November 10, 2010
Brits on Bush
by Gabor Rona International Legal Director Is anyone other than perhaps George Bush surprised that the Conservative British government is publicly, emphatically, unequivocally denying his book tour mantra that waterboardings authorized by him saved lives? It would be one thing for our most special-relationship allies to quietly shake their heads, but why are the inventors of etiquette rubbing it in the nose of a man whose only remaining message about terrorism looks backward, not forward in a somewhat sad and embarrassing attempt to re-write history? Perhaps it's best understood as a message to his successor, who famously prefers to look forward not backward. What could the message be? After all, can't we take Obama at his word that the era of official torture is over? Yes, we can. And so the message must be about something else. Perhaps it's about the Obama regime's pristine record in holding no one accountable for setting torture policy or for allowing no torture victims their day in court. Or its very recent decision to turn a blind eye to official and apparently illegal cover-ups of torture. Or maybe about other ways in which the Obama regime is following in its predecessor's footsteps, dissing international law. Maybe it's about continued arbitrary detentions at Gitmo and elsewhere. Maybe about Military Commission trials that violate the Geneva Conventions and other human rights treaties. Or maybe interrogation policies that, while not necessarily torture, still permit practices like sleep and sensory deprivation, in violation of legal obligations of humane treatment. Or maybe all of the above. But still, why? I have a theory. Unlike the US, the Brits, like other Europeans, adhere to external mechanisms like the European Court of Human Rights to enforce their obligations. Those obligations include not cooperating with other countries' violations of human rights. The Brits are not naïve or soft on terrorism. They've had many more incidents of it and have many more worrisome characters in their midst than the US. But they also realize that effective counter-terrorism requires close international cooperation in intelligence sharing and transfer of suspects. And for them, cooperation requires respect for human rights by their cooperating partners. If it were just about the past, perhaps they would've said nothing. But since it's about the future, it makes perfect sense that having seen something, they said something. This is not just about European sensibilities. The US needs their cooperation every bit as much as they need the US. So if it wants to get national security right, the Obama administration might start paying more attention to its allies' sensibilities and less to its domestic opponents' politically tainted fear mongering.