Monday 10 December 2018

Ireland must not turn a blind eye to torture as we tango with Trump

A detainee is led by military police after being interrogated by military officials at Guantanamo Bay in 2002. Photo: AP
A detainee is led by military police after being interrogated by military officials at Guantanamo Bay in 2002. Photo: AP
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

First, I want to share an image of young teenage boys at a small town middle school in upstate New York. This week, a pupil I know there described how groups of her male classmates were moving together through the corridors, wearing Trump caps or T-shirts and chanting: "Trump, Trump, Trump!"

It is a somewhat unsettling snapshot, not because they choose to express support for their president, but because their backing appears to be for his macho posturing which they misread as strength.

Now here's another image from the week, and this one is truly disturbing: in his first television interview, US President Donald Trump endorsed the use of torture and extremely harsh interrogation tactics on terrorist suspects.

It is not the only problematic stance he has adopted already. Waves of anxiety are mounting on a number of fronts. Undocumented people living in the US, including significant numbers of Irish, are frightened by his deportation threats. Enda Kenny may have been invited to the White House for St Patrick's Day but that's window-dressing - Ireland can't expect Irish illegals to be treated differently to Mexicans.

Elsewhere, nerves are jittery about Mr Trump imposing a 20pc tariff on Mexican goods, which would lead to a damaging trade war. But most worrying of all is the possible resurrection of torture as US policy. It was ruled illegal under former president Barack Obama, but his successor is acting as a cheerleader for the use of waterboarding, or near-drowning, during interrogation.

Here's what he said on ABC News - he accepts (so-called) assurances from senior US intelligence staff that torture works, and insisted: "We have to fight fire with fire." Here's what he doesn't say: torture is inhumane, contrary to international law, and its use under the Bush administration demeaned the US.

This nasty development may have repercussions for Ireland, where extraordinary rendition flights - carrying detainees en route to imprisonment without trial and torture - are believed to have used Shannon as a refuelling stop on a number of occasions, post 9/11.

It was something we knew, and chose not to know, in that convenient Irish way of ours. Ireland's approach was to turn a blind eye because we were - are - in thrall to US jobs and investment. Public debate was muted, despite the facts being shouted from the rooftops by Shannonwatch and other groups.

If Mr Trump, as commander-in-chief, authorises the CIA to engage in 'black ops' in his version of the war on terror, and torture flights are back in business, they will expect to travel through Irish airspace and use Shannon facilities. The US is not engaged currently in any ground wars, but the principle stands that if suspects are captured overseas, they will be flown to prisons for interrogation.

So Ireland's leaders need to put safeguards in place now, in advance of that tap on the shoulder from our buddies in the US. We must adopt a strong line. Letting it happen while claiming plausible deniability, as the Bertie Ahern-led coalition did, is not an option - it was never a defensible stance.

Ireland must make it clear that we are intent on setting up a system of inspections to check flights where reasonable suspicion arises about the fate of detainees on board.

An Irish government could have ordered searches of suspected aircraft during the Bush administration's use of torture, but chose not to, saying there were too many flights. In that case, it could have set up random inspections, but chose not to. We cannot drift into such a stance again.

As Taoiseach, Mr Ahern told the Irish public he accepted US diplomatic assurances. However, a WikiLeaks cable from 2004 suggested he informed American officials that the use of Shannon was "beginning to worry people" and asked for confirmation it was not being used for prisoners in transit. He is said to have asked the US ambassador: "Am I all right on this?" Ministers in his cabinet must have had serious reservations. Yet no Shannon searches were conducted.

Consequently, an Irish government may have been an accessory to something barbarous: the use of kidnapping and torture. Human-rights violations were suspected of taking place on our territory but we did nothing to investigate them. And there has never been any accountability.

In 2011, the UN Committee against Torture said it was concerned about the "inadequate response" by the then-government with regard to investigating allegations. In 2014, a US Senate intelligence committee found CIA interrogation techniques were "far more brutal" than suspected and said torture, apart from waterboarding, included keeping suspects in stressed positions and sleepless for a week.

President George W Bush's interrogation policies caused worldwide alarm, with concern voiced by the European Parliament, United Nations and Council of Europe. Suspects were detained in secret prisons in Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Afghanistan, Thailand and in the notorious Guantanamo.

For the record, torture might work in plotlines on TV series such as '24' and films including 'Zero Dark Thirty' but all the evidence points to it being ineffective in real life. Prisoners invent information so the pain will stop. The spectre of those prisons back in use again is now hovering, and Ireland must be ready to resist playing any role in filling them with suspects.

Our Government needs to make it clear that what the US regards as expedient for its security does not overrule Ireland's neutrality. Nor our sense of civilised values.

Perhaps our leaders trust it will never become an issue. Hopes rest on Republicans in Congress denying Mr Trump the torture tool. Senator John McCain, tortured as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam, has said it will not be reintroduced - but he is not Potus. And undeniably, support for a torture policy has climbed up the political agenda.

Under Mr Ahern, we were afraid of US investment withdrawal if we objected to rendition flights. Currently, we have concerns about Irish undocumented people in the US. There are always reasons for countries to want to keep on the right side of the Stars and Stripes. But none of them is compelling enough to be complicit in torture.

As for those American schoolboys, I wonder if they'd be chanting "Trump, Trump, Trump!" with quite so much enthusiasm after watching the CIA interrogation methods he favours?

Irish Independent

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