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Europe diary: Power and torture
29 June 2006

In his diary this week, BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell reflects on the Council of Europe's powers, US and European debates on torture, and the effect in Brussels of tensions between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The diary is published every Thursday.


Boeing 737
Stevens Express aircraft N313P: Not recommended for comfort
If you are offered a cheap flight on "Stevens Express" or "Premier Executive" my advice is: don't take it. I hear the food is atrocious and in-cabin service particularly poor on "Presidential aviation". These are some of the cover names used by the CIA for flights, which the Council of Europe claims were used to move kidnapped suspected terrorists through European airspace, and European airports, to countries where they could be tortured.

The flight log reads like the route plan of a particularly desperate budget airline. Banjul to Cairo, to Kabul, to Tashkent, to Frankfurt, to Rabat back to Kabul, sounds like a packed five days. Now the Council of Europe has voted that foreign intelligence services operating in Europe should be much more closely monitored, within a strict system of rules setting out what is legal and what is not.


Covering this story was a bit like a school reunion, under the giant wooden orchid that blooms in the centre of Council of Europe's home in Strasbourg. It was good to clasp the hands of people I used to gossip with on a daily basis but hadn't seen for nearly a year. Because this is where British MPs - and MPs from 45 other parliaments in European countries - meet up. (Very continental of us to shake hands, actually, as there's a weird convention in Westminster that frowns upon the practice.)


Terry Davis
Terry Davis: Immunity should not mean impunity
The Council of Europe, the European Union's older, bigger and far less powerful cousin, is trying to make waves. Even inside the organisation some dismiss the report on CIA flights as a collection of fading newspaper cuttings fuelled by anti-Americanism. Washington has dismissed them as "allegations". But few deny that something like this went on. So the MPs have voted for stricter rules and tighter agreements when allowing what are called "state flights" within Europe.

They want all such agreements to specifically mention human rights. The Secretary General, former British MP Terry Davis, wants to make it clear that foreign agents who break the law can be prosecuted. As he puts it: "Diplomatic immunity does not mean diplomatic impunity."

For its part, the EU has weighed in with Commissioner Franco Frattini warning that if member states have persistently colluded to break human rights agreements, they could be punished, which would mean their voting rights being taken away for a while. This would certainly be entertaining - watching other states rush through laws against the interests of one member while they had the chance - but it is so unlikely as to be fantasy.


Browsing in the Council of Europe shop I spot an academic-looking paperback called The American Debate on Torture. It is interesting that there is one in the USA, but not in Europe. But why is this? Many of the American voices raised remind me of fifth-form debates: "What would you do if you knew a man had planted a bomb... ?" But there is nothing wrong with going back to basics.

Photographs of possible victims of a Serb torture squad
Serbian torture squads are alleged to have operated in Kosovo
Americans would say it's because "it" didn't happen to Europe. But of course Madrid and London did happen to Europe. So did Bologna, Bilbao, Warrington, and Brighton. Spain, Britain, Italy and Germany have suffered decades of terrorism and pondered for years the acceptable limits of interrogation.

But history may be a more important reason. Through centuries of intolerance, despotism and empire, Europe has plenty of examples of torture as part of a judicial process. Many countries have suffered in the recent past from regimes that would have laughed at the idea of not inflicting pain and fear as a means of control.

I find it interesting that I can't recall any allegation that the allies used, or discussed using torture during World War II, although there must have been occasions when it might have saved lives or even the liberty of states. If you know differently please let me know.


Eddie Izzard
Eddie Izzard: Is the European Council like school?
Tony Blair has recently recorded a rather odd interview with the comedian Eddie Izzard, which has been released as a podcast on the Downing Street website. When Eddie Izzard remarks that there's something called the Council of Europe and something called the European Council, Mr Blair, using his "I've been told to be nice to you" voice says: "The one you need to worry about is the European Council because that is where the leaders turn up." He adds sarcastically: "It is not that the Council of Europe is not immensely important..."

It's not very powerful, certainly. Given that it can't make laws, politicians and headline writers can easily ignore its exhortations.

His MOST interesting comment? Eddie asks if negotiating at the European Council is a bit like being at school. Using his "Why did they ask me to be nice to you?" voice, he says, "No it's not."

But then he says: "You know some people go into the sort of Brussels cauldron and they get sort of irritated or depressed by the constant negotiation and haggling and all the rest of it, but my attitude to it is, it is just part of the way you do business internationally today." Could he just be thinking about Gordon Brown, who's known to dislike European negotiations?


