America's secret prisons: Alvaro Gil-Robles interviewed

About the authors
Alvaro Gil-Robles is commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe.
Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue.net, and was editor of openDemocracy from March 2005-July 2007. She is a journalist, broadcaster, writer and commentator.

Listen to the full interview (15.40 mins)
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openDemocracy: What should Europe do about the reports of secret flights and clandestine prisons that have surfaced?

Alvaro Gil-Robles: I have repeatedly said, including this week to the European Council of Ministers, that in Europe we cannot allow any doubts of this kind about democratic countries. Moreover, relevant countries have ratified the European Convention of Human Rights which has a clause that prohibits the existence of clandestine detention centres, so it is imperative to shed complete light on this – the good name of these states is at risk, there should be no doubt, and I am convinced that all the states that are implicated will reveal what has happened. It is probable that the accusations are unjust and any doubts must be cleared up, for the sake of the good name of the states and all their citizens.

openDemocracy: Are you satisfied with the response of these governments to date?

Alvaro Gil-Robles: I have issued this call twice and I have had some conversations on this question. I can tell you that I have spoken to representatives of the Spanish government who are going to permit complete transparency on this subject. I know that the minister of foreign affairs is going to speak to the parliament, and that he is going to give the information that Spain has on this. It seems to me a good route – towards the light, that things be known and that the government reports.

I tell you sincerely that I wish all governments would follow this example. It would be good if all the ministers told their parliaments, that parliaments would investigate and that finally we could tell our citizens that these centres did not exist and these situations had not occurred. Or, if they have come into existence, that we assign the responsibility to those who have permitted them to exist.

openDemocracy: According to reports, several governments are implicated – Spain and Ireland in the clandestine flights and the movement of prisoners, and the government of the United Kingdom in other violations. Why do you think that these democratic governments are violating human rights to this extent?

Also published by openDemocracy on Guantánamo:

David Rose, “Guantánamo: America’s war on human rights” (September 2004)

Clive Stafford Smith, “Torture: an idea for our time” (August 2005)

Harold Hongju Koh, “Captured by Guantánamo” (September 2005)

Brandt Goldstein, “Storming the Supreme Court: a students’ odyssey” (September 2005)

Brandt Goldstein, “Guantánamo: land without law” (September 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Alvaro Gil-Robles: I am not saying that they have violated human rights. I am saying that we have to have an investigation to determine if such clandestine detention centres do exist. We are in the stage of newspaper accusations, with no official confirmation of which countries are involved, though many versions are in circulation. For me this is enough. There are doubts and we have to shed light on this, to investigate. What I am asking for is this investigation. Clearly, I am not accusing anybody. I am saying we have to investigate. We cannot stay silent.

openDemocracy: Do you think the European governments feel intimidated by the United States?

Alvaro Gil-Robles: I think every government has to take responsibility and to act accordingly, in compliance with its international obligations to respect human rights and the rule of law. There must be no intimidation by any other state, however powerful it might be. We cannot renounce our principles and our values simply because we have a country that is friendly but that uses unacceptable methods.

“The most fundamental thing”

openDemocracy: How do you respond to those who say that the war against terror is different and demands different methods?

Alvaro Gil-Robles: No, that’s completely wrong. You have to conduct the fight against terrorism with respect for the rule of law. Look, it’s wrong. Democracy is a strong system – very strong, and for a number of reasons. First, because we can have legislation that allows us really to act against terrorism and to lay down important crimes and penalties; second, because we can have democratic police forces that allow us to cooperate internationally in the search for information; and third, simply because we respect the rule of law. In a democracy, there is a moral force in the population to struggle against terrorism and criminality. So it is not true that democracy is weak. It is not necessary to fight crime with methods that are on the edge of international norms – apart from the fact that they violate international law.

I fundamentally reject this idea. What we have to do is to recognise that we are faced with a great danger, with important criminal groups which have a great capacity to harm and to cause suffering. That is true. Those of us who come from countries where there is terrorism know about that suffering and about what terror is. But this does not mean we have to renounce our fundamental values and principles. The firmer we are the more we are confident of this battle. If we violate these principles we will have surrendered the most fundamental thing: our model of society, which is given unity by our principles. These fundamental values and principles are what separates us from terrorists and dictators. I am not ready to renounce them.

