Protecting Terorrists: Lessons for NATO?

Commentary | July 12, 2010

Greg Austin wrote this piece for his weekly column in New Europe

The chasm between certain political values in Europe and those in the United States was exposed yet again this past week in the ruling of seven judges of the European Court of Human Rights that a particular American prison regime (at ADX Florence) may be a treatment too harsh even for people who might be convicted of terrorism charges.

The Court was happy enough for four people indicted on terrorism charges to be extradited from the UK to the United States, and so dismissed a number of their pleadings. Yet the Court upheld, temporarily at least, the claims of three of them about just how ugly prison life would be for them. The court kept in place a restraining order against their extradition until it studied the matter more closely.

On top of that, the court also held that the term of imprisonment that the four faced was so long – life without parole or 50 years for one – that their appeal against extradition on those grounds alone was admissible for further hearing. The cases have been in and out of the Court beginning in 2007 for two of the applicants and since 2008 for the other two.

The European judges are troubled by the United States application of “special administrative measures” (SAMs) in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. According to the U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, SAMs are applied “when there is a substantial risk that a prisoner’s communications or contacts with persons could result in death or serious bodily injury” to others. The main feature of the prison regime in ADX Florence that is under challenge is a more or less permanent form of solitary confinement applied selectively to certain prisoners. Its opponents regard this as inhumane in the extreme or at best counter-productive for the purposes it is intended to serve.

Human rights organizations, doctors, criminologists and prisoners’ rights groups in the United States have long railed against the conditions in supermax prisons like ADX Florence.  It houses some 40 or so convicted terrorists and almost 400 other serious criminals.

This latest example of an Atlantic “values” gulf in the court has a lesson for NATO. There is not a strong political and social consensus in Europe that matches the commitment of United States national officials to fight international terrorism the way the American government is doing it. There is ample other evidence of this gulf in values, not least the political furore in Europe over extraordinary renditions of terrorist suspects. The same sort of divide is appearing in the policies of key NATO members in respect of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan with military forces.

What is the real problem here? NATO has seen far more serious challenges in the past to its cohesion and solidarity from differences across the Atlantic. Not too many of Europe’s citizens really feel any sympathy for the four indicted prisoners.

But the new mood at a political level may be different. There are signs that the traditional solidarity of NATO among security elites and among political and social leaders may be in some sort of serious decline. We need to study this question and, if the above diagnosis is correct, find explanations and ways to address it. More importantly, there has to be a better answer for it than we are hearing from some as to why it should still matter.

NATO solidarity matters for good reasons of hard international security that have little to do with political values. An over-emphasis on values in the new NATO security concept to the relative neglect of solving the concrete security problems as we will face them outside Europe or on its periphery in the coming decade may be to the long term detriment of NATO solidarity.