocity and Interrogation
by James Dawes
To enter the headquarters for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Turkey, you must pass through barbed wire gates and a security checkpoint. If you are applying for asylum (because, for example, you have escaped Iraq after being raped and tortured or because you will be executed if forced to return to Iran), you will be escorted through these gates and then taken downstairs into the holding chambers of the basement. There you will be required to answer a series of questions to determine whether you meet the specific conditions for refugee status under international law. If your answers do not suffice, you will be deported back to your country of origin. The interview rooms are small with poor ventilation. Larry Bottinick, eligibility officer for the UNHCR, explains that they will be moving to a new building soon. "Whenever you ask an Iraqi to describe the conditions of their detention," he says of refugees from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, "they answer: `It was like this room.'"
But this article is not about what it feels like to be interrogated. It is about what it feels like to interrogate someone. I visited the UNHCR in Turkey as part of a larger research project on organizations that intervene in humanitarian crises by using language instead of food, medicine, or weapons, organizations whose most important act is, finally, not delivering supplies but asking questions. Through a series of formal and informal interviews I documented the organizational dynamics and communicative practices of some of the world's most recognizable humanitarian inquisitors: the UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the Human Rights Association (HRA). I focused in particular on the everyday practices of activists in the field, hoping to better understand not only how we can use language to alter the operations of violence but also to see how, by using language in such ways, we might be altered.