Torture: America's policy, Europe's shame

Mariano Aguirre Jan Egeland
19 June 2009

In the very heart of the western world, Europe's major ally has tortured prisoners to death - in an operation that we Europeans too were involved in. The fourteen "techniques" authorised by the Jan Egeland is director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), and visiting professor at the University of Stavanger. He is former under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency-relief coordinator at the United Nations (August 2003-December 2006) . Among his books is A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity (Simon & Schuster, 2008)

Mariano Aguirre is director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre (NOREF) in Oslo. He is a fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam; former coordinator of peace, security and human-rights issues at the Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride), in Madrid; former director of the Peace Research Center (CIP), Madrid; and former programme officer at the Ford Foundation in New York

Also by Mariano Aguirre in openDemocracy:

"America underneath New York" (18 November 2004)

"The many cities of New York" (16 February 2005)

"Exporting democracy, revising torture: the complex missions of Michael Ignatieff" (15 July 2005)

"Mr Rogers goes to war: America's 'democracy by force'" (5 August 2005)

"The Hurricane and the Empire" (5 September 2005)

"Failed states or weak democracies? The state in Latin America" (17 January 2006)

"Haiti: living on the edge" (24 February 2006)

"Spain's 11-M and the right's revenge" (10 March 2006)

"Bush's security strategy: defend the nation, change the world" (31 March

"Bolivia: the challenges to state reform" (15 September 2006) - with Isabel Moreno

"Power and paradox in the United Nations" (7 November 2006)

"Mercenaries and the new configuration of world violence" (16 October 2007)

"Annapolis: how to avoid failure" (12 November 2007) - with Mark Taylor

Haiti: unravelling the knot (2 September 2008) - with Amélie Gauthier

"Barack Obama and Afghanistan: a closer look" (8 April 2009)George W Bush administration include semi-drowning ("waterboarding'), confinement in cramped and dark boxes, psychological torture and deprivation of sleep for up to eleven days and nights (see  Mark Danner, US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites" [New York Review of Books, 9 April & 30 April 2009]). 

An undefined number of prisoners have died or committed suicide as a result of mistreatment in interrogation chambers run by the United States and its allies (the last one was a Yemeni in Guantánamo). It may be recalled that Japanese military jailors who employed these techniques during the second world war were adjudged war criminals by the US's own military-legal experts.

This, to emphasise the point, is not about the despicable actions of some far-away dictator, nor the atrocities committed by Nazis and communists in Europe in the years of totalitarianism and genocide. No, these acts were part of a larger operation involving our own western, liberal democracies. Europeans  were there - with troops, intelligence, logistics and funding - taking part in the "war on terror" that formed the backdrop to these war crimes. After the US secret services had been authorised to mistreat prisoners held in American custody, the CIA was allowed to undertake its "extraordinary renditions": more than 1,000 flights, often with unnamed prisoners  ("unlawful combatants") in a wide arc across European airspace - from Norway to Romania. Several countries (including Jordan and, again, Romania) granted permission for these prisoners to be interrogated and mistreated in local, US-administered prison camps.

In 2007, a majority of elected representative in the European parliament accused the governments of Europe of having concealed the details of what had happened in these cases. In fact, several countries did more than clandestinely transport and keep prisoners; they also delivered some of their own prisoners into the hands of the CIA. The transfer by the Swedish police in December 2001 of two Egyptian nationals, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed El Zary - who later vanished into Egypt's prison-camp system where torture flourishes - is but one example. Reports from both the European parliament and the Council of Europe have found that Europeans have accepted the perpetration of severe abuses in our own backyards that we were and are quick to condemn anywhere else.

When defenceless prisoners - some of them hardcore terrorists, others quite innocent men - were being beaten and humiliated by United States soldiers at Bagram air- base in Kabul, Europeans were close by: every day, our military and civilian forces in Afghanistan would drive past.

When the inner circles around President Bush were planning the torture - how to legitimise, explain and implement it in a network of prisons (some secret, others not) in Europe, the middle east and elsewhere - Europeans remained silent and loyal contributors to the "war against terror" in Afghanistan.

When clever American legal experts were arguing that the principles of international humanitarian law - the Geneva conventions, United Nations conventions, and of habeas corpus -were not applicable in this case of "our battle" against "our enemies", Europe's own parliamentarians and NGOS were urging international legal action against some leaders in the global south on the grounds that they had broken the very same principles.

The dark side

How could it be that these years of torture could unfold under Europeans' very noses, in flagrant contradiction of our national constitutions, our penal codes, our international legal commitments - all without hearings being organised and investigative commissions appointed? Where were our legal experts, our auditors and our journalists? And where were we, the researchers and commentators who have written this? With the exception of rare voices in a few media and human-rights organisations, and a couple of politicians that denounced what had happened, Europe kept silent.

