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The War Against Terror is Making Villains of Us All, Richard Norton-Taylor, 22 January 2002
22 January 2002
The pictures of prisoners at the US military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, facetiously called Camp X-Ray by their guards, and dismissive remarks about their status and their rights uttered by Donald Rumsfeld, the US defense secretary, show the complete disregard, not to say contempt, the Bush administration has for international opinion.
Including, it seems, the opinion of what Bush calls its closest ally. Downing Street, apparently surprised by the growing unease among senior MPs and Whitehall officials - on pragmatic as much as moral grounds - plays it all down. "It is a sensible conversation," a No 10 spokesman said the other day, referring to a telephone call Blair had just made to Bush. Those close to Downing Street say the Prime Minister has gone out of his way, in conversations with the US president, to avoid pointed remarks or pushing his representations over the prisoners issue in any way that might risk any cooling of the transatlantic relationship. Blair has made clear that whatever domestic pressure he is under over the Guantanamo issue, he does not intend to push it beyond the level of formality.
Straw was given the job on Sunday of going through the motions of stating that the government believed all the prisoners should be treated humanely and in accordance with "customary law". But he added: "We have always made that clear and the Americans have said they share this view."
Not to us, they haven't. Mr Rumsfeld has come up with a new definition - "unlawful combatants" - which he has made clear in his view are not covered by the protection of the Geneva conventions. Along with anyone anywhere else accused of involvement in "international terrorism" - including those held at America's behest in British jails - they face the prospect of being tried behind closed doors in "military commissions" from which the only right of appeal would be to the commander-in-chief, George Bush himself.
Mr Rumsfeld's approach reflects the now apparently dominant view within the Bush administration that the US does not need to be bound by international law, any more than it does by international arms control treaties, and that military might is enough. It was described yesterday by Kenneth Rose, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, as a "highly cynical Hobbesian view of the world".
It is also potentially extremely dangerous, not least for British and other international peacekeepers, sent in to do what the US military does not care or dare to. The risk is that if hostile forces capture them, the US regime at Camp X-ray might well be cited as a precedent.
The Rumsfeld position is also short-sighted. The US needs the cooperation of its allies, not least Britain, to fight its "war" against international terrorism. The way it is going about it is not endearing itself to Britain's security and intelligence agencies, Blair should take note, if only because it threatens to undermine their work, including the help they seek from the Muslim community in the search for genuine terrorist suspects.
The same pragmatic considerations - as well, of course, as ones of justice and international law - should apply to legislation pushed through here without any proper parliamentary scrutiny. The Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act, which has the same broad aim as Bush's USA Patriot Act, permits the indefinite detention without trial - internment, by another name - of non-Britons whom David Blunkett, the home secretary, "reasonably" (the word was not included in the original bill) believes are terrorists or have "links" with an international terrorist group, or are "a risk" to national security.
"Terrorism" is now defined extremely broadly in law, covering "the use or threat of action" designed to influence the government or to advance a "political, religious, or ideological" cause. Such action includes the threat of committing "serious damage to property". Internees under the new act can appeal within three months to a Special Immigration Appeals Commission which reviews cases after a period of six months. However, though the commission has been given the status of a court, defendants will not know the evidence against them and there is nothing save the conscience of its members to prevent it from being little more than a rubber stamp to the home secretary's fiat.
There are believed to be seven Islamists detained without charge in Belmarsh prison, south-east London, under the latest anti-terrorism act. While prisoners at camp X-ray are kept in the open, those in Belmarsh see no daylight. Access to their lawyers and families is made as difficult as possible. We don't know the evidence against them. Djamel Ajouaou recently opted to go home to Morocco, hardly a haven of Islamist terrorists, leaving his family behind, rather then remain in prison here - on the apparently sole ground that he was translator or interpreter for other alleged terrorists held in prison here.
Meanwhile, Lotfi Raissi, an Algerian pilot wanted by the US in connection with the September 11 attacks, also languishes in Belmarsh. The evidence against him is regarded by the security services here, as well as a judge and a magistrate, as far from convincing. The FBI has been given until next month to come up with more.
To impose indefinite detention, the government had to suspend its obligations under the European convention on human rights and the UN's international covenant on civil and political rights. The "derogation order" tabled by Blunkett means the emergency is such that there is a "threat to the life of a nation". The order was made even though the security services said they had no evidence of any specific threat to Britain. No other European country has taken such a drastic step. Asked why we are alone, the government replies that Britain is in special danger because it is particularly close to the US.
Justice, the British section of the international commission of jurists, and Liberty, the civil rights group, are separately challenging at the European human rights court the order tabled by Blunkett and so meekly agreed by parliament. They could point to the cynical opportunism by which the government used the act - apparently needed as matter of urgency to save the nation - to attach a host of other measures far broader in scope than any fight against terrorism.
They include extending police powers, to search, retain fingerprints, and photograph, to establish identity, not guilt. It builds on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act - yet another threat to privacy and civil liberties introduced by this government, which allows any public servant nominated by the home secretary to order the collection and retention of any emails or phone calls sent or received.
All this information could be passed on to the FBI or security forces in the EU, where ministers are now considering no fewer than 63 new powers in the name of countering terrorism. Perhaps, after all, European governments are learning from the US, but being more discreet about it.