This article appears in The Guardian.
Members of parliament and human rights groups are pressing the government on the issue of rendition (or what this newspaper yesterday tendentiously termed, without the quotation marks, "torture flights"). Rendition does not mean torture. It means moving someone from one country to another without reference to a formal extradition treaty.
The most prominent rendition to date was that of Ricardo Klement. He was abducted, put on trial and hanged, despite strong opposition in his adopted country to what one newspaper called such "censurable methods". I am opposed to capital punishment on principle, just as I am opposed to torture on principle. But I do not consider that any injustice was committed in the seizing and execution of the man known to history as Adolf Eichmann.
Eichmann's abduction would now be euphemised as "extraordinary rendition". Most renditions are not like that. They involve the detention of a suspect in one country and their transfer to another by the CIA. There are good reasons that the first country might wish to take this course. It might not have a legal system capable of disinterestedly dispensing justice, owing to the threat of intimidation. There might be domestic political reasons for the government to be reluctant to cooperate too closely with the United States.
These are facts of international diplomacy. In the meantime the US and its allies have the duty of protecting citizens from international terrorists. The principled objection to rendition is that it stands outside legal process, and the rule of law is the best means we have of constraining arbitrary authority by our own governments. But there is no supranational sovereign authority that can effectively implement the body of international law. After 9/11, peace campaigners urged a judicial approach to bring the perpetrators to justice. What they would have advised if Osama bin Laden had unaccountably declined to turn himself in was never put to the test. Had the CIA abducted Bin Laden from Afghanistan in the late 1990s (a course whose feasibility the agency investigated), some great crimes might have been averted.
The hypothetical kidnapping of Bin Laden illustrates two problems with the absolutist rejection of rendition. First, the Taliban regime in Kabul would no more have handed over Bin Laden in response to an international summons than it would have handed over Lord Lucan. Second, the evidence against a terrorist suspect might be circumstantial or partial. It might not be of a type admissible in court. I do not know if this is true of Bin Laden and the destruction of the twin towers. But I know he did it, and I want him stopped.
Rendition is justifiable because it interdicts terrorists, and terrorism is not merely a problem of law enforcement. The particular controversy over rendition concerns torture, and on this point European objections are on firmer ground. The US is a signatory to the Geneva conventions against torture, yet terrorist suspects have been sent to countries that are guilty of human rights violations and have used torture.
Torture is wrong and does not work. As Christopher Hitchens has put it, torture is practised by those "whose whole outlook is based on stupidity and coercion, and you can bet that even with a ticking bomb nearby they would be busily gang-raping the wrong guy".
There is an important role for Britain, whose commitment to the war on terror (a phrase I use without irony because it is accurate) is beyond dispute, to intercede with the US administration. There should be no rendition to autocracies whose word on the issue of torture is untrustworthy, such as Syria. Renditions should be used only in extreme cases, against those suspected of directly plotting terrorist acts. The country to which they are transferred must exercise due process under its own laws.
But Europeans have a responsibility too. We are the beneficiaries of American efforts to disrupt terrorism. Diplomacy on the issue of rendition should deal with anticipating and preventing abuses. It should not be an opportunity for hyperventilation on the identity of the hated Bush-Cheney regime and our declared theocratic enemies.