Cancellation of Bush Trip to Switzerland Deprives Anti-Torture Activists of a Chance to Arrest Him

By Patrick Goodenough | February 7, 2011 | 4:36 AM EST

President George W. Bush's book "Decision Points" went on sale on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

( – Advocacy groups that want to see former President George W. Bush go to trial for allegedly endorsing the torture of terror suspects saw an opportunity slip away, after a Jewish organization canceled an invitation for Bush to visit Geneva this week.

Although organizers attributed the decision to concerns about protests getting out of hand, activist groups had earlier called on the Swiss authorities to arrest the former president if he visited the country.

Bush was invited to address the annual dinner of the Swiss branch of Keren Hayesod, a charity that raises funds to help Jews from around the world to settle in and develop the state of Israel.

Since Bush in his 2010 memoir Decision Points acknowledged personally approving the “waterboarding” of leading al-Qaeda terrorist Khalid Sheik Mohammed, campaigners in the U.S. and abroad have stepped up the drive to have him prosecuted.

Believing European courts offer the best opportunity, they seized on the news of his impending visit to Geneva.

“There are no laws that provide an exception for former head of states,” Eric Sottas, secretary-general of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), wrote in a letter to Swiss authorities last week. He said Switzerland was obliged under domestic and international law to initiate an investigation.

Amnesty International submitted a legal analysis to Swiss prosecutors on Friday, concluding that Switzerland had “enough information to open a criminal investigation against the former president,” who should be arrested or otherwise secured during that investigation.

Dozens of Swiss non-governmental organizations (NGOs) wrote to the Swiss president calling for legal action against Bush for “war crimes,” with politicians on the right and left weighing in.

Lawmaker Dominique Baettig of the right-wing People’s Party called for Bush’s arrest, and Anti-Capitalist Left party leader Paolo Gilardi compared the former president to Jack the Ripper in recent comments to the Tribune de Geneve newspaper.

Protests were planned outside the lakefront hotel where the Keren Hayesod gala is being held.

The organization’s lawyer, Robert Equey, told Tribune de Geneve at the weekend the plan to host Bush had been canceled, not for fear of an arrest warrant but because of concerns that protests could get out of control and put people and property at risk.

He cited violent protests that occurred during the 2003 G8 summit, which Bush attended three months after the beginning of the Iraq war. The summit was across Lake Geneva in the French spa town of Evian, but anti-U.S. and anti-capitalist activists trashed shops and burned tires in Geneva and Lausanne.

“We regret that the speech has been canceled,” Bush spokesman David Sherzer told the Associated Press.

With Bush’s visit now off, NGOs that were preparing to submit a legal case against him in Geneva on Monday now plan instead to submit it at a media conference.

‘Anywhere in the world’

Bush said in his memoir and media interviews that he approved the waterboarding of Mohammed, who masterminded al-Qaeda’s attacks on the U.S. on 9/11, and that he would do it again to save lives.

Anti-torture campaigners maintain that waterboarding, an interrogation method said to simulate drowning, is a form of torture.

State Department legal advisor Harold Hongju Koh addresses a press conference in Geneva on Friday, November 5, 2010 after the U.N. Human Rights Council reviewed the human rights record of the United States. Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner look on. (Photo: US Mission Geneva/Flickr)

The Obama administration agrees. State Department legal advisor Harold Hongju Koh said last November that the administration “defines waterboarding as torture as a matter of law under the Convention Against Torture.”

(The U.N. treaty, which the U.S. ratified in 1994, calls on states to criminalize torture and to prosecute “complicity or participation in torture.”)

Koh made the comments during a press conference in Geneva shortly after taking part in the first U.N. Human Rights Council review of the human rights record of the United States.

During that review, representatives from Iran and Cuba were among those advising the U.S. government to put on trial those responsible for rights violations at the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay

Two weeks later, the U.N.’s newly-appointed expert on torture said the Obama administration should investigate allegations of torture under its predecessor and prosecute those responsible, including those who gave the orders.

The campaign for universal jurisdiction in cases of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity scored an early success with the 1998 arrest in Britain of former Chilean military ruler Augusto Pinochet, based on arrest warrants issued by four European countries.

Pinochet was accused of torturing political opponents during his 17-year rule. The octogenarian Chilean spent more than 16 months under house arrest before the British government released him, citing medical reasons. Despite the ultimately unsuccessful outcome, legal and rights advocates called the case an important precedent.

Pinochet died in 2006 but late last year a French court convicted 14 officials from his regime in absentia, handing down sentences ranging from 15 years’ imprisonment to life for kidnapping and torture.

Israeli leaders including former foreign minister Tzipi Livni have canceled visits to Britain in recent years due to concerns about arrest warrants linked to complaints by Palestinian groups.

Activists even considered extraterritorial legal action last year against Pope Benedict XVI, whom they accuse of covering up sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

The campaign to prosecute Bush and other U.S. leaders was underway well before the publication of Decision Points, but was fueled by what activists considered an admission of guilt.

“Anywhere in the world that he travels, President Bush 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 U.N. Convention against Torture,” Amnesty International Secretary-General Salil Shetty said on Friday.

“As the U.S. authorities have, so far, failed to bring President Bush to justice, the international community must step in,” he said.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow