America's Iraqi prisoners

Detainees – all Iraqis, save for a small number of foreigners – are denied their basic right not to

Iraq is casting a long shadow over the US presidential race, and with relative calm in the country the candidates are debating how fast US troops should quit Iraq. Senator Barack Obama’s 16-month timetable for withdrawal has the backing of Iraqi leaders, and the Bush administration itself now endorses a “time horizon” for troop cuts. But absent from the debate has been any discussion of the fate of nearly 21,000 prisoners held in Iraq by US forces. Obama and his Republican rival Senator John McCain ought to start talking now about what to do with detainees in US military custody in Iraq.

The US-led Multinational Force-Iraq (MNF) has claimed the authority to hold the detainees under successive UN Security Council Resolutions, the last of which expires at the end of the year. Prospects for a status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) and related pacts that might fill the legal void are clouded by the Bush administration’s lame duck status.

The detainees – all Iraqis, save for a small number of foreigners – are effectively denied their basic right not to be held indefinitely without charge or trial. Many are young men rounded up in mass, arbitrary arrests. They are promised a review of their cases every six months, though the MNF has told Human Rights Watch reviews are more frequent in practice. Yet on average, detainees remain in custody for more than 300 days, according to MNF figures as of May. The detainees, divided between a remote prison near Basra and a smaller one near Baghdad’s airport, have little access to relatives, who in many cases cannot afford to visit or fear reprisal. Although about a tenth of detainees face charges in an Iraqi criminal court; the vast majority are never charged.

The MNF has argued that the detainees are held as imperative security threats, and are not entitled to criminal due process. International law does indeed allow for administrative detention, but the United States has not even met the basic requirements for holding people under such circumstances. The cases are reviewed by military panels, with no meaningful access to legal counsel and no judicial review – both of which detainees are entitled to under international law.

There are 360 children among the detainees, down from 500 in May. Many have been held for months, and some for more than a year, often without access to the educational services provided to children at one MNF facility. Those children referred to trial by the MNF are held at an Iraqi facility described by the UN as so overcrowded it threatens the children’s health.

Few would dispute that the conditions of US military detention have improved since the images of shocking abuse that emerged in 2004 from the Abu Ghraib prison. It’s also clear that, however vigorous MNF attempts to expedite detainee releases this population is not going anywhere soon. The outgoing head of US detainee operations estimated in June that 10,000 people had been released through expanded review procedures introduced in September 2007, yet the overall population is only slowly falling from its peak near 26,000 in 2007. Britain, Washington’s principal partner in the invasion of Iraq, has all but ended its role as a jailer in Iraq – Foreign Office officials say UK forces now have two detainees in the country – leaving the US military as the face of foreign military detention in Iraq.

In the wrangle over a bilateral agreement that would govern the presence of US troops in Iraq, the meaning of Iraqi sovereignty looms large. Much of Iraq’s political class rejects the idea of an open-ended US military presence (no easy sell ahead of provincial elections scheduled for this year), advocating a short-term agreement and possible negotiations with the next administration. The Bush administration appears to accept that possibility.

All parties to this debate should back up their rhetoric about Iraqi sovereignty by ending the legal vacuum in which the MNF holds detainees. A step in that direction would be a US-Iraqi agreement to bring the status of these detainees in line with international human rights law and the laws of war for conflicts like the one in Iraq. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iraq has ratified, requires among other things that detainees face a judge promptly, and have prompt access to legal counsel and family members. Such a commitment should encourage the Iraqi authorities to improve their own poor record on detention and abuse of detainees.

The United States should also release at once detainees unlikely to be charged, and transfer others against whom there is evidence for criminal proceedings to Iraqi courts – with the safeguard that no one should be transferred there if they are at risk of abuse.

The US presidential candidates are now jockeying to claim victory for their Iraq plans. Both should commit to ending the legal limbo of detention in Iraq, by upholding international legal standards in Iraq and restoring justice to the thousands wrongly held.

Joseph Logan is the Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.