I heard you like black sites

Hey Donald, I heard you were reconsidering CIA  black sites overseas. I have a few notes for you. It will take more than 140 characters or less to explain the obligations of human rights law under counter terrorism, but I am hoping against hope you will pay more attention to this than you do your own intelligence briefings. 

Let us first agree on what we colloquially refer to as a “CIA black site”: those are secret prisons, detention facilities operated by the Central Intelligence Agency in which detainees are held incommunicado (without access to a lawyer, without knowledge for the International Committee of the Red Cross), for indefinite amounts of time, without charge or trial, and subjected to ill-treatment and torture for the purpose of interrogation. Those “black sites” – a shameful collection of legal black holes, where truth, memory and sunlight never shine – were built overseas.

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The reason they were built overseas is because of legality. This is no secret our profession bypassed ethics (albeit successfully, to our greatest dismay and fatal sadness) in the name of a government-led and government-approved definition of security. The Convention Against Torture, adopted by the General Assembly in 1984, holds torture as an absolute prohibition. The reservations emitted by the US Congress during the ratification process in 1992 established a definition that made torture only possible overseas, outside US jurisdiction – physical custody or control of another party. And thus, Donald, if you want to lift the ban on the use of torture on terrorism detainees, you will need partner countries to assist you in reviving a horror that is very much present: 41 men are still held in Guantanamo Bay, after having transited through one of those sites. I am here to tell you that you will not get what you want, at least not from European member-states. See, we have obligations to uphold: we have a Court tasked with trying violations, and an entire supranational Committee which mission is to ensure the enforcement of this Court’s judgments.

In a hearing in that same Court in December 2013, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson QC, described the CIA Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) programme as a “vast conspiracy”. It is: the number countries that have assisted the United States illustrate a form of international deference to the war on terror and the damage it spurred, to the detriment of efficacy and human rights. The Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) has conducted two investigations into states’ collusion with the CIA, one via the rapporteur Dick Marty in 2006, and another via the rapporteur Claudio Fava in 2007. Both yielded reports that represent a seminal work of independent parliamentary scrutiny. In early 2016, the European Parliament closed its investigation, reaching the same conclusion: not only were states aware that this was happening, they chose not to collaborate with investigations, and raised classification issues. All of this works in the Trump administration’s favour. A culture of secrecy largely cultivated under transnational security agreements; his Democratic predecessor’s distaste of judicial scrutiny and accountability; a conflict in Syria that never ends, creating millions of refugees and destabilising the entire region. A celebrity fascist was elected because Americans, on top of being angry, were afraid. Europeans, on top of being afraid, are also angry at what took place in Paris, Brussels, Ankara, and Berlin, to name a few.

Ireland, the United Kingdom, Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Italy, Macedonia did everything from facilitating the CIA jets’ refuel, to building black sites on their own territory. To this day, only Italy has carried out a domestic investigation into its own intelligence services’ collaboration with the CIA, resulting in the conviction of CIA agents in absentia. The case itself is fraught with procedural errors, deliberate smokescreens, and abusive use of state secrets. Poland has been found guilty by the Court, and now finds itself in the position to ensure Al-Nashiri’s trial and sentence. None of those states have disclosed the agreement – called a memorandum of understanding (MoU) – with the Court, presumably to preserve their special relationship to the CIA, invoking the absolute necessity to remain on the US’ good side while they seek to participate in the purported “eradication” of terrorism. All of this, again, works in the US’ favour. Except for this tiny, insignificant, fraction of a detail: the rule of law.

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Now, we know. It’s been a long, painful and traumatic road since the first rumours, investigations, and articles about secret Gulfstream IV jets flying unidentified “detainee combatants” from one secret prison to another first came light. The European Court of Human Rights has issued a judgment that clarifies that, even in the absence of disclosure of those MoUs, there had been enough substantiated and corroborated evidence published in the press and through legal and academic research to make a conclusive finding on a gross violation of human rights law. A report compiled by the Senate Special Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), still classified but with its executive summary released in December 2014, remains an formidable excercise of domestic parliamentary scrutiny. The SSCI report, dubbed the CIA torture report, reveals the location of several black sites, the budget the CIA required to carry out that programme, in addition to recordings of interrogation sessions, legal memos in preparation of the establishment of the policy, and photos obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The question, at this point, is whether the truth is as objective as it should be, and if its existence can replace accountability.

For all the bragging and boasting about enjoying the infliction of long term and damaging suffering on other human beings, for all the speeches given at Langley on extending covert operations, you have not created anything. You are simply considering lifting a ban on a period of American history that has not seen any closure because of an admission the government had “tortured some folks”. The United States is still in violation of UNCAT for refusing to prosecute officials that have authorized the use of torture. For the lawyers, this has led to successful careers. For the military, “harsh interrogation” is still present in the books. The black sites, meanwhile, enjoy a second life: the building in Temara, Morocco, has been used, once the CIA had left the premises, by the domestic intelligence agency to torture dissidents. Wherever the CIA has visited and stayed, visible scars are identifiable. Wherever the CIA tortured in secret, the impunity is perpetuated. Lifting the ban Obama enforced in 2009 isn’t the hawkish, vicious, cynical, dangerous and violent regime the Electoral College wished into existence. It is a pathetic, weak, ignorant, and self-destructive vision of counter-terrorism.

Torture is not efficient. Torture does not provide reliable intelligence. Torture has never made a country safer. Torture has never facilitated the end to illegitimate political violence. The unlawful detention of hundreds of men, some of them sold to US forces by bounty hunters and acknowledged as having suffered on the basis of false information, testimonies or mistaken identity, has provided ammunition for insurgency, has encouraged the use of imagery for the dissemination of similarly atrocious behaviour, and has stripped the United States and participating countries of any legitimacy in denouncing, and acting against, other states engaging in such horrific operations. It has reawakened the trauma of those same interrogation methods used in Northern Ireland at the height of its own conflict, mentioned in the footnote of a legal memorandum discussing, at length, how much pain can be inflicted on a human being without crossing an admittedly arbitrary threshold. You are not making America great again, Donald. You are simply returning to a very recent place in time when large-scale, international security operations were launched to the detriment of the rights of the victims, circumventing international law and international institutions, in the name of an irrational appetite for vengeance.

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Whatever the domestic framework, if you attempt to hire John Yoo again, will be hindered by the current National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), through an amendment introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein; it will be blocked by the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), both texts acknowledging the veracity of reports of the CIA’s conduct, and furthering the importance of ECtHR rulings against offending states. But most importantly, torture is an absolute prohibition; a war crime; indefinite detention without charge, the refusal of access to a lawyer, the denial of access to the ICRC, the removal of detainees to a military base, are violations of both humanitarian law and human rights law; several protocols of the Military Commissions Act (2006) violating fair trial rules. Donald, this is simple: the only national security position you are entitled to take in regards to the RDI programme is instructing the Department of Justice to prosecute officials that have created the programme, the private contractors that have devised interrogation methods, the intelligence agents that have supervised it and carried it out, as well as cooperating in every possible way with every request emitted by the ECtHR in order for our organization to respect our own obligations. Anything else would be in violation of international law; and every step of the way, there will be lawyers, legal academics, researchers, and journalists ready to expose the mechanisms you will use, because we know them by now.

You will drown under the weight of lawsuits, and you are already at odds with the medical professionals that had once assisted the 43rd President of the United States. For every government lawyer that will attempt to argue our role, as international human rights lawyers, is illegitimate foreign interference, that we are a fifth column, there will be the survivors of Guantanamo Bay to testify of what they have been through, there will be the families of victims of terrorism that seek fair redress, and there will be judicial oversight of counter-terrorism operations reaffirming that efficiency is a human rights obligation resting upon states. Including the United States. Including you, as the depositary of executive authority.

The only way to rid your administration of those pesky international lawyers such as myself is to comply with international law. There is no way around it. To quote the wonderful Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American who marched against you in DC, “I will respect the presidency, but I will not respect this president”. On this note, I bid you good night, Donald, and there is no need to tweet at me at 2 in the morning.