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The European Union

As U.S. credibility on human rights wanes, there is an urgent need for others to assume the mantle of leadership.  The European Union is an obvious candidate, but its performance has been inconsistent at best.  At a formal level, the E.U. has embraced a rules-based order by holding that “establishing the rule of law and protecting human rights are the best means of strengthening the international order.”  It has also repeatedly affirmed that all measures against terrorism must comply fully with international human rights and humanitarian law.  And it has been a firm supporter of the emerging international system of justice. 

Yet European governments themselves have been willing to violate basic human rights standards—even those involving torture.  Sweden, for example, sent two terrorist suspects to Egypt, a government with an established record of systematic torture.  Stockholm tried to hide behind the fig leaf of diplomatic assurances from Cairo that the men would not be mistreated, but those assurances were predictably ignored.  Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and the United Kingdom have also returned or attempted to return terrorist or security suspects to places where they were at risk of torture.  The United Kingdom refuses to rule out using information extracted from torture in court proceedings; its fig leaf is that it does not commission the torture itself, but merely passively receives its fruits, even though its ongoing relationship with intelligence partners ends up encouraging more torture. 

A similar erosion of human rights standards governing the fight against terrorism can be found in certain E.U. members’ detention practices.  The U.K. government suspended core human rights obligations to allow it to detain indefinitely without charge or trial foreign nationals who were suspected of terrorist activity.  In Spain, terrorism suspects can be held virtually incommunicado for up to thirteen days, with no ability to confer in private with an attorney.  France asserts the right to detain for up to three years without charge the French nationals released from Guantánamo.

These abusive practices compromise the European Union’s ability to fill the leadership void left by Washington’s embrace of coercive interrogation.  At a moment that calls for distance from misguided American practices, the European Union seems to be opting for emulation.  A clear recommitment to human rights principle is immediately needed if the European Union is to serve as an effective counterweight to Washington’s insidious influence on human rights standards.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005