Hammamberg: Duty to investigate over torture allegations

Thomas Hammamberg, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has a comment on the recent decision of the UK government, authorising a a judge-led inquiry into allegations that British officials were complicit in the mistreatment of suspects held by the United States, Pakistan and others.

According to the Commissioner, “this is a proper response to a request from twelve former detainees who have all credibly claimed that they became victims of the ‘war on terror’ and were severely tortured”, and he invites other European governments to initiate investigations.

The time has certainly come to break the conspiracy of silence around the complicity of European governments in the human rights violations which have taken place during the counter-terrorism actions since September 2001, he writes in his comment.

In this respect, several states are mentioned as those who need to set up an indipendent inquiry. Among others, Sweden (for the rendition to CIA of two asylum-seeking Egyptians), successive governments in “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (for the co-operation of their intelligence services with the CIA in the case of Khaled El-Masri), Poland and Romania (for their role in the CIA’s system of secret detentions, transfers and interrogations of terrorist suspects), and Lithuania(for the allegations that the CIA had operated a secret prison on national territory).

Hammamberg also reiterates that States have the duty under ECHR to conduct effective investigations into arguable claims of torture and other ill-treatment. More importantly, in this context he highlights that confidentiality does not excuse silence about human rights violations; in this regard, the Commissioner mention the case of Maher Arar – a Canadian citizen who was mistaken for another person, stopped at a US airport, handed over to the Syrian security police and badly tortured. Canada set up a thorough and fair investigation, without endangering the intelligence nerve system.

Hammamberg concludes with a strong condemnation of the methods used in the war on terror:

Effective action is needed to prevent and punish terrorist acts. The tragic mistake after September 11 was not the determination to respond, but the choice of methods: terrorism must not be fought with terrorist means. During the ‘war on terror’ core principles of human rights have been violated – also in Europe. It has victimized thousands of individuals, many of them totally innocent. It is urgent that the damage now be repaired and steps be taken to prevent such violations in the future.

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