Some Nato members shifted away from a confrontation with the US today, welcoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s explanation of Washington’s views on secret prisons and the treatment of terrorist suspects.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Rice assured the allies the US administration did not interpret international humanitarian law differently from allied governments in Canada and Europe.
On arrival at a Nato foreign ministers meeting he said that was important “because we must not be torn apart over the interpretation of international law”.
The Dutch and Belgian foreign ministers both said Rice spoke convincingly about the US commitment to human rights at a private dinner with her Nato and European Union counterparts.
Nato spokesman James Appathurai said the expressions of support “seems to have been the flavour of the meeting” at which Rice “led off a long discussion” on the issue of CIA-run prisons and treatment of prisoners in the war on terrorism.
Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and other countries have been critical of Washington after claims that the CIA has been transferring terrorist suspects to and from Europe using secret prisons and may have been torturing those suspects.
The US has been taken to task over such techniques as “waterboarding,” in which prisoners are strapped to a plank and dunked in water, made to fear they may be drowned.
“Ms Rice has reiterated that in the US international obligations are not interpreted differently than in Europe,” Steinmeier said.
Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot – whose government faces public opposition to expanding the Netherlands’ military presence in Afghanistan as part of Nato operations – said he left last night’s dinner “very satisfied” by Rice’s comments.
His opinion is important as the Dutch government is to announce tomorrow whether it will send more troops to Afghanistan where detainee treatment may become a crucial issue.
Nato has made arrangements whereby US forces, operating separately in Afghanistan in Operation Freedom, will provide support for Nato troops if they are in danger.
Officials said the issue of covert prisons and prisoner treatment was not discussed at Thursday’s foreign ministers meeting which focused on Nato plans to expand its Afghan mission.
At the dinner, Rice “addressed the principles that guide US policy with regards to respect for international law,” Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht said on the Belgian RTBf radio network.
According to De Guch she said “that at no time did the US agree to inhumane acts or torture, that they have always respected the sovereignty of the states concerned and even if terrorists are not covered by the Geneva (human rights) conventions they have still applied the principles governing those Geneva conventions … I’ve the impression all ministers generally welcomed that".
In Ukraine yesterday before the dinner in Brussels, Rice gave the Bush administration’s most comprehensive accounting yet of US rules on treatment of prisoners in the war on terrorism, but her assurances left loopholes for practices that could be akin to torture.
Rice said cruel and degrading interrogation methods were off limits for all US personnel at home and abroad. But she gave no examples of banned practices, did not define the meaning of cruelty or degradation, and did not say if the rules would apply to private contractors or foreign interrogators.
At every stop on her European tour this week, Rice has faced questions about US practices in the pursuit of terrorists, including whether the CIA has run secret prisons on European soil or mistreated prisoners during clandestine flights in and out of Europe.
Using precise legal language, Rice referred to the 1994 UN treaty that defines and bans torture and also prohibits certain treatment that doesn’t meet the legal definition of torture. But human rights organisations and critics in Europe have called the Bush administration interpretation a loophole for treatment almost indistinguishable from torture.