19th Feb 2019

EU considered joint renditions 'framework' with US

  • Washington suggested a list of principles which could be used to reduce the "level of hysteria" on CIA flights in Europe (Photo: European Commission)

The EU had considered setting up a joint "framework" with the US on standards for renditions of terror suspects, according to a confidential protocol of an EU-US meeting in May seen by EUobserver.

The records of a meeting between EU and US officials on 3 May this year, used as evidence by the European Parliament's temporary committee on alleged illegal CIA activities in a new report, reveal a strong will in particular by the Austrian EU presidency at the time to end differences with Washington over "extraordinary renditions."

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"Extraordinary rendition" - the transportation of terrorist suspects to third countries where they are questioned, held or tried - is seen by human rights groups as being used by the US to have suspected terrorists interrogated under methods not allowed in the US itself, including torture.

During the May meeting - which was attended by John Bellinger, the highest legal adviser to US foreign secretary Condoleezza Rice - a representative of the Austrian EU presidency "suggested that a possible message would be that the EU and the US [opened] a dialogue on developing a framework for renditions," according to the records.

Vienna suggested this common renditions framework should be "subject to appropriate safeguards" and be "as close as possible" to extraditions properly defined by international law, the protocol says.

The Austrian presidency "noted...that some form of joint communique could be very useful" referring to the EU-US summit in June. This common statement "should note that rendition could be a useful tool in the fight against terrorism."

Vienna believed the joint public message was necessary as there was a "danger" that concerns, especially about renditions, would "limit intelligence co-operation with the US."

EU disunity

The final conclusions of the EU-US summit in the end did not contain any reference to a common renditions framework, with the EU delegation in the May meeting showing disunity over the matter. The then incoming EU presidency, Finland, as well as the European Commission took a more "cautious" line, according to the records.

Finland questioned the possibility of obtaining appropriate human rights safeguards for renditions.

Relying on so-called "diplomatic assurances" - informal guarantees by third states that suspects are treated humanely - is tricky, a Finnish diplomat noted.

Meanwhile, the US' Mr Bellinger took a defiant stance and "complained that the human rights lobby was dictating government policy on renditions; there was a need for European governments to agree renditions," according to the records.

The protocol says he suggested a list of principles which could be used to reduce the "level of hysteria" in Europe.

"[The] US noted that most flights contained either officials or forensic evidence, although the US was not willing to discuss these specific cases. EU governments needed to spread the message that these flights did not in general contain prisoners," the records say.

But pressure from Vienna on Washington to reveal details of rendition flights by the CIA using European airports fell on deaf ears with Mr Bellinger and two other US officials attending the meeting, the document shows.

Austria "cautioned that although the member states would be happy to assist the US, they could not be seen as defending the indefensible, especially if there were no facts on which to rely," but the US side merely "reiterated that the US would not provide details of flights but that it was essential for European officials to 'push back' in public this issue to counter the enormous irrationality of the current debate."

Omissions and denials

A draft report by the European Parliament's temporary committee discussed on Tuesday (28 November) finds that "at least 1,245 flights operated by the CIA have flown into the European airspace or stopped over at European airports."

Reacting to the EU-US records, mentioned by the committee in its report, Dutch Green MEP Kathalijne Buitenweg highlighted that an official of the secretariat of the EU council -the member states' decision making body - also took part in the meeting with Mr Bellinger and supported Vienna in its drive to overcome differences with Washington.

The secretariat is headed by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, with Ms Buitenweg concluding that "therefore it is almost impossible that Mr Solana did not know anything about this."

The draft report by the parliament's CIA committee is strongly critical on the role of Mr Solana, expressing its "profound preoccupation" with the "omissions" and "denials" when the EU's top diplomat appeared before the committee in May.

Poland rebuffs criticism

The report also questions the "real content of the function" of the EU's anti-terrorism co-ordinator Gijs de Vries, criticising the "lack of credibility" of his declarations before the committee and deploring the "hesitation" of Mr de Vries to be heard by MEPs.

The report names and shames 11 member states specifically for being complicit in some way or another in CIA kidnappings, with Poland and the UK coming in for some of the heaviest criticism for refusing to co-operate with MEPs' investigations.

But Marek Jurek, speaker of Polish parliament and vice-chairman of the Law and Justice party, rebuffed the accusations, stating "The committee did not turn to the Polish parliament. If they had, we would gladly have made contact."

"But there was no such proposition...I have the impression this [their criticism of the Polish authorities] is an echo of the inadequate activity of this committee," he added.

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