The interim report by the Council of Europe on the issue of “extraordinary renditions” is another sign of the suspicion with which sections of popular opinion in Europe hold the United States.
Although this report, by the Swiss MP Dick Marty, contains no major revelations, and in one section even undermines claims that a secret prison existed in Romania, it is full of frustration at American policy – and at European governments for not questioning that policy more vigorously.
“In countries that pride themselves on being long-standing democracies that protect human rights, the revelation of these allegations should have sparked off reactions and categorical condemnations several months ago, but this was not the case,” Mr Marty stated.
The report is however a useful compendium of public information and will take its place in the debate about the extent to which governments which feel they are under attack can take action to prevent such attacks.
Mr Marty sees these issues as part of a pattern of US policy under which the Geneva Conventions are being by-passed and prisoners are being handed over for interrogation and torture to countries like Jordan and Egypt.
He told a news conference that “there were people who were kidnapped and transferred with no rights. There are camps in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay outside any legal system. Others have been taken in Europe and rendered to other countries for unacceptable treatment.”
He accused the United States of “outsourcing” torture and claimed that European government must have known about this.
It was not, he said, until a Washington Post report on 2 November last year that pressure had grown for further inquiry. The Post wrote that the CIA had been “hiding and interrogating some of its most important al-Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe”.
However, a weakness in the Marty report is that he has had to rely on US news reports about the secret “compound”. He has not elicited a reply from the Polish government about whether this was in Poland as the American Human Rights Watch organisation alleged.
Another US news report, on ABC television, said that the Polish prison and another in Romania had subsequently been closed and transferred to North Africa.
However in a section on a possible camp in Romania, Mr Marty’s own report says that all sites mentioned had been examined by a non-government human rights group and “their conclusions do not seem to provide any evidence of such centres.”
His report has already been seized on by opponents of the Bush administration to demand answers. A British Labour member of the European Parliament Claude Moraes said: “There is clearly an issue to be resolved on rendition flights” and “far more work to be done” on the question of secret prisons in Europe.
But former British Europe Minister and MP Denis MacShane – a US supporter – said that Mr Marty’s report “has more holes than a Swiss cheese.”
“The report simply re-circulates newspaper allegations and sustains the anti-American propaganda that seeks to divide the democracies of Europe,” he said.
The final chapter on all this has not been written. The authorities in Milan have 22 outstanding warrants against CIA agents suspected of abducting an Egyptian cleric Abu Omar in Milan before handing him over to Egypt. The details of the “Soviet-era compound in eastern Europe” reported by the Washington Post have not come out. And flights presumably continue.
The question of torture
In addition, the question of what the US defines as ‘torture’ has also not been fully resolved, though the US has made some recent concessions.
In early December the US position was summed up in a statement from the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before her visit to Europe.
She said that the United States did not “permit, tolerate, or condone torture under any circumstances.” It also “respected — and will continue to respect — the sovereignty of other countries,” and “does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture.”
This was not enough for the US Congress which subsequently agreed to extend the prohibition on torture to specifically include other forms of ill-treatment. A defence bill amendment outlawed “the use of torture, or cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees being held by the U.S. military and civilian federal agencies such as the CIA,” in the words of an explanation from the US embassy in London.
However President Bush also made a statement when signing the bill in which he said he would carry out these commitments “in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President as Commander in Chief” in the shared objective with Congress of “protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.”
Some legal analysts have interpreted this as meaning that the administration might bypass this law and claim rights for the president to authorise forms of harsh interrogation in certain cases.
There has therefore been movement by Washington but maybe a loophole remains.
The debate and dialogue called for by Mr Marty on publication of his report will undoubtedly continue about such issues.