In a damning report, the New York-based Open Society Foundation’s document Globalizing Torture names 54 countries, more than a quarter of the world’s states, as participants in the extraordinary rendition programme the United States carried out for years after the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. In a policy which could not have been implemented without other governments’ help, the U.S. put its officials beyond its own law by moving terror suspects, some of whom had been kidnapped, in secret to third countries where they could be tortured. In Europe, 25 states aided these violations of international and U.S. domestic law, as did 14 in Asia and 13 in Africa, plus Canada and Australia. Neither the U.S. nor the bulk of its partners has yet admitted the “significant and systemic” abuses of human rights and due process which were integral to the programme. The countries named even include Iran, which the then U.S. President George W. Bush called part of the “axis of evil” but secretly collaborated with. Some countries, such as Canada and Germany, even accepted the ‘rendition’ of their own citizens. The report identifies 136 victims, a larger number than had been expected earlier; the current whereabouts of some are still unknown.

As for any kind of justice, only Canada, Australia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have paid compensation to particular victims; avoiding public hearings could be part of their motivation. In December 2012, however, the European Court of Human Rights found Macedonia guilty of illegal imprisonment and torture and awarded €60,000 to the German citizen Khalid al-Masri, who was abducted, beaten, sodomised, and shackled by CIA and Macedonian officials. Mr. al-Masri was also refused access to German consular help. Washington’s ambassador in Berlin had told the then German Interior Minister Oscar Schilly of the abduction, but Mr. Schilly did not even inform the German cabinet; the CIA later said it had got the wrong person. The report says all the governments involved must be held to account; the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to take cases on the grounds that national security overrides harm to the victims, but Italian courts have convicted 23 U.S. personnel of illegal rendition, and legal challenges are in preparation or progress against nine of the countries named in the report. A lasting tragedy here is that information obtained by torture is well known to be unreliable; it was intelligence, rather than torture, that led the U.S. to Osama bin Laden. Even more disturbingly, little in the present international order can prevent more illegal rendition, and governments are just as likely to create a new global axis of torture now as they were in 2001.

This article has been corrected for a factual error

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