But this does not mean that we are going to be a weak democracy, with justice and police systems that don’t work. Look at the cooperation between the police forces of democratic countries such as France and Spain, which dealt such damage to (the Basque terrorist movement) ETA. It was not necessary to set up special concentration camps nor to suspend constitutional guarantees or to pass special laws to achieve this – nor to derogate the application of the Convention of Human Rights in France or Spain. There was simply cooperation and effective action.

Alvaro Gil-Robles is commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe

openDemocracy: Why do you think that European public opinion has not come to the defence of these prisoners in secret detention, or of the victims of torture in such centres?

Alvaro Gil-Robles: It is often because the public is in shock from terrorist actions. The public lacks information and with this shock it often thinks that the simplest solutions might be the most effective. Nobody has explained to it that the hatred we sow today will lead us to reap far worse tomorrow.

openDemocracy: What about the argument that if you torture a terrorist, you might save innocent lives?

Alvaro Gil-Robles: It’s just not like that. The suggestion is often made. But you can never know whether the information that you get by torturing people is true. A human being under torture will say anything; he loses control of himself. I have known people who have been tortured and who have denounced their own friends who had nothing to do with any criminal action but who have paid the price of this. I have known people who confessed to crimes, under torture, simply to stop the torture, who then were proved not guilty.

For me, none of the information obtained through torture is valid. First, for moral reasons: what happened under Nazism and other dictatorships, leading to the European Convention on Human Rights, is evidence for this. Second, for a practical reason: it does us no good. The courts of justice know it, which is why they don’t accept evidence that comes from torture. They know that the tortured person probably has not told the truth – he answers in any way that will make the torture stop.

“Democracy is not weak, but strong”

openDemocracy: What do think of the proposal by various governments, including that of the UK, to prolong the period of detention without trial?

Alvaro Gil-Robles: I am always against long periods of detention with no guarantees. True, when we are fighting terrorism and organised crime, we may have to take measures that are in certain senses exceptional – including perhaps detaining someone for a bit longer in order not to lose evidence about the organisation or its operation. In such exceptional cases, we must keep certain people isolated because if they communicate with their lawyers then others might escape and evidence might be lost.

But all this has a limit which a judge must determine. A lawyer has to be present – even if he is officially appointed, as is the case in Spain – to avoid abuses. The process must be time-limited, and the investigated person must be returned afterwards to the normal justice system. For that reason, a limit longer than twenty-four hours is understandable – but it cannot be converted without foundation into a long term of isolation, without a lawyer or judicial control. The detention period may be longer, but not very long; and it is absolutely fundamental that there be judicial control and a lawyer. The lawyer can be the detainee’s own or, if the state deems that impossible, an officially appointed lawyer.

We each need to understand what stage of madness we can reach if we imagine we can fight terrorism without regard to principles, values or limits. To understand to what degree we are sowing doubts about democratic values; to what degree we are creating a terrible example for societies that have, until now, looked upon our democratic system as something fundamental and the basis of liberty.

We must not reach this stage. I say again that democracy is not weak but strong and can very well defend itself without recourse to such things. I have great faith and much hope in what is now in resurgence in the United States itself; the congressmen, the press, the lawyers, the NGOs who are beginning say: “Enough! Enough of this situation! Let us return to our values and our principles because this is what made the United States free, democratic and an example to many!”

openDemocracy: The UK government is proposing to return people to countries that have not signed the European Convention of Human Rights under diplomatic guarantees.

Alvaro Gil-Robles: I am very doubtful about this situation because it has already been tried with these countries and the consequences have been fatal. The people who were sent back were detained, tortured – and some died. I am not going to name countries, but we all know which they are and that this happened. If a country has not ratified the conventions on human rights, if we know it does not respect human rights, how can we abandon a citizen to them with the request that they make an exception just for him to the things they do to other people in the country? It seems to me that this is both an abandonment of our own principles and a contradiction that we know cannot work. I am not in government nor will I ever be. But it would weigh heavily on me to take responsibility for such a situation in such a country.


Listen to the full interview (15.40 mins)
High bandwidth: 128kbps / Low bandwidth: 64kbps