The TBGBs (the Westminster nickname for the instability caused by the central relationship in British politics) have come to Brussels with a report in the Financial Times that the chancellor is trying unpick last year's budget negations.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair
GB and TB: Causing embarrassment in Whitehall
Certainly, he was cross and reluctant at the time of the agreement. British diplomats are now arguing that the UK shouldn't have to pay its contribution to the rebates won by Sweden and the Netherlands. This would get the UK about 90m back.

Others have retaliated by saying that Britain should not only pay this but also something towards another payback mechanism involving VAT. All highly technical stuff, but the embarrassment in Whitehall suggests the political interpretation is the right one. You do get the feeling that civil servants are finding it difficult to serve two masters.

Please use the postform below to comment on any of the issues in the diary.

All the comments lead us to the de facto realities: People in the West (or the UK and US, at least) believe that it is now OK to torture "them" as they are already torturing and beheading "us", irrespective of whether "they" or "us" are actually guilty. And we are all prepared to accept the natural conclusion, that the increasing dislike of Christians and Jews for Muslims and "they" for "us" will lead to the killing of one by the other will be seen as "proportionate" and therefore acceptable.
Stuart Duncan, Rainford UK

We are discussing things whose very existence is unproven. It's a discussion about the mating habits of the unicorn. Very strange.
Colin Meade, London, UK

Complete hersay, but an old (scottish)soldier I knew who served in the Pacific in WW2 talked darkly of prisoners being tied between trees and jeeps, and pulled apart. I was too young to think to ask him more about it, but it certainly stuck in my mind. There's a feeling from the WW2 generation in NZ that maltreatment of Japanese soldiers was tolerable, because they were dreadfully cruel to their prisoners. And treatment of NZ Consciencious objectors in WW1 bordered on torture - see Archibald Baxter's book "We will not cease". Why does it surprise anyone that torture happens in war time - once society orders the breaching of the ancient social prohibition against murder, other normally evil behaviours seem more acceptable - or even necessary.
Margaret, Wellington, NZ

I think all these ussues of illegal deportaion, kidnapping, and especailly torure, can be solved by a adherence to a few simple dictums. We should not under any circumstances inflcit pain and suffering on anyone what ever their purported evil actions. ths is a simple, universal truth. Refusal to stick to this exhibits a lack of intelligence, and a lack of resources . whatever any one else does, and which we call terrorism, the evil is on their part, and we should not use mathods that are evil, simply because they do. Christ woud say this categorically. we must first heal the suffering that is caused by their actions then we must prevent its occurence by understanding they who say they hate us. This is not to say policing or fightng genuine wars are wrong, if they are done in a preventative fashion, but they should always be the last resort. To inflict suffering on any creature is wrong, that is universal. If president Bush was really committed to his Christian beliefs or any politician, sureley they would start from these tenets, no death penalty, no rendition to countries that use torture, no kidnapping, no Guantanamo.
nick, brynteg, anglesey, wales

Did the Allies use torture during WW2? There was a harrowing article in a Saturday Newspaper a few months back (Guardian, I think) about the extreme use of torture perpetrated by Britain -certainly immediately after WW2, which resulted in a damning report suppressed for a long time (and I believe only recently released). It included a general's quote, at the time, to the effect: "If we have to go by the Judges Rules, what's the point of having an interrogation Centre?" It is difficult to believe that, if that level of torture was used (on Nazi suspects) after the War, it was not used during it. If the Allies DIDN'T used torture during that War, they must have been the first in history not to. It is fairly well documented that Britain has tortured suspects in virtually every other conflict [Ireland (North & South) Malaya, Aden, Kenya etc]. I stretches credulity to the limit that WW2 was an exception.
Nicholas Thorowgood, Reading UK

On the moral issues of torture, I feel it can never be right to torture people under any cicumstances. The argument that by hurting one person others may be saved pain or death is simply the thin end of a 'the ends justify the means' wedge. An argument can be used to justify absolutly anything. However I understand that not everyone will agree with my point of view so I want to suggest another argument against the use of torture. It doesn't work. Put simply if you brutalise someone enough to break down thier defences then they will most likely tell you anything you want to hear in order to stop the pain. As a consequence any information gained is just not reliable and will not lead to the prevention of harm or 'terrorist acts'. Even if your morals let the end justifies the means, the inability to achieve your your ends renders the means invalid.
Stephen, London, England

If you'd like a little background on U.S. involvement (or embracement) of torture since WWII, I recomend reading Naomi Klein's article "'Never Before!' Our Amnesiac Torture Debate" in The Nation magazine, available online.
Wes Sandel, Raton, New Mexico, USA

