Judges: Torture, Abuses Undermine Values in U.S., U.K.

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 17, 2009; 9:22 AM

LONDON, Feb. 17 -- An international group of judges and lawyers is warning that systemic torture and other abuses in the global "war on terror" have "undermined cherished values" of civil rights in the United States, Britain and other nations.

"We have been shocked by the damage done over the past seven years by excessive or abusive counterterrorism measures in a wide range of countries around the world," said Arthur Chaskalson, a member of the International Commission of Jurists, in a statement announcing results of a three-year study of counterterrorism measures since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"Many governments, ignoring the lessons of history, have allowed themselves to be rushed into hasty responses to terrorism that have undermined cherished values and violated human rights,'' said Chaskalson, a former chief justice of South Africa.

The Geneva-based panel's conclusions, released Monday, were echoed by those of a former British domestic intelligence chief who said that people in Britain felt as if they were living in a "police state" because of the government's counterterrorism actions.

"It would be better that the government recognized that there are risks -- rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism -- that we live in fear and under a police state," said Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, the domestic intelligence-gathering agency.

In an interview with Spain's La Vanguardia newspaper, which was republished in the British press Tuesday, Rimington compared the controversial anti-terror practices at the U.S.-run detention center at Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba with Great Britain's MI5 security service.

"MI5 does not" engage in the same activities, she said, adding that the U.S. practice of prosecuting terror suspects through the military system, and using widely denounced interrogation measures, "has achieved the opposite effect -- there are more and more suicide terrorists finding a greater justification."

Rimington, 73, became MI5's first female head in 1992 and ran it until 1996. She has been a frequent critic of the effect of the government's anti-terror policies on civil rights.

Although the jurists' report covers practices in about 40 countries, it pays special attention to practices in the United States, and it outlines a broad repudiation of anti-terrorism policies of the administration of President George W. Bush

"Whilst the outgoing US administration was understandably aggrieved at the horrendous attacks of 9/11, it is possible to see, especially with hindsight, that many of its responses to the terrible tragedy were ill-advised," the report states.

The report said that Bush's decision to equate acts of terror with acts of war was "legally and conceptually flawed" and had done "immense damage" to the standing of international law.

Claiming that the United States was at war with terrorism gave the Bush administration "spurious justification to a range of human rights and humanitarian law violations," the report said.

The panel, made up of more than 60 senior jurists from around the world, said prosecuting terrorism offenses should be handled largely in criminal justice systems rather than by military officials.

The report called on the Obama administration to "immediately and publicly renounce" the characterization of counterterrorism activities as a "war."

The panel also concluded that the United States' "official policy" seemed to be designed to circumvent laws prohibiting torture and other cruel treatment, which it called "one of the most deplorable consequences" of the "war" label.

The panel called for the Obama administration to conduct an investigation into human rights abuses against terror suspects.

"Seven years after 9/11 it is time to take stock and to repeal abusive laws and policies enacted in recent years," said panel president Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland.

"Human rights and international humanitarian law provide a strong and flexible framework to address terrorist threats," she said.

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