By Benjamin Ward, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, published in European Voice
CIA flights are only half the story when it comes to European complicity in torture. Much less well-known is the fact that EU states themselves have directly undermined the global torture ban in the name of countering terrorism.Investigations carried out by the European Parliament’s Temporary Committee and the Council of Europe have made real progress in uncovering European involvement in illegal CIA activity. And criminal investigations are underway in several EU countries, including Italy, where prosecutors are examining the kidnapping by alleged CIA agents of Muslim cleric Abu Omar on a Milan street in 2003, and Germany, where prosecutors are looking into the 2003 abduction of German national Khalid el-Masri in Macedonia.
But European complicity in torture doesn’t begin and end with CIA activity in Europe. The draft report due to be adopted by the Parliament’s Temporary Committee on January 23 will touch on an issue that has received little public attention thus far—the practice of returning terrorism suspects to places where they face the risk of torture, based on empty promises of humane treatment. Europe pioneered the use of these no-torture promises, known as “diplomatic assurances,” well before the September 11 attacks in the US. And EU governments—notably the UK and Sweden—have been among their most enthusiastic exponents.
The UK’s attempt to use diplomatic assurances to return terrorism suspects dates back to the mid-1990s. But the use of such promises became a central plank of London’s counterterrorism strategy only in 2004, when British judges ruled that foreign suspects could not be detained indefinitely in the UK. Britain is currently trying to deport terrorism suspects based on blanket no-torture promises from countries like Jordan and Libya.
Human Rights Watch has documented how Austria sought assurances from Cairo to extradite an Egyptian terrorism suspect, Mohamed Bilasi-Ashri. An Austrian court approved the extradition in April 2005 based on such assurances, but the European Court of Human Rights has blocked the extradition until it can examine the risk of torture and unfair trial.
Germany also relied on assurances to deport a Muslim cleric, Metin Kaplan, to Turkey in October 2004. Citing fair-trial concerns, a Turkish appeals court overturned Kaplan’s June 2005 conviction for plotting to overthrow the state.
In September, the Dutch Supreme Court blocked the government’s effort to return Nuriye Kesbir, a Kurdish woman accused of PKK abuses, rejecting Turkey’s promises as insufficient to protect her from ill-treatment.
Governments find diplomatic assurances attractive because they purport to allow terrorism suspects at risk of torture to be deported or extradited safely. But research by Human Rights Watch shows that these promises are an ineffective safeguard against such a risk. The most notorious example involves Sweden, which sent two Egyptian terrorism suspects to Cairo in December 2001 in the hands of the CIA, based on promises of humane treatment. Both were tortured on their return, despite visits from Swedish diplomats. Two UN bodies – the Committee Against Torture and the Human Rights Committee – have since ruled that Sweden’s actions in the case violated the international ban on returning people to a risk of torture.
Most human rights experts—including UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammerberg, and the EU network of independent human rights experts—agree that the use of diplomatic assurances against torture undermines the global ban on torture.
In July, the European Parliament called on EU member states “to reject altogether reliance on diplomatic assurances against torture.” If EU member states are serious about ending their complicity in torture, they should heed that call.
Questions and Answers on Diplomatic Assurances
Questions and Answers, November 10, 2006
CIA Abuses: EU Report Condemns European Complicity
Press Release, November 29, 2006
More of Human Rights Watch's work on Counterterrorism