There are no excuses. What was being conceived, planned and perpetrated was hardly a secret, even before the New Yorker and other media published detailed descriptions of these war crimes and the deceit involved (see, for example, Jane Mayer, Outsourcing torture", New Yorker, 14 February 2005), .After all, only days after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, Dick Cheney admitted that the US chief executive was willing to make the "war against terror" an ugly, dirty affair: in a primetime national broadcast, the US vice-president  announced that the secret services would be authorised to go over to the "dark side" (see Jane Mayer, The Dark Side [Vintage/Anchor, 2009]).

Such attitudes began around the same time to infect popular and even intellectual culture. The US television industry broadcast (from November 2001) the well-engineered TV drama series 24, about a federal agent who could not always afford to play by the rules. In episode after episode, the popular series indulged the lie that the torture of suspects was necessary in order to save the lives of innocents. The academic and pundit Michael Ignatieff- then director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, now the head of Canada's main opposition party and the country's likely next prime minister - was only the most high-profile of several intellectual who began to argue that torture is terrible but could in some circumstances be morally and politically justified (see Mariano Aguirre, "Exporting democracy, revising torture: the complex missions of Michael Ignatieff", 15 July 2005).

So it was that the Bush-Cheney cabal could demolish the legacy of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  The United States's first president banned all maltreatment of English prisoners during the during the war of independence (1775-83), forbidding his troops to "imitate the brutality of the British". Its sixteenth president followed the same principle during the American civil war (1861-65). Both respected here the US's declaration of independence (1776), based as it was and is on the prohibition of abuse of power, arbitrary arrest and torture.

The next step

Many political, military and administrative leaders were involved in the planning and execution of the "war on terror"; none has had to face legal prosecution for what went on in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and other sites of documented torture. Almost without exception, it is low-level operatives who have faced prosecution, even though their crimes were committed under a system that was organised in and controlled from the topmost echelons of power in the White House, the CIA and the Pentagon (see Philip Gourevitch & Errol Morris, The Ballad of Abu Ghraib [Penguin, 2008]).

President Barack Obama - whose election by US citizens in 2008 is a turning-pointin this story - declared his intention to close for ever this dark chapter in the history of the United States. For that to happen, he must ensure that the legal process focuses on those who bear political and administrative responsibility. Chile and Argentina are among the countries which investigated and prosecuted those who had  ordered torture - so why not the United States? In addition, it is clear that the Guantánamo prison-camp must be shut down; but military tribunals that fail to comply with international standards of jurisprudence should also be closed.

The first decade of the 21st century has witnessed the abuse and neglect of the highest principles of leadership nurtured by western civilisation over centuries. In this light, it is wrong to see the actions of Bush, Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their coterie in isolation (see Philippe Sands, Lawless World: Making and Breaking Global Rules [ Penguin, 2006]). For this is also a tale of colossal hypocrisy and worse on the part of Europe, in accepting and being complicit in depredations that violate its own deepest values.

The experience was allowed to unfold year by grim year. During this long  period, the European allies of the US - aware of the absence of legal protection for those nameless prisoners being transported for interrogation and torture at destinations known and unknown - appear to have done very little. Why?

What will be the next steps in bringing to justice those responsible? Thomas Hammarberg, commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, has called on the council's forty-seven member-states to provide the complete facts on what actually took place from 2001 to 2008, so that the guilty may be held to account. It cannot happen soon enough. For until it does, the enormous damage Europe has inflicted in these terrible years - not least on itself - can never be repaired.

This article was translated from Norwegian by Susan Høivik

Also in openDemocracy on the politics of torture in the age of "war on terror":

Isabel Hilton, "Torture: who gives the orders?" (13 May 2004)

David Rose, "Guantánamo: America's war on human rights" (23 September 2004)

Hazel Carby, "A strange and bitter crop: the spectacle of torture" (11 October 2004)

Horacio Verbitsky, "Breaking the silence: the Catholic Church in Argentina and the ‘dirty war'" (28 July 2005)

Clive Stafford Smith, "Torture: an idea for our time" (11 August 2005)

Brandt Goldstein, "Guantánamo: land without law" (25 September 2005)

Harold Hongju Koh, "Captured by Guantánamo" (26 September 2005)

Isabel Hilton, "Guantánamo: the United States's torture" (18 November 2005)

Neal Ascherson, "Torture: from regress to redress" (1 March 2006)

Neal Ascherson, "The case for pre-emption: Alan M Dershowitz reviewed" (18 May 2006)

Kanishk Tharoor, "What to do about torture? Manfred Nowak interviewed" (15 January 2007)

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