US, Europe and torture flights

19 January 2006

A report in today’s Guardian provides further evidence of the British Government’s complicity in US ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights. A Foreign Office briefing paper sent to Downing Street on how to deal with questions over torture flights, advises the Government to ‘avoid getting drawn on the detail.’

It also says that the Government should rely on a statement made by Condoleezza Rice last month, which said that America did not transport anyone to a country where it believed they would be tortured, adding that ‘where appropriate,’ it would look for assurances. The briefing paper given to Tony Blair states that it’s best not ‘to cast doubt on the principle of such government-to-government assurances.’

One of the many disturbing things about Rice’s statement is that her idea of torture differs to that found in the European Convention on Human Rights. This convention provides against ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,’ which is not counted in the US definition. Interrogation techniques used in Guantanamo – legal under US regulations – were shown in a recent programme by Channel 4, and could hardly have been described as anything other than cruel, inhuman and degrading.

The Irish Foreign Minister, Dermot Ahern, facing similar questions over his government’s complicity in US torture flights, has also decided to rely on ‘government-to-government assurances.’ ‘The Government will continue,’ explained Mr Ahern to the Irish Parliament, ‘to follow the long-standing practice whereby details supplied to the Department of Foreign Affairs in this area by the US authorities are accepted in good faith as being accurate.’ This ‘long-standing practice’ of taking the US word as gospel truth is useful for Mr Ahern, as he resists calls for an inquiry into the use of Shannon Airport for rendition flights. If an enquiry were to find that Shannon (which last year generated €37 million in revenue from transporting US troops) is used to facilitate the torture of detainees, then the Irish Government would be in breach of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which obliges states ‘to take measures when it knows that there are substantial grounds for believing that a person faces a real risk of being subjected to torture.’

The subservience the British and Irish Governments have displayed to the US in the controversy over US rendition flights contrasts with far more robust responses of several other European countries. Spain, Sweden and Iceland have begun inquiries to investigate if their airports were used by the CIA to transport prisoners. In December, Italian authorities issued arrest warrants for 22 alleged CIA agents accused of abducting a Muslim cleric without the permission of the Italian government, and flying him to Egypt for interrogation. Yesterday, the European Parliament set up a committee to investigate the illegal transport and detention of prisoners in Europe. The Council of Europe has also begun investigations into CIA rendition flights, and into allegations that the CIA has been running secret prisons in eastern Europe.

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