The former US president’s visit would have been his first to Europe since his waterboarding disclosure in Decision Points. Photograph: Anne McQuary/Bloomberg
George W Bush has had to call off a trip toSwitzerlandnext weekend amid planned protests byhuman rightsgroups over the treatment of detainees atGuantánamo Bayand the threat of a warrant for his arrest.
David Sherzer, a spokesman for the former US president, confirmed the move in an email to the 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 toEuropesince he admitted in his autobiography, Decision Points, in November that hehad authorised the use of waterboarding– simulated drowning – on detainees at Guantánamo accused of links with al-Qaida. 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 had been 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 the Associated Press 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 today 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.
It added: "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 UN 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 tomorrow over the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo. The Bush administration claims that waterboarding does not amount to torture, but human rights organisations and the Obama administration have said it does.
The document will no longer be filed in court but will be released at a media event. It focuses on two former Guantánamo 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.
"What we have in Switzerland is a Pinochet opportunity," said Gavin Sullivan, lawyer for the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, backing the claim together with the US-based Centre for Constitutional Rights.
"Bush enjoys no immunity from prosecution. As head of state he authorised and condoned acts of torture, and the law is clear – where a person has been responsible for torture, all states have an obligation under international law to open an investigation and prosecute." He added: "Bush will be pursued wherever he goes as a war criminal and torturer."
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.
"Nobody – from those who administered the practices to those at the top of the chain of command – is under a shield of absolute immunity for the practices of secret detention, extraordinary rendition and torture," said Martin Scheinin, UN special rapporteur on human rights and professor of public international law at the European University Institute. "Legally this case is quite clear. Bush does not enjoy immunity as a former head of state, and he has command responsibility for the decisions that were taken."
Wanted: politicians who faced arrest
The arrest of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London in 1998 ended the immunity leaders had largely enjoyed. Britain had no choice but to act on an extradition request by Spain over the murders of Spanish citizens in Chile when he was in power.
The targeting of US politicians began in earnest during the Bush administration after the opening of Guantánamo Bay detention centre, the invasion of Iraq and revelations of secret CIA prisons overseas and rendition flights.
In 2005, the then US secretary of state, Donald Rumsfeld, was threatened with arrest in Germany for war crimes relating to abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Rumsfeld threatened to pull out of a prestigious defence conference in Munich until German prosecutors assured him that he would not be apprehended.
Israeli politicians have also been the subject of arrest attempts on visits to Europe. A British court issued a warrant in 2009 for Israel's then foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, below, on behalf of Palestinian victims. But she postponed her trip to London, saying scheduling problems were to blame.
Another Israeli politician, deputy prime minister Dan Meridor, cancelled a trip to London last year after being told he may face an arrest warrant or some other legal action, apparently over the Israeli killing of Turkish activists on a ship bound for Gaza.