EU funded Israeli interrogation project ”breaches international law”
The European Commission is giving millions of euros to an international interrogation project coordinated from Israel, in partnership with the Israeli police force. According to experts, this is illegal and major participants are dropping off, but the EU is turning a blind eye to the criticism.
PICTURE: Law-Train is a modern interrogation training project funded by the EU (Law-Train)
When the new rector of the prestigious university KU Leuven in Belgium, Luc Sels, marched down the streets of Brussels wearing a traditional black toga on the opening day of the academic year, in September 2017, he was met by protesters. Not the protesters commonly seen on TV, wearing black hoodies and hurling stones, but peaceful academics protesting his university’s participation in a EU-funded interrogation training project in Israel, called Law-Train. These peaceful demonstrators gave him a cake with the text “3000 x thank you”, as 3000 Belgians had signed a petition to stop the interrogation project from continuing. This protest would make an impact on Sels in the months to come, forcing a change of heart.
Illegal to fund Israel?
Law-Train is an international EU-funded project, coordinated by the Israeli University Bar Ilan, once called “the most militaristic University” in Israel by the journalist Gideon Levy, because of its close ties to the Israeli army. The project started in 2015 and the current programme will end in March of this year. The goal is to create a mixed reality platform where it is possible for the participants to generate characters with changing attributes and parameters, making it possible for police to practice interrogation in a close to realistic environment from any country at any given time. The aim of the project is to fight international drug-trafficking.
This ambitious project is funded by the European Commission via the Horizon 2020-programme. It received over 5 million euros in funding and about half of the money goes to the Israeli entities involved.
The project passed with the best possible result in the Horizon 2020 Ethics Assessment in 2016. However, the ethics review has come under criticism, because it focuses mainly on the ethics of research and not on the political and ideological context on the country in which it was launched and by which it is coordinated.
Israel Ministry of Public Security
- Founded in 1948, Israeli The Ministry of Public Security is responsible for public security, law enforcement and corrections, and oversees the Police, Israel Prison Service, Israel Fire and Rescue Authority, Israel Anti-Drug and Alcohol Authority and the Witness Protection Authority.
- MPS states that their mission includes law enforcement and crime prevention; safeguarding lives and property; maintaining public order; protecting the public from terror attacks; incarcerating and rehabilitating criminals, and preventing drug and alcohol abuse.
- Headquarters are located in annexed East Jerusalem.
“The evidence is clear that Israel uses interrogation techniques that constitute torture. The EU makes itself complicit in these techniques by cooperating with Israel.”, says Emeritus Professor of Law, John Dugard, former special rapporteur of Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
He and 25 other law experts have signed a paper calling for the Israeli Ministry of Public Security (IMPS) to be excluded from participating in Law-Train. This because, according to them, the funding of IMPS, breaches international law and the EU’s own Financial Regulation. They argue, as Dugard states, that IMPS is responsible or complicit in torture, other crimes against humanity and war crimes, and therefore guilty of grave professional misconduct as defined by the European Union’s Financial Regulations.
PICTURE: The Israeli Police are guilty of police brutality against Palestinians according to Human Rights Watch. (Flickr)
EU: We need a further in-depth analysis
The opinion paper sparked criticism in the EU-parliament, causing a reaction from Vice-President of the Commission, Federica Mogherini, “Taking into account human rights related EU actions, addressed to Israel, an ethic review and checks of this particular project of the Horizon 2020 programme as well its aim, one cannot conclude that the legal opinion of the experts necessarily should lead to the exclusion of the Israeli Ministry of Public Security from the programme without a further in-depth analysis”, she said in an answer to written questions from members of the Parliament voicing their concern with the project.
PICTURE: Vice-President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini (Wikimedia Commons)
Tom Moerenhout, researcher at Graduate Institute of International Development Studies in Genève, holds that the Commission “needs to take responsibility” and perform further in-depth analyses. He says it is crystal clear that Israel should be excluded from Law-Train, but he is not surprised by the actions of the Commission.
“As usual, short-term, geostrategic interests dominate Commission decision-making, and international law is a tool to support such interests whenever useful, rather than being a constant guidance, which is what it was designed for”, Moerenhout says.
