Strasbourg, 14 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The EU’s outgoing British presidency today sought to put an end to the controversy over U.S. treatment of terror suspects in Europe.
European media have been rife with allegations that the United States’ secret service, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), operated -- and perhaps still does operate -- secret prisons in Europe. Hundreds of unexplained CIA flights across Europe have been brought into question and the practice of “rendering” suspects to other countries where they may be tortured has been condemned.
While “utterly” condemning torture as “abhorrent,” Douglas Alexander, a junior minister in the British government, said on 14 December that all EU governments have a shared interest with the United States in fighting terrorism.
He said a statement made by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prior to her visit to Europe in the first week of December should be seen as an adequate response to a formal EU request for clarification.
“The Council [of EU member states] welcomes the detailed statement by the U.S. Secretary of State,” he said, “for all European countries share the determination of the United States to protect innocent citizens from the threat of terrorism while operating within international law.”
In statements made before and during her visit to Europe, Rice defended U.S. interrogation practices and ruled out the use of torture by U.S. operatives anywhere in the world. However, she did not directly address the allegations that the CIA ran secret jails.
Douglas underscored the threat to Europe of fundamentalist terrorism, saying before a session of the European Parliament that he hoped the debate would “help illuminate the key issues involved -- including how to tackle the unprecedented threat we all face from international terrorism, how to ensure respect for the international rule of law and how every day, member states have to take hard decisions to maintain the balance between security and liberty and take responsibility for those decisions.”
His statement appeared a deliberate echo of comments made by the British government following the London bombings in July, when ministers said a “new balance” must be found between security and liberty.
The EU justice commissioner Franco Frattini, who spoke together with Alexander, said the EU had a “moral, institutional and political duty” to protect the basic human rights of all citizens “without exception.”
But he also said it is of “strategic importance” for the EU to cooperate closely with the United States in combating terrorism. He welcomed Rice’s statement as “positive and binding,” and praised an ongoing debate on torture between the U.S. administration and the U.S. Congress.
Alexander did not directly address CIA detention practices or “renditions” of suspects to third countries, limiting himself to a strong condemnation of torture and to saying that the EU understands governments need to make “hard choices” in the fight against terrorism. “Torture is of course abhorrent; the prohibition against it is absolute. The British government, like all European governments, unreservedly condemns it,” he stated. “We never use it, we never instigate or condone it. We condemn it utterly; we work hard with others to eradicate it.”
However, during the debate that followed, all of the European Parliament’s major actors made it clear that illegal arrests and detention are, like torture, completely unacceptable.
Hans-Georg Poettering, leader of the largest right-of-center group, the European People’s Party, said the abduction of suspects must not be tolerated, and that the CIA must respond to allegations it runs secret prisons.
Martin Schulz, the Socialist leader, said the EU must seek clearer answers from the United States across the whole spectrum of allegations.
Like Frattini, Schulz said any EU country found to have aided the United States in any unlawful activities must face sanctions.
Speaking for the Liberal faction, Sarah Ludford questioned Rice’s assurances that the United States does not use torture, pointing to the difficulties faced by U.S. Senator John McCain in trying to extract a comprehensive rejection of torture from the U.S. administration.
The acceptability of U.S. definitions of torture was also widely questioned.
With the exception of the People’s Party, all major factions called for a parliamentary inquiry, to complement a probe currently being conducted by the Council of Europe.
Frattini said the EU would furnish the council with all relevant flight and satellite data.
Frattini indicated that the European Commission has exhausted its investigative powers, saying it cannot question denials issued by EU member governments.
But, he added, more findings may yet emerge from separate national probes being conducted in Poland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Germany.