Former president George W. Bush was slated to speak at a gala charity event in Geneva on February 12, supporting United Israel Appeal. This weekend, a Bush spokesman announced that the trip had been scrapped. He noted the “threat of demonstrations” associated with the event. Now it appears that Bush’s decision not to travel abroad may have had an entirely different basis.
Two victims of torture in U.S. detention have prepared a criminal complaint against Bush (PDF), backed by a coalition of international human rights groups, two former United Nations rapporteurs, and two Nobel Peace Prize laureates. The indictment appears to have been furnished to Geneva’s cantonal prosecutors with a request that they act on it by arresting the former president. There’s no indication that the Geneva criminal justice authorities would have taken such a step—which would have been certain to provoke a diplomatic incident between Switzerland and the United States. On the other hand, an attorney involved in the complaint stated that she had no doubt that Bush’s change in travel plans had to do with the criminal case against him. “Waterboarding is torture, and Bush has admitted, without any sign of remorse, that he approved its use,” said Katherine Gallagher, who works with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights. “The reach of the Convention Against Torture is wide – this case is prepared and will be waiting for him wherever he travels next.”
A former head of state traveling abroad on private business does not automatically enjoy diplomatic immunity–as General Augusto Pinochet discovered in 1998, when he was arrested on torture charges during a visit to London. Diplomatic immunity can be arranged through an exchange of notes involving the foreign ministries involved, or, in the case of former U.S. officials, the State Department can obtain assurances that no police action will be taken during a planned visit. Such procedures have frequently been taken with respect to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who is the subject of pending foreign criminal investigations in several nations and whose travel plans are greatly complicated by this fact. However, it appears that no such measures had been taken to protect Bush in connection with his planned charity appearance.
In November, as Bush’s memoirs first surfaced in press accounts, London’s Tory mayor Boris Johnson warned the former president that if he traveled to Europe, he needed to pack heavy, because he “may never see Texas again.” Johnson noted that Bush’s memoirs would cinch a torture indictment against him, because Bush takes credit for and justifies the decision to use torture techniques in his book. Johnson’s warning turns out to be more serious than most realized. Bush will have no problem traveling to authoritarian states like China or Saudi Arabia, but if he visits any of the 25 democracies that are party to the European extradition convention, or any of the Latin American nations that apply universal jurisdiction principles, he may face complications.