George E. Bisharat, Emeritus Professor of Law at University of California Hastings College of the Law, puts it more frankly.
“With due respect, Vice President Mogherini’s statement is diplomatic mumbo jumbo, and seems intended to obfuscate what should be a simple ethical decision, not to mention legal one.”
- Funded by the European Commission, Law-Train is a program directed at tackling international drug-trafficking by means of a virtual investigation training system, developed through collaboration with governments, universities, and professional businesses.
- Mixed reality VR investigation platform allows law enforcement to generate and play out scenarios with “Virtual Suspects” in realistic environment
- Being virtual by nature, the platform is accessible from any participating country at any time.
The Israeli participation “poses an ethical problem”
Criticism of the project does not only come from outside Law-Train. Countries involved in the project from the beginning include Israel (Ministry of Public Security), Spain (Ministry of Interior), Portugal (Ministry of Justice) and Belgium (Ministry of Justice). Soon after the project started, the involvement of Israel’s Ministry of Public Security raised criticism from different action groups. This eventually led to Portugal officially leaving the project in 2016, although their official reason was a lack of resources. Portugal’s previous justice minister said he was surprised by the pull-out and stated that it falls “within the budgetary and organizational responsibilities” of the ministry, according to The Times of Israel.
“The University will not participate in a follow-up project with the current consortium” Luc Sels, rector of KU Leuven
In December 2017, the new rector of Ku Leuven had eaten the cake he got from the Law-Train protesters and digested their criticism. Sels, wrote a critical open letter where he explained that KU Leuven will continue to take part in the project, until it ends in March 2018, but they will not be involved in any possible continuation beyond the spring.
“A late departure would only result in the reputation of KU Leuven being damaged as a reliable contact partner”, Sels says. He does however say that the University will not participate in a follow-up project with the current consortium. “The Israeli Ministry of Public Security’s participation does indeed pose an ethical problem in the view of the role played by this strong arm of the Israeli government in forcing an unlawful occupation of the Palestinian territories and the associated repression that the Palestinian population is undergoing”, he says.
This was seen as a major win for critics of the programme.To provide a better basis for participation in research projects in the future, Mr. Sels proposes that KU Leuven should develop a human rights charter together with four other Flemish universities.
Bar Ilan and Law-Train is yet to comment on the statements made by the rector of KU Leuven.
“Law-Train gives Israel legitimacy”
One of the legal experts who signed the opinion paper calling for the exclusion of IMPS is Pierre Klein, professor of International Law at Université Libre de Bruxelles, a person involved with issues dealing with the peace process between Israel and Palestine. He says the EU-funding of the IMPS is giving the ministry legitimacy.
“It can show that you are included in projects involving issues of security and dealing with security, and you are cooperating with external institutions which are very well respected. The fact that they cooperate with you would signal that indeed your behaviour is quite non-problematic, and therefore it would add some legitimacy, I believe to those policies”, Klein says.
PICTURE: Pierre Klein (ULB)
He thinks that KU Leuven’s stance towards the project is remarkable and could influence the state of Israel. “States, even though they sometimes pretend not to be affected by external reactions, most often are. They are very fearful of isolation, and I think that if such policies or approaches would be followed by a greater number of actors it could certainly have a more significant impact on Israeli authorities”.
Could cooperating with Israel change the Israeli Police’s methods, in a positive way, when it comes to interrogations?
“I think there is little doubt that the Israeli authorities in question are well aware of the problems which have been mentioned, we seem to be in a situation where external influence or cooperation obviously seem to have very little impact on those issues and therefore you may want to decide that it’s time to turn to other kinds of actions or reactions”, he says.
When MIJ contacted the programme coordinator, Bar-Ilan University’s Dr. Sarit Kraus for comment, she offered praise of the collaboration with IMPS, calling them “a valuable partner in LAW-TRAIN. The EU also considers them a valuable partner and has granted them many projects.” Kraus also believes that the program “has received high praise from the commission and is successful in delivering what we promised, a great success for the partners and Horizon 2020.”
MIJ have contacted EU commissioner Carlos Moedas and director-general Robert Jan-Smits, who are yet to comment on the issue.