Surely a lesson learned is one through experience...folks...keep the bitterness down, the sarcasm down. Countries in Europe have learned their lessons the hard way....surely then this means we should pass on our understanding... or do we want to block knowledge and hence lead to further humiliation and torture for the worlds citizens..?
Colin, Bolton,UK

The issue is more about the USA mission statement. If we are going to fight terror by whatever means necessary then we should say that and get off our pedestal, instead of sneaking around while pretending to be the good guy.
Pam, Colorado, USA

If a civilized country is allowed to 'use any means necessary' to fight its enemies and secure its own safety, how is this any different from terrorists 'using any means necessary' to fight their enemies and secure their own safety?
JP, Coventry

As a Brit, and therefore European, who has spent his adult life across the Pond, my view of the torture discussion is informed. Aside from the moral questions, inflicting pain and/or terror on suspects is simply dosen't work. Any information gathered this way must be suspect. If the discomfort is intense enough, the victim will say whatever he thinks the torturer wants to hear. Better to use pleasurable things (such as drugs, friendship, even romance) that the prisoner may want to continue. Make sure he/she understands that this depends on the quality of his answers. There would be less public angst.
Patrick J. Mackie, Toronto, Canada

The story of the British torture center is extremely important--BBC, when will you do a special on it? So far, all the examples given of torture there are post-May, 1945; which means that it does not YET contradict the point that torture was NOT justified in the pursuit of war aims.
Carlo Cristofori, italy

I find the debate on torture amusing coming from Europeans. I think this is a situation where people want to act like they stand on the higher moral ground, but in reality Europe is no better. All we have to do is look back not so long ago, like when the French were dealing with the Algerian rebellion. French torture and massacres are detailed quite well in Services Speciaux, Algerie 1955-57 by Paul Aussaresses.

Let's look at Britain in the 1950s in Kenya as another example....

For Spain, we can look at Amnesty International's 2002 report on Spanish torture of ETA members by the Civil Gaurd during the 1970s and 80s...

Does this mean America is right in possibly torturing suspects, or holding them without trial? No, certainly not. But let's not pretend that the morally high and mighty European Union is any better.
Thomas Mackenzie, NYC,NY

If you think that European countries have not used similar forms of clandestine extradition to illegally obtain certain hideous characters, than I suppose you might not have heard of a chap named the Carlos the Jackal now doing a life sentence in oh so moral France. But that was okay, right chaps? And whilst we wring our collective hands in moral contempt at the Yanks playing loud music and pulling down pants in Abu Ghraib, we sat oh so quiet whilst Saddam and his cronies dismembered, gang-raped and gassed innumerable others. Something seems grossly hypocritical there...
William Hebb, Netherlands

The United States had Japanese internment camps during WWII. Even though they were holding Americans, they were holding them under the pretext that they were enemies. The camps were located in the States (mostly California), but again, since they were considered part of the war defense, it seems fair to count them as an act of torture during the war. Also, there was that whole atomic bomb thing.
Laura Provance, Kirksville, MO United states of America

The behaviour by the USA regarding rendition flights is absolutely unacceptable and must be stopped once for all. Europe is not their playing ground or a colony and they should stop treating it this way. I am also quite concerned with the tone of many of the comments I read on this forum, they should think what would they feel if they or their loved ones were innocent prisoners subjected to torture... Finally I would like to remind Mike from Milwaukee that vendetta is definitely NOT a concept for which Italians are 'culturally known', he must have learned that from some third-rate mafia fiction on TV.
Camilla Galli, Milano

I welcome the attention given to this issue. Torture is morally unacceptable as well as tactically unwise. From the moral perspective, torture is simply wrong because it is cruel. The main tactical problems in the 'war on terror' seems to me to be the increasing recruitment for terrorist causes and the sheltering of terrorists by the local population in certain regions. This situation can not be realistically expected to change as long as atrocities continue. Furthermore information gained under torture is highly likely to be false.

The European convention on human rights is the most important foundation of the EU and governments should definitely be punished for any violations, regardless of whether they are big and old member states or newcomers. May I also call on voters to let their governments' record in this regard weigh heavily the next time they vote, even if they are not Arabs/Muslims themselves.
Oscar Dahlsten, London

Virtually every country falls into human rights abuses during wartime. However, the EU should not give up the moral high ground based upon a small number of torture incidents during WWII. Our US administration is involved in systematic lowering of human rights standards domestically and internationally, during a "war" that can never end, by definition. Someone has to stand up for what is right internationally - it is terrible that our administration has destroyed our position as a country that would do that.
Yvonne Federowicz, North Providence, USA

If you are fighting a war for hearts and minds and claiming the moral high ground you must be seen to stick to that. All these accusations, which have been so many that they add up to make a truth in the end, make America have no morals whatsoever. If anyone has ever travelled around the world lately you will find the world does not admire the American nation. These methods will only further our moral decline in people's minds. I think the damage is done.
James Sanderson, New York, USA

Well at least some progress is being made with our American friends in at least admitting that the US tortures suspected terrorists. Their government should do the same. Whether it's right or wrong - tell the truth about what you're doing, rather than having Rice, Rumsfeld etc insulting our intelligence by saying that 'the US does not engage in torture of suspects.'
Ahmad, London, England

Why do Europeans complain about the CIA's treatment of people who have have overwhelming evidence of terrorist links?

