Every once in a while I listen to Computer World, the 1981 album by Kraftwerk, Düsseldorf’s pioneers of electronic music. As the record’s trance-inducing title track opens, I am always struck by the prophetic nature of its lyrics. “Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard,” a vocoder deadpans, kicking off three infectiously repetitive verses which capture how much modern technology has been shaped by a paranoid nexus of security and commerce.
From early next year, The Hague is scheduled to host a new “hub for criminal information”, according to a document I have had the misfortune of reading. Europol, the EU’s police cooperation body, will move into a stylish headquarters, with glass walls and exhibits of contemporary art. This supposed temple of transparency has been designed to motivate all who enter to fight such scourges as cybercime and credit card fraud, the aforementioned document intimates.
It would be comforting if we could sleep knowing that the police act in the best interests of humanity. But Europol’s brief history is crammed with instances where human rights are disregarded so that its staff can concentrate on narrowly-defined threats.
Originally limited to the illicit drug trade, Europol has adroitly exploited George W Bush’s “war on terror” to carve out a bigger mandate for itself and greater uses for its vast databases. One of the more unsavoury consequences of its growing responsibilities is that it has struck up alliances with repugnant regimes.
In September, Europol signed an agreement to deepen its cooperation with Colombia. Under it, personal data on “known and suspected criminals” may be exchanged with the Bogota authorities, to ensure that there is “solidarity and common purpose in the fight against all kinds of terrorist activity,” Europol’s director Rob Wainwright said.
Colombia, it should be noted, interprets the category “suspected criminal” liberally. Alvaro Uribe, who stepped down as the country’s president in August, has accused human rights activists of being “rent-a-mobs at terrorism’s service”. Throughout his eight years in power, he allowed a culture of impunity to flourish, where trade unionists could be intimidated and murdered without anyone being brought to justice. Investigators of extrajudicial executions by state forces documented over 3,000 such killings – frequently of peasants - between 2002 and 2009, with officers reportedly rewarded with money or promotion. Yet while Uribe took disciplinary action in some cases, he was generally dismissive of the evidence gathered.
Abuses by the Colombian state have not only been targeted at the country’s own nationals. Papers obtained by the Colombian public prosecutor have shown how its secret service, the DAS, has been spying on political campaigners and devised a strategy for “neutralising” a number of individuals and institutions critical of Bogota’s record of repression. Among those mentioned were French and German citizens and the European Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights.
The 1995 convention regulating Europol’s activities forbids it from processing data that has been obtained through human rights abuses. If this clause was respected Europol would not have signed a cooperation pact with Colombia. Nor would it be negotiating a similar agreement with Israel, Colombia’s best friend in the Middle East. (Israel is the top supplier of weaponry to Colombia).
Europol was given the go-ahead to open cooperation talks with Israel by the EU’s governments in 2005. Although these have not yet led to a formal cooperation accord being finalised, there are strong indications that one could be endorsed by both sides in the near future.
As part of a broader EU policy of mollycoddling Israel, Europol appears willing to overlook the routine use of torture against Palestinian detainees. Although Israel has ratified the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture, the Israeli high court ruled in 1999 that members of the security forces could not be prosecuted if they used coercive methods in “ticking bomb” situations. That loophole has been perceived as a gaping one by Israel’s attorney general who has happily given the army ample legal cover to avail of it, research by Human Rights Watch has concluded.
Photographs posted on Facebook during the summer, meanwhile, depicted a female Israeli soldier posing cheekily beside blindfolded Palestinians. Even if these offered a chilling reminder of how US soldiers in Iraq behaved in the Abu Ghraib scandal, anti-torture watchdogs have made clear that they are the tip of the iceberg. Each year Israel locks up an average of 700 Palestinian children. A recent investigation by Defence for Children International found that out of a sample of 100 such children, 69% were beaten and kicked and 12% threatened with rape or another form of sexual assault in 2009.
Europol’s eagerness to do business with the Israeli police is all the more troubling given how that force has its national HQ in East Jerusalem. In the past few weeks Catherine Ashton, the Union’s foreign policy chief, has criticised the construction of new Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, describing them as illegal under international law. Allowing Europol to work closely with an Israeli police force that is actively seeking to uproot Palestinians from their homes would amount to effectively conferring approval on Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. It would be a dereliction of the duty of non-recognition, a core legal principle under which governments must not give their blessing to illegal activities.
Surely, it’s time Europol realised that law enforcers are not above international law.
·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 21-27 November 2010