West Law Report

Philippe Sands: use of torture undermines international law

The barrister answers readers’ question on Times:

Q: What consequences would the use of controlled “legislative” violence in the interrogation of suspects have for our present understanding of Human Rights?

A: In my view, the move to abusive interrogation has deeply undermined the United States’ ability to promote respect for international human rights law. For that reason I deeply regret what has happened and sincerely hope that the United States will take corrective measure and bring its own house in order before inaction compels prosecutors and judges in other jurisdictions feel the need to intervene.

Q: Are European countries that allowed rendition-flights to Guantanamo complicit in violating the absolute prohibition on torture under international law? If so, how can these countries be held accountable?

A: Article 4 of the Convention prohibiting torture, criminalises “an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture”. What constitutes complicity or participation will turn on the facts of a particular case. Knowing support for rendition flights, or turning a blind eye in circumstances in which torture is seen as likely or reasonably foreseeable, could constitute complicity or participation. Again, it turns on the facts, which are to be established.

Q: Why doesn’t the international committee put more pressure on the US to resolve this situation?

A: History shows that it can take time for countries to call to account abuses of international law. Senator Pinochet was arrested in London eight years after he had left office. But countries do seem to have turned a blind eye. On April 17, 2008 British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stood next to President Bush in the Rose Garden at the White House and said: “The world owes President George Bush a huge debt of gratitude for leading the world in our determination to root out terrorism, and to ensure that there is no safe haven for terrorism and no hiding place for terrorists.” (Read the transcript.)

President Bush has taken responsibility for approving techniques of interrogation that, in my view, have amounted to torture. Just a few weeks earlier President Bush vetoed legislation prohibiting the CIA from using the very same techniques of interrogation I describe in my book. “The bill Congress sent me,” President Bush said, “would take away one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror — the CIA program to detain and question key terrorist leaders and operatives”. (Click here for the transcript.)

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