Former United States president George W Bush has called off a trip he planned to Switzerland amid the threat of protests by human rights groups over the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and of a warrant for his arrest.
David Sherzer, a spokesperson for Bush, confirmed the cancellation in an email to Associated Press. “We regret that the speech has been cancelled,” he said. “President Bush was looking forward to speaking about freedom and offering reflections from his time in office.”
The visit would have been Bush’s first to Europe since he admitted in his autobiography, Decision Points, in November that he authorised waterboarding — simulated drowning — on detainees at Guantanamo accused of links with al-Qaeda.
Whether out of concern over the protests or the arrest warrant, it is an extraordinary development for a former US president to have his travel plans curtailed in this way and amounts to a victory for human rights campaigners.
Since the arrest of the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London in 1998, international leaders can no longer be confident of immunity. Israeli politicians have cancelled trips to London and elsewhere for fear of arrest warrants.
Bush was due to deliver a speech at a dinner in Geneva organised by the United Israel Appeal, a US-based organisation that helps Jews move to Israel. Robert Equey, the organisation’s lawyer, was quoted by the Swiss daily Tribune de Genève at the weekend saying that the decision to abandon the speech was because of concern that the protests might lead to violence, not fear of an arrest warrant.
“The calls to demonstrate were sliding into dangerous terrain,” Equey said. “The organisers claimed to be able to maintain order, but warned they could not be held responsible for any outbursts.” The threat of an arrest warrant had not been a factor in the decision.
The Centre for Constitutional Rights, the human rights group seeking an arrest warrant, said: “Whatever Bush or his hosts say, we have no doubt he cancelled his trip to avoid our case.” Human rights campaigners said they would seek arrest warrants wherever Bush planned to travel outside the US.
Folco Galli, a spokesman for the Swiss justice ministry, told AP that the department’s initial assessment was that Bush would have enjoyed immunity from prosecution for any actions taken while in office.
But Amnesty International said this week that it had sent a detailed factual and legal analysis to Swiss prosecutors, claiming there was sufficient information to open a criminal investigation.
“Such an investigation would be mandatory under Switzerland’s international obligations if President Bush entered the country,” Amnesty said. “Anywhere in the world that he travels, he could face investigation and potential prosecution for his responsibility for torture and other crimes in international law, particularly in any of the 147 countries that are party to the United Nations convention against torture.”
Organisers of the protest had called on participants to bring a shoe, commemorating the Iraqi journalist who threw one at Bush during a 2008 press conference in Baghdad, to a rally outside the hotel where Bush was due to speak.
Human rights groups had planned to submit a 2 500-page case against Bush in Geneva this week over the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo. The Bush administration claims that waterboarding does not amount to torture, but human rights organisations and the Obama administration agree that it does.
The document will no longer be filed in court but will be released at a media event. It focuses on two former Guantanamo Bay detainees, Majid Khan and former al-Jazeera correspondent Sami el-Hajj. Speaking before the cancellation of the visit, lawyers for the two said the trip was the first opportunity for the former president to face the legal consequences of authorising waterboarding and other techniques.
Legal proceedings under way in Spain accuse White House legal advisers, known as the Bush Six, of criminal wrongdoing for advising that the techniques were legal. — Guardian News & Media 2011