Extraordinary rendition is a policy devised by the United States to meet the particular challenges of the so-called ‘War on Terror’. It involves the arrest of people suspected of having committed or conspired to commit terrorist acts but who are difficult to prosecute through normal court procedures. Such suspects are therefore flown (“rendered”) to other countries where they are interrogated by foreign intelligence services, often using harsh methods. Renditions therefore raise many complex and important moral and legal questions about civil liberties and human rights.
The process begins with an arrest, often within a foreign country without the knowledge of its government. It involves detention without trial, often in secrecy without allowing the suspect to know where or why he is being held, deprived of contact with friends or family. It then involves rendition to an unknown foreign destination, followed by intensive interrogation, by methods that might be defined as torture.
It is difficult to disentangle the precise legal definition of “rendition” from its associations with other issues such as deportations or torture. “Rendition” is not new. It means the act of handing over, or “rendering” a person from one jurisdiction to another – as in extradition, which is an open procedure sending a suspect to a state where he or she has been accused of a serious crime. “Extraordinary rendition” is very different from deportation or extradition. Persons may legally be deported from a country back to their country of origin for a variety of reasons – but many renditions involve suspects who were captured by agents working in a foreign country and sent for secret interrogation in a completely different country. Rendered persons are often sent to states where they have committed no crime, and even where the receiving country has little or no knowledge of them. In such cases, there would be no legal basis for extradition. Unlike extradition, the secret nature of renditions means that there is no opportunity for suspects to make a legal appeal against it. An international Convention on Torture states that prisoners should not be deported if they are in danger of being tortured or executed. The controversy about extraordinary renditions has been dominated by the accusation that renditions are invariably associated with torture.
Torture is one of the two moral issues at the heart of the controversy. Human rights activists claim that the chief reason why the US renders suspects to “third party” countries is that the intelligence services in those countries use extreme methods of interrogation that would be unlawful, or highly embarrassing, if carried out in the United States. This, it is claimed, is why the whole process of renditions has to be cloaked in secrecy – because renditions are designed to enable treatment of suspects that would be illegal if carried out in the United States. Defenders of rendition claim that it is a totally separate issue from torture; and that renditions are effective because they result in suspects being questioned by interrogators with expert language skills and cultural insights that are not available in the US.