By the way I am Irish as well as Australian, and a proud European. This European is angry and outraged at these so-called 'civil liberties, human rights protestors'. They strove with all their energies to protect the Saddam and Taliban regimes. Now they are the greatest allies of those who would destroy our liberties.

I used to be a teacher of refugees, from Saddam, and the Islamic regimes of Sudan and the Taliban. Many of these had heart-rending post-traumatic stress syndrome. I once went up to a 22-year-old large, male Iraqi refugee, extended my hand and said 'hello'. He ran away from me into a corner, crouched down in a foetal position, shaking uncontrollably with fear, and pissed himself.

Another one of my students was the child of a Christian Sudanese civilian who was suspected of having links to the resistance against the Sudanese Islamist regime. When he was 6 years old the soldiers of the regime tortured him by pulling out all his teeth with pliers in front of his father in order to get his father to divulge information about the resistance. His father didn't talk and this 6 year old child then saw his father's brains blown out in front of him.

These protestors don't care about these refugees, these protestors don't care about their families... The CIA are heroes 'one and all', the world owes them a great debt of gratitude. Europeans should praise them in their efforts to help us every day, instead of trying to sabotage those efforts.
Conor Purcell, Perth Australia, currently working in Korea

Alan David Pena the whole point is yes, we are civilised, the moment the terrorists provoke us to lower our standards of humanity they have won a victory, the more we lower our standards the greater the victory. We should treat terrorist subjects with scrupulous regard for the law, because if we don't we descend to their level.
John Gresham, Liverpool England

In reply to Alan David Pena, Brussels, Belgium's comment about "they use torture so why shouldn't we". Western leaders took us to war to rid us of tyrants like Saddam Hussein, what is the point of ridding the world of dictators like him only to do the same as him but behind closed doors? Western leaders do claim to be better than the enemy, which is why publicly they denounce the use of torture but allow it to happen on their behalf.
Lindsey, Bromley,Kent

Your point about not being able to recall an instance of the Allies in WWII not promoting torture is a good one, especially to bring up here in the states. However, I don't hear anything in the discussion about how the 'Cold War' evolved torture.. and how somehow Europe came out moral and the US did not. Without digging too deep, the debate rings hollow, and as someone against torture I find that to be unacceptable.
Zack Young, Lawrence, KS, US

America would have far more support if only it sticks to humane and legal ways of rounding up suspected terrorists. Suspected terroris need to be brought in front of a proper court not a kangaroo court. Only after listening to prosecution and defence submissions can a jury and judge decide the fate of the alleged terrorists. Torture is not acceptable in this day and age especially when we have proper courts of law with highly competent judges. By taking the law into their own hands, the American government is unnecessarily alienating the Europeans who basically want to get rid of terrorism by charging suspects in proper courts. Cooperation between countries is essential but secret flights to torture destinations are definitely not on. When will the American administration wake up and follow sensible ways? Gung-ho approaches often backfire you know!
Pancha Chandra, Brussels; Belgium

I find it strange that our enemies use torture, beheading,kidnapping, and god knows what other means of causing pain and hurt with no regard to human values/life. Yet if Europeans/North Americans hurt the poor little things, a huge hooha follows.We may be "Civilised" but war is war.
Alan David Pena, Brussels, Belgium

Re Mr Mardell's question about the Allies in WWII and torture - I agree, I do not think this was an option. However, intimidation of people considered to be potential 5th columnists was common, and pretty severe. Look at the Japanese populations in the US and Canada. Property confiscated, put into camps, and so on - and of course there is the problem of individual acts on the battle fronts. But I must agree that altogether the Allies tended to shy away from torture.
D. Fear, Heidelberg, Germany

