The Long Arm of the Law

Yesterday a spokesman for former US President George W. Bush announced that he was abandoning a planned visit to Switzerland because of “security concerns”.

Although President Bush’s team officially played down the possibility, it seems likely that the decision was taken in part because of fears that he might be arrested by the Swiss authorities. In 2005 former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld cancelled a visit to Munich, Germany, for the same reason.

Last Friday Amnesty International wrote to Genevoise and Swiss federal prosecutors outlining a lengthy and detailed case calling for the local authorities to investigate President Bush for authorizing the use of torture during the ‘war on terror’.

Since President Bush admitted in his memoir Decision Points that he personally ordered the water-boarding of terrorism suspects and water-boarding comfortably falls within the spectrum of acts prohibited by the Convention against Torture (and for that matter domestic US law) this frankly wasn’t a hard case to make.

Switzerland has an obligation under international law arising from the Convention against Torture to investigate these allegations. Switzerland ratified the Torture Convention in 1986 but even if it had not the prohibition of torture, and the duty to investigate suspects, is considered customary international law.

Furthermore, the Bush administration seized on the law of war as the framework within which it pursued Osama bin Laden and there is no statute of limitations on war crimes. Water-boarding, walling and learned compliance all amount to war crimes.

To borrow a turn of phrase used by General Petraeus, President’s Bush’s criminal liability for these abuses is non bio-degradable.

The reports that have emerged from Cairo this past week about the torture and abuse of pro-democracy activists by Egyptian security forces remind us of the company we keep if we allow the use of torture to go unpunished.

Ending impunity for human rights abuses is not a cause we can only pursue overseas. If our values are to have any meaning we must first put our house in order at home.  We can’t just ‘turn the page’.

It can be easy to get discouraged fighting against impunity when progress is most often measured not in years but in decades. However, this weekend we have been reminded that the law has a long arm and that even Presidents can’t ignore its reach.

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