Europe of Human Rights

A few days ago, on the occasion of the new own-initiative report, the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) held a public hearing entitled “What is new on the alleged CIA illegal detention and transfers of prisoners in Europe?” The hearing showed that there was still a lot of resistance among member states to disclose information or investigate and settle allegations, but the truth is inevitably coming to the surface. In the absence of state delegations, the representatives of NGOs presented new developments and evidence with respect to CIA-led extraordinary renditions, the secret flights network and detention facilities.

General context

The 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States of America mark the beginning of the so-called “war on terror.” As part of that war, the Bush administration introduced a system of “extraordinary renditions” serviced by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 2005, Human Rights Watch, the Washington Post and ABC television reported that the US had operated a system of extraordinary renditions outside its territory. These allegations were confirmed by President George W. Bush himself.

The 2007 resolution of the European Parliament (EP) defines extraordinary rendition as an “extra-judicial practice which contravenes established international human rights standards and whereby an individual suspected of involvement in terrorism is illegally abducted, arrested and/or transferred into the custody of US officials and/or transported to another country for interrogation which, in the majority of cases, involves incommunicado detention and torture.” It has been a subject of several inquiries, within the European Union (EU), Council of Europe (CoE) and the United Nations (UN), whether extraordinary renditions, CIA-led flights and secret detentions took place in Europe. A substantial body of proof has been gathered implicating the EU and CoE member states and exposing their complicity in such practices.

The collaboration with the US on the above-listed practices would mean that the EU and CoE member states took part, even if indirectly by tolerating, in serious human rights violations, in particular violations of the right to liberty and security, the freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to an effective remedy. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the states failed to observe the obligations they voluntarily acknowledged and set forth in such documents as the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Institutional actions

Various institutions have so far carried out inquiries and presented evidence on the matter. They have voiced their concerns or condemnation with respect to European complicity in CIA extraordinary renditions, secret flights and detention facilities.

The EP has passed resolutions on the transportation and illegal detention of prisoners. The first resolution was adopted in 2005 and followed by the establishment of the Temporary Committee on the alleged use of European countries by the CIA for the transportation and illegal detention of prisoners. The Committee carried out an investigation which was substantially hindered by the invocation of “state secrecy” by European governments. The Committee’s report was accepted by the Parliament in the resolution of 2007.

The 2007 resolution contained findings concerning, among others, the UK, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Spain, Macedonia, Romania and Poland. It provided a list of political and legal recommendations for the EU institutions and member states. For example, it called for the states to continue or commence parliamentary inquiries or criminal investigations on extraordinary renditions and stopovers, compensate victims, review the notion of “state secret”, agree on a common definition of “terrorism” and work out efficient legal tools to combat it within the framework of international law. It also obliged the LIBE Committee and the Sub-committee on Human Rights to follow the issue. In 2009, acknowledging some new developments, the EP passed yet another resolution, in which it denounced the lack of action on the part of the states and the EU institutions.

The inquiry commissioned by the CoE and led by the Swiss Senator Dick Marty resulted in the publication of two reports (in 2006 and 2007). The first report on “Alleged secret detentions and unlawful inter-state transfers of detainees involving Council of Europe member states” revealed that the flights created “a network that resembles a ‘spider’s web’ spun across the Globe.” The second report considered it factually “established that secret detention centres operated by the CIA have existed for some years in Poland and Romania” and it did not rule out a possibility that secret detentions might have occurred in other CoE member states. The report also informed they were part of the High Value Detainees program “set up by the CIA with the co-operation of official European partners belonging to Government services and kept secret for many years thanks to strict observance of the rules of confidentiality laid down in the NATO framework.” As the report maintains, “the implementation of this programme has given rise to repeated serious breaches of human rights.”

In 2010, the UN published a joint study on global practices in relation to secret detention in the context of countering terrorism. The study places secret detentions within the international legal framework, provides historical overview and addresses the current practices of secret detention as part of “the war on terror.” It names a few European countries as complicit and participating in the secret detention system in various ways.

So what is new and what is the future?

In 2010 Amnesty International (AI) published a report entitled “Open Secret: Mounting Evidence of Europe’s Complicity in Rendition and Secret Detention.” In 2011 AI sent an abridged version of the report to the EP Sub-Committee on Human Rights. In December 2011, Reprieve published “Rendition on Record” report, in which it presents new evidence, concerning the network of CIA flights, obtained with the use of information requests.

It is known that since the end of institutional inquiries new developments have taken place in many European countries. For example, Lithuania’s participation in secret detention practices was only discovered in 2009. Between 2009 and 2011, two investigations were carried out and they confirmed the existence of secret detention facilities, but were terminated due to the apparent lack of evidence. In Poland, the official investigation began in 2008 and since then the evidence has mounted, partly owing to the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and its requests for information. Furthermore, two prisoners have been granted victim status and a high secret service officer has officially been charged. In Sweden, two former prisoners have been awarded damages. Until now, three cases related to extraordinary renditions and secret detentions in Europe have been filed with the European Court of Human Rights – El-Masri v. Macedonia, Al-Nashiri v. Poland and Abu Zubaydah v. Lithuania.

The new parliamentary own-initiative report and the recent public hearing in LIBE open anew the discussion on member states’ complicity in and accountability for the CIA extraordinary renditions and secret detention practices. It would be welcome if the states themselves lived up to expectations and took part in the efforts to unveil the truth which, quite often, lies behind the curtain of overused, if not abused, state secrecy.

Joanna Smętek, intern at “Europe of Human Rights”






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