“Extraordinary rendition” may sound like an exceptional performance of a concert classic. In fact it is the sinister euphemism for torture-by-proxy, the practice of flying terrorist suspects for interrogation in countries where torture is practised in order to escape human rights legislation.
America stands accused of breaking international law by such rendition, and Scotland is in the dock too. Glasgow and Prestwick airports have become favoured stopovers in this secret air lift. Indeed, as the rest of Europe takes a stand against it, Scotland is emerging as a potential European torture hub.
After refuelling on Scottish soil, CIA detainees from Guantanamo are being flown secretly to Eastern European “black sites” where interrogation can take place in a more robust fashion than would be possible in America or anywhere else in the EU. The 33 known CIA jets do not identify themselves and freely break air-traffic conventions. They fly where they like, when they like, and refuse to give any passenger lists or flight plans.
The CIA has, however, admitted flying suspects to North African states like Egypt and Jordan where torture is routinely used in interrogation. Human rights organisations and the European Parliament are convinced that the US has also constructed a Gulag of secret prisons in Eastern European countries. An all party group of MPs in Westminster will this week press the government to demand full disclosure from the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice when she visits Brussels in the next few days.
But we can’t leave it to Westminster and the European Parliament. This is a form of human trafficking, and if it is true that Scotland is conniving in it - even passively - then we are all of us traffickers in human misery. The matter has been raised with the law officers in the Scottish Parliament and they have insisted that they have no locus. That is simply not good enough.
We can’t allow constitutional niceties to allow Scotland to become party to prisoner abuse. If it is happening, and the United States has been singularly reluctant to deny it, then it must be stopped. Public opinion needs to be mobilised. If ever there were a case of ‘not in my backyard’ - this is it.
Torture is illegal under the UN Torture Convention. This is not just some empty declaration but part of our own British criminal law, and it is illegal to assist another country to engage in torture. The British government seems unaware of the risk it could be running in allowing this country to become the European hub of this covert operation. Either that, or they don’t care.
But if and when it is confirmed that these “black” destinations exist, there could be profound legal consequences. Tony Blair could even end up sharing the same fate as General Augustus Pinochet, because anyone charged with torture can be tried in any country in the world. The British Prime MInister would not be able to travel to international summits without the risk of his being apprehended and prosecuted.
Complete fantasy, you say. Well, listen up because the rest of Europe has. Germany, Spain, Sweden and Norway have opened criminal investigations into the CIA trafficking. They know the risks and believe they must not only oppose rendition, but be seen to oppose it. It has been reported that Austria even scrambled two airforce jets to intercept secret CIA flights over their airspace.
This is potentially a colossal scandal on our very doorstep. But where is the outrage? Last week, in the column above, I explored how we have become so inured to the atrocities created by the war in Iraq that we have almost lost our capacity to be shocked. Extraordinary rendition is perhaps the most striking illustration of how we have become desensitised in this country to breaches of international law.
There is a mood of fatalism abroad in civil society, as if we have no power any more to alter the course of events. The government is out of control, and neither parliament nor the people can rein it it. But you can be sure that the victims of torture will not forget. In the Muslim world, Britain is already regarded as a country which has perpetrated abuse of detainees in Iraq. Scotland could now be targeted by extremists because of these allegations of torture trafficking.
We are told that we must accept the perverse logic of the increasingly isolated Republican clique in Washington which insists that says “the rules have changed”. That this is a “new kind of war”, waged against a new and sinister foe, al Qaeda. Old conventions of war are obsolete. This is the same logic used by the US Vice President, Dick Cheney, who has promised to veto the anti-torture law moved by the US Republican Senator, John McCain - himself a victim of torture in Vietnam.
But if this war involves abandoning the rule of law and all the rules of civilised conduct between nations then we have already lost it.
This is an issue on which the Scottish Parliament can and must make its views clear. There have been questions in Holyrood - and many MSPs have been doing good work trying to get this issue onto the parliamentary agenda. But the voice of the Scottish Parliament is not being heard. I am sure that every MSP in Holyrood, of whatever party, shares this paper’s revulsion at what has been going on.
Well, it is time for these individuals to come together and find a common voice. To demand a categorical assurance that Scotland will not be used for torture flights. If America cannot give such assurances, then the CIA flights should be blocked.We cannot allow Scotland to become an accessory to torture.
We can’t wash our hands of this one. We can’t shrug our shoulders, suck our teeth and say: ‘Och, the Americans - what can you do?’ The word must go out loud and clear: Not in our name!