ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday April 13, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 46
Columns - Thoughts from London  

Europe and the Human Rights cover-up

By Neville de Silva

Western nations have and continue to slate Sri Lanka on its human rights record. If Sri Lanka is guilty of human rights abuses-and there appears to be sufficient evidence that its record is not as clean as authorities claim it is- it is only right and prper that the country is put under the spotlight so that it mends its ways.

But many of the western nations that criticise us for breaching international conventions and law are themselves violators of the very same humanitarian laws that we are accused of abusing.

Yet they parade before the world not only as arbiters of the conduct of other nations but also as those that have lily-white records of their own. Their own conduct they try to hide from official inquiries by means that could only be termed duplicitous. Since these countries are followers of Christianity, whatever shade of the faith they adhere to, they cannot be unaware of that saying in the Gospel of John- “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

How many of the countries that accuse Sri Lanka are without sin of their own, sins that they have tried not only to hide from the rest of the world but also have been complicit in one of the worst of them-the torture of individuals. If Sri Lanka should be castigated as it should if proof and not conjecture of human rights violations is available, then let it be done by those who are without sin and who are thus entitled to cast the first stone and many others.

How many of the western nations that revel in casting their stones and an occasional Rock (named Allan) can truthfully say we are pure white (a pun might be intended) and we have nothing to hide.

The British recently tried it. Yet the British media which prides itself on having the tenacity of a bulldog and the ferocity of a rotweiler seemed either ignorant or unconcerned about their country’s attempts to absolve itself of blame for sending suspects to be tortured or UK’s part in such abominable conduct.

Even if the transcript of Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s speech at the launch of the UK’s Annual Human Rights Report 2007 was not immediately available it was shortly afterwards. Still one hardly saw any comment in the British media that raised questions about Britain’s role in those “rendition flights” the CIA operate via UK and other European airports, transporting terror suspects to countries where torture is known to be used to extract information or to punish those who are opposed to the regimes in those countries. Nor did one see any comment on the British judicial system which this government contemptuously casts aside as in the case of the inhabitants of Diego Garcia, thrown out of their island homes and have won a legal battle to return home.

I have in the last two columns quoted some of the words that Miliband used on that occasion to whitewash his country while brazenly pointing the finger at almost everybody else. For the benefit of those who missed the quotes or those who still cling to Britain’s apron strings in the belief that it is a champion of human rights, I will do so again. It would show that cynicism and prevarication are traits that politicians wherever they may be, assiduously cultivate and practise.

The key paragraph, for my purpose, in Miliband’s speech at the launch of the Report, is this: “Our own democratic and judicial systems, which embody hard won rights, and deal with people of different religion or race on an equal basis, are living proof that healthy societies depend for their stability on equal rights for all. That is why, for example, we are making our contribution, through the return of British nationals and residents to the closure of Guantanamo, and why it is our clear policy never to be complicit in torture or rendition to torture. It is why we need to continue to ensure that we adhere to all our commitments to human rights at home and abroad.”

How David Miliband could stand up there and utter these words which he knows are not all true, that they have been concocted for the occasion and contradicts the evidence of European investigations and other sources, surely takes a bladder full of gall. Miliband talks of contributing to the closure of Guantanamo detention camp where hundreds if not thousands of suspects were held and are still being held, without due process following 9/11. Surely Miliband knows that Britain helped put some of the suspects in the same Guantanamo that he now says the UK is helping to close.

One thought that concentration camps ended with the closure of Auschwitz and Belsen, among others. But the horror of those 20th century camps continues to haunt us in the 21st century through Guantanamo and Britain, rather than contributing to its closure, helped to add to its numbers and did little at first to aid British residents held there. Miliband was brazen enough to say publicly that it is the British government’s “clear policy never to be complicit in torture and rendition to torture.” If by “never to be” he means in the future then is it not an admission that the British have been complicit in the past? If by those words he means Britain has never had a hand in helping in the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition”, a phrase deliberately coined to hide its true meaning and significance, then Miliband is surely trying to fool the world and himself.

Few will care if he tries to fool himself. It is trying to fool the world that should concern us. In late November 2006 the European parliament roundly condemned the CIA’s “torture flights”, the secret flights which transferred detainees to locations where they risked being tortured. The parliament castigated European governments including Britain which it said knew about these flights that used European airports but made concerted attempts to obstruct investigations into them. The European MPs singled out Geoff Hoon, the current Labour government’s then minister for Europe and a colleague of Miliband in the party benches, saying they deplored his attitude to their special committee’s inquiry into these flights.

The MPs also expressed outrage at the view expressed by the chief legal adviser to the Foreign Office Sir Michael Wood that “receiving or possessing” information extracted under torture, if there was no direct participation in the torture, was not per se banned under international law. Having made this legal justification Sir Michael had apparently refused to give evidence before the committee.

The British position appears to have been this. We will help you transfer detainees to a third country or to Guantanamo by allowing your flights via our airports. You can then do whatever you want with the detainees, even torture them. Pass on to us any nformation you extract from detainees under torture and we’ll be glad to use it. This allows Britain to claim that it did not torture anyone and so their hands are clean, legally speaking. But we’ll be happy to use any information you get from torturing detainees. Apparently the British are squeamish about doing their own dirty work. Are these the guardians of human rights who stand up in international forums and preach to the rest of us? Do Britain and other European nations including Germany, who have been complicit (at least) in such outrageous conduct have the slightest moral right to condemn others for human rights abuses? The European inquiry found that at least 1,245 CIA rendition flights used European airspace or landed at European airports. The report expressed “serious concern” about 170 stopovers at British airports. Surely this could not have happened without the knowledge of British officials.

In fact the Labour government tried its utmost to stifle attempts by MPs to find out about these flights. A briefing paper sent by the foreign office to No 10 Downing Street, shows that the government was aware of secret interrogation centres, despite denials by ministers. The document first published by the New Statesman magazine, was a note sent from the foreign secretary’s private office to Tony Blair’s office.

The document is proof enough of how the government, aware of what was happening, tried to deflect criticism by avoiding going into detail but tried to hide behind the skirt of Condoleezza Rice. After the European parliament exposed in its report, the morally, if not legally, reprehensible actions of European governments including some of those who are most vociferous about the abuse of human rights by others, Clive Stafford Smith, legal director of Reprieve said: “ Some European governments, it’s now clear, systematically assisted in clandestine flights and illegal prisoner transfers to Guantanamo Bay. We need a full investigation and Europeans need to face their responsibility for these crimes.”

Will this ever happen? It is more likely that the Europeans will cover up their own guilt by pointing the finger at others. It is happening already.

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