US rights abuses are Europe's problem too


OPINION:Guantánamo Bay symbolises a system of detention made possible only by the help of other states, including Ireland, writes COLM O'GORMAN

A YEAR ago this week, within 48 hours of taking office, Barack Obama announced that Guantánamo Bay detention centre would close within 12 months and that the CIA’s network of secret prisons would be dismantled. Today, 198 prisoners remain in Guantánamo. The CIA is still allowed to carry out “rendition operations”, or kidnapping to be more accurate. It can still detain people in secret or hand them over to another country for interrogation. Dozens of people known to have been held in secret CIA prisons are still missing.

Detainees continue to be denied a fair trial. No one has been brought to justice for acts of kidnapping and torture committed by the US intelligence services and people acting on their behalf.

By any standards, including those he has set himself, the first year of the Obama administration has been marked by very limited progress on human rights. It is true that a number of Guantánamo detainees have been released. The use of waterboarding and other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques have been banned. These moves are absolutely to be welcomed, but the human rights abuses committed by the United States today are no less outrageous simply because George Bush is not in charge.

The first step to resolving this for good is to accept that this is not simply an American problem. The US government did not carry out its decade-long assault on the rule of law and respect for international human rights by itself. It had help. In 2006 the Council of Europe said: “It is now clear that authorities in several European countries actively participated with the CIA in these unlawful activities. Other countries ignored them knowingly, or did not want to know.”

European governments allowed the CIA to use their airports and airspace to transport prisoners. They hosted secret detention centres. Their security personnel participated in illegal interrogations and detentions of their own citizens.

Guantánamo exists because EU member states, including Ireland, made it possible. But despite this, and frequent calls from the EU to shut it down, most member states are reluctant to provide practical assistance.

Approximately 50 prisoners in Guantánamo have been cleared for release but cannot be returned home because they would be at risk of imprisonment, torture or other human rights abuses. In June the EU and the US agreed a framework that would allow EU member states to accept some of these detainees.

To date only seven former detainees have been welcomed into Europe as free men. The Government deserves credit for providing real moral leadership in the EU by accepting two of these men in September, but the reaction from other states has been disappointing. Europe must help to clean up a mess it helped to create.

Equally as important as closing Guantánamo is making sure it doesn’t happen again. This is where we need to see action from the Irish Government. We know that Shannon was used in CIA rendition operations.

The plane that took Khaled al-Maqtari from Baghdad to Kabul in 2004, where he entered the CIA’s network of secret prisons for almost three years of solitary confinement and torture, came through Shannon on January 20th, 2004.

After he was kidnapped on a street in Milan, Abu Omar was flown first to Germany and then to Egypt where he was subjected to horrific levels of torture and abuse. Having dropped him off in Egypt, the CIA agents made their getaway through Shannon airport on February 18th, 2003.

Both of these men have since been released and are trying to rebuild their lives, but there is nothing to prevent others from being subjected to the same crimes. The Government seems uninterested that CIA planes broke the law by claiming to be civilian aircraft while travelling through our airspace.

Over a year ago the Government announced it was going to review, and if necessary strengthen, the law to ensure gardaí could board and search suspected rendition flights at Shannon airport.

At the time the Green Party presented it as a substantial achievement, “a signal that this Government is taking human rights seriously”. But there is no sign of the review, no indication as to when it might be published, no timetable, no suggestion about how the law might be changed, and the Cabinet committee established to carry out the review has only met twice.

Meanwhile, in Shannon, the planes continue to arrive. Since March 2009 five aircraft previously used in rendition operations visited the airport, some of them on a number of occasions, according to activists monitoring flights.

Guantánamo is the most visible symbol of a system of prisons, secret detention sites and rendition networks that made possible the illegal kidnapping and imprisonment of hundreds of people.

Those prisoners still held there should be given a fair, independent and impartial trial, or released. Obama should live up to his commitments, and our Taoiseach needs to live up to his.

The Government needs to understand that it is not good enough to rely on foreign governments to tell us what is happening in our airports or in the skies above us, and to live up to its responsibility to ensure Ireland is never again a pit stop for torture flights.

Colm O’Gorman is the executive director of Amnesty International Ireland

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