It seems to me that the US, with its predaliction for violence and bully-boy tactics, is really a child. As is commented in the column, much of Europe has been subject to terrorism, has been in the position where torture could be regarded as a viable option. The history of the countries of Europe has, wisely, advised them against it. The USA, in this sense, is a child. A powerful and influential child, admittedly. However, every child needs to learn from its elders. It would be of enormous advantage to the US if they chose to follow the European countries, and realise that torture, although in the short-term seeming profitable, is an indictment of the country as a whole. Torture is the resort of b-grade movies and desperation. Openness, rare as it is in all countries of this world, is the key to the advancement of all.
Kim Watt, Tarifa, Spain

Voluntarily limiting a part of your national sovereignity in some social or economic matters is one thing, but the recent anti-American campaign in the Council of Europe and the European Parliament concerns vital security issues of many countries and is a result of a rather exaggerated and, in my opinion, confused view of human rights. There's nothing wrong in inflicting pain or fear to gain vital security information from people who are suspected of belonging to terrorist groups, as long as not too many mistakes are made and no permanent damage done. There's a war going on, whether European bureaucrats and leftists, who obviously want to alienate USA and Europe as much as possible, want to admit it or not, and if they persist in undermining the war efforts and thereby endangering the lives and property of all of us, this is just going to turn a lot of reasonable people against the idea of EU altogether.
Vladimir Petrovic, Prague, Czech Republic

It is naive to praise the English, Germans, Spanish, etc. for (apparently) not using torture following terrorist attacks to their respective countries. Nobody really knows what happens behind the scenes. The English have not been particularly gracious (throughout history) to enemies that have been caught. I am reminded of World War I when English soldiers shot surrendering Germans simply because they were in a pillbox with a machine gun. Italians are culturally known for the term "vendetta". This certainly is not a gracious way of dealing with one's enemy. To praise European nations simply because the American government is torturing "thought-to-be" terrorist accomplices is simply anti-Americanism. Can you honestly tell me that you believe European government agencies would never resort to torture to receive valuable information? If your answer is yes, then you clearly need to receive a dose of reality and you are much more foolish than your diary first indicated.
Mike, Milwaukee, USA

You ask for information on allegations of torture by the allies in WW2. I recommend this report by The Guardian on the London Cage: http://www.guardian.co.uk/secondworldwar/story/0,,1640942,00.html
Chris Dunlop, Norwich, UK

The British government operated a secret torture centre during the second world war to extract information and confessions from German prisoners, according to official papers which have been unearthed by the Guardian. More than 3,000 prisoners passed through the centre, where many were systematically beaten, deprived of sleep, forced to stand still for more than 24 hours at a time and threatened with execution or unnecessary surgery. Some are also alleged to have been starved and subjected to extremes of temperature in specially built showers, while others later complained that they had been threatened with electric shock torture or menaced by interrogators brandishing red-hot pokers. The centre, which was housed in a row of mansions in one of London's most affluent neighbourhoods, was carefully concealed from the Red Cross, the papers show. It continued to operate for three years after the war, during which time a number of German civilians were also tortured. A subsequent assessment by MI5, the Security Service, concluded that the commanding officer had been guilty of "clear breaches" of the Geneva convention and that some interrogation methods "completely contradicted" international law. On at least one occasion, an MI5 officer noted in a newly declassified report, a German prisoner was convicted of war crimes and hanged on the basis of a confession which he had signed after he was, at the very least, "worked on psychologically". A number of people who appeared as prosecution witnesses at war crimes trials are also alleged to have been tortured. The official papers, discovered in the National Archives, depict the centre as a dark, brutal place which caused great unease among senior British officers. They appear to have turned a blind eye partly because of the usefulness of the information extracted, and partly because the detainees were thought to deserve ill treatment. Not all the torture centre's secrets have yet emerged, however: the Ministry of Defence is continuing to withhold some of the papers almost 60 years after it was closed down.
Mike Bolget, Boston

I would like to think that while Mark is probably right that handing a '10 minute sin bin' to countries isn't going to happen, I think this would a novel solution to say the least. Imagine France having to sit on the sideline, and not participate while the rest of the EU gleefully dismantle their agricultural subsidies. Or Poland, with its staunchly conservative and vocal government, grinding its teeth in silent frustration, as the rest of the EU vote to do the same to them. Certainly proves there's one layer too many in the political halls of Brussels. Thinning out the skulking groups, gathered under atrociously mundane 'art' and clogging up the queue for croissants and coffee in the morning, would bring more space for the others to gesticulate far more passionately, about the height and strength of stream in bidets, or the size, shape, and sucking power of varicoloured miliking machines in Finland. I suspect this one will die a quick and quiet death, as countries seek to mutually bury this as quickly as possible for fear of exposure. Probably the fastest skulk, whisper and result in EU history! Another good report Mark.
alex, Currently Studying in Moscow.

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