Retired heads of state and government often travel to reminiscence with old colleagues or polish legacies by pontificating on prevailing issues. A new trend could turn lawyers into travel agents for the lot.
A modest example: Former US President George W. Bush planned a Geneva visit on Saturday. He was to deliver a keynote address at a gala the Jewish Keren Haysods organisation held. Mr Bush and pleasant “mum-next-door-type wife,” Laura, stayed home.
The Jewish outfit explained security considerations aborted the trip. Not so, said several United States and Swiss human rights organisations. Mr Bush feared arrests for alleged torture against alleged terrorists.
Swiss judicial authorities pooh-poohed that. As a former head of state, Mr Bush would enjoy a certain diplomatic immunity.
That the Secret Service and Swiss authorities combined can’t protect Mr Bush in a gala, let alone a skiing slope, is hogwash.
“He’s avoiding the handcuffs,” Reuters quoted Mr Paul Brody, counsel for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Mr Brody’s claim is rather effusive, but plausible.
Switzerland and the United States are among 147 signatories to the 1987 Convention on Torture.
In interviews and recently published memoirs, “Decision Points,” Mr Bush admits authorising waterboarding in interrogating terrorism suspects.
Human rights organisations and many other people consider waterboarding, which stimulates drowning, torture. Mr Bush doesn’t.
Why then was Mr Donald Rumsfeld, once Mr Bush’s defence secretary, be at pain last week to distance himself from “sharks-in-the-pool-until-you-tell” technique?
On learning of Mr Bush’s planned visit, human rights groups in Switzerland announced plans to file in court a 2,500-page dossier of his alleged crimes.
That would be under the provisions of the Convention on Torture. Unlike the International Criminal Court and special tribunals the United Nations establishes procedures, legal actions under the convention are relatively easy.
Swiss judicial authorities may cite diplomatic immunity. There’s nothing to stop any group from challenging such immunity in court. Who knows how a court would rule?
Moreover, in countries whose judicial systems provide for investigative magistrates, things can get even messier.
Governments would have a hard time stopping a determined magistrate from instituting an investigation. Some such magistrates are probably doing so quietly against unsuspecting sitting and former leaders.
It’s worth noting Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet’s case. In 1999, Britain had no option but to arrest him on the strength of a warrant a Spanish magistrate issued.
Westminster finally let Mr Pinochet go after 17 months on medical grounds. Jointly commenting on Mr Bush’s saga, the Paris-based International Federation on Human Rights and the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights said, “The message from civil society is clear - If you’re a torturer, be careful in your travel plans.”
In other words, Excellencies, give your lawyer a peak into the bones’ closet before packing bags.