UN Convention Against Torture – Article 1
For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
When Prime Minister David Cameron announced in Parliament that there would be an inquiry (chaired by Sir Peter Gibson) into the United Kingdom’s complicity in torture, two former Foreign Secretaries, Jack Straw and David Miliband, turned white. They do well to worry, but so should other former government ministers and officials given the sorry history of the UK’s continued abuse of human rights and human bodies.
The promised inquiry was asked for by the Joint Human Rights Committee, when they were studying the previous government’s role in torture, but was refused. That we will have one is largely due to former Guantanamo detainees, having alleged that they had been tortured and that UK intelligence officials had known and been present at interrogations, suing the government for compensation. Their case has now been settled out of court and while the ex-detainees will receive compensation, the Government has not admitted liability and the detainees have not withdrawn their allegations.
But while Miliband was Foreign Secretary he fought hard to prevent any evidence of UK security personnel involvement being made public, endlessly repeating that ‘The UK unreservedly condemns the use of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’, hoping perhaps, that if said often enough, it would be believed — a vain hope, considering his government’s record since 2001.
Amnesty recorded instances of US rendition flights using British airports from October 2001 onwards, including several flights in December 2001, and a flight in January 2002 from Jakarta via Cairo, refuelling at Prestwick on its way to the States, just a day after Guantanamo opened. It must have been obvious to anyone with half a brain that rendition flights involved moving illegally detained people to secret (and therefore unmonitored) prisons, or to ‘friendly’ countries that were, and are, well known for using torture during interrogations.
The UN Convention Against Torture, Article 3 says:
No State Party shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.
Yet on 4 October 2001, NATO countries agreed to:
- Provide blanket overflight clearances for the United States’ and other Allies’ aircraft for military flights related to operations against terrorism
- Provide access to ports and airfields on NATO territory, including for refuelling, for United States and other Allies for operations against terrorism
In one simple move, every NATO country had not only made itself complicit in torture, but also signalled a willingness to make torture a tool in the ‘war on terror’. As Prime Minister, Tony Blair surely endorsed this agreement, as must the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Foreign Office (FCO). No wonder that Jack Straw and David Miliband paled at the news of an inquiry.
Recently released government correspondence appears to show that Blair was ‘aware’ of the torture of detainees at Guantanamo. One letter, from the FCO to Number 10, dated 18 January 2001, said that a team from MI5 and the British Embassy in Washington had arrived at the Guantanamo Bay US military base and ‘will be interviewing the detainees in accordance with the agreement reached with the Americans.’ A scribbled note at the bottom of the letter, apparently written by Blair, states, ‘The key is to find out how they are being treated. Though I was initially sceptical about claims of torture, we must make it clear to the US that any such action would be totally unacceptable and very quickly establish it isn’t happening.’ This comment is, to say the least, disingenuous. To claim to be ‘mildly sceptical’ about the use of torture, when under his governance we were already committed to aiding illegal acts of rendition, detention without trial in secret prisons or places where torture was known to be used, points more to him feigning innocence about the whole. The UK was already party to fighting the ‘war on terror’ in this way.
This letter raises two areas of concern. First, what did ‘the agreement reached with the Americans’ entail? Did it contain ‘reinterpretations’ of humanitarian law? And the letter shows that the FCO’s concern was less to do with torture than the difficulty of handling Parliament and the media if it became known. Little more than a year later the Foreign Office clearly demonstrated it had scant regard for laws banning torture. In 2002 Craig Murray was appointed UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan. For two years he tried to get the government to stop accepting information obtained by torture. In 2003, in a meeting at the FCO, he was told the information was ‘operationally useful’. In other words, although people were dying in horrible circumstances, it helped reinforce the perceived ‘threat’ of terrorism.
Sir David Omand (UK intelligence and security coordinator 2002-5), giving evidence to the Iraq Inquiry, said: “SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) were very much in the inner council. They had proved their worth to the Prime Minister in a number of really very, very valuable pieces of work, not just delivering intelligence, but of course conducting back channel diplomacy, and that, I’m sure, would have weighed heavily on the Prime Minister’s sort of calculation that ‘these are people I should be listening to,’…. they were really busting a gut to generate intelligence.”
Generate? A give-away word, but it does make clear Blair’s problem. He needed to make the case for invading Iraq. The war on terror required an enemy to make war on. Any captured Muslim had to be connected to al-Qa’ida. All the interrogations, whether in Bagram, Guantanamo, Morocco or Uzbekistan were driven by a need to make the prisoner, more often than not totally ignorant of al-Qa’ida, confess to membership. And the best way to gain such a confession, however much you throw up your hands in fake horror, is through torture. To the same end intelligence was being ‘generated’ about weapons of mass destruction.
Having ratified the Convention Against Torture in 1998, the UK was required to submit regular reports to the Committee Against Torture (CAT). After 9/11, Blair’s government introduced many new laws and altered existing legislation to cope with the perceived threat of terrorism or rather, looking back, in the hope of frightening the population into believing the threat was serious. Civil liberties and humanitarian law suffered as a result. CAT’s response to the 2004 submission from the UK, pinpointed some ‘areas of concern’. These included:
- remaining inconsistencies between the requirements of the Convention and the provisions of the State party’s domestic law
- the State party’s law has been interpreted to exclude the use of evidence extracted by torture only where the State party’s officials were complicit
- despite the Convention stating that no exceptional circumstances create a justification for torture, the text of the Criminal Justice Act (Section 134(4)) provides for a defence of “lawful authority, justification or excuse” to a charge of official intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering
- section 134(5) provides for a defence for conduct that is permitted under foreign law, even if unlawful under the State party’s law
- the State party’s limited acceptance of the applicability of the Convention to the actions of its forces abroad, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq
And it recommended that ‘the State party should ensure that the conduct of its officials, including those attending interrogations at any overseas facility, is strictly in conformity with the requirements of the Convention. It is clear that CAT knew Blair’s government was trying to rewrite the law to protect itself from future prosecutions, and that intelligence officials were stepping over the line.
As Manfred Novak, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture stated, ‘under the convention, there is an obligation of states to criminalise every form of torture, whether directly or indirectly and of course to investigate any case, to bring the perpetrators to justice but also to provide the victims with the right to an effective remedy and adequate reparation.’
The UK’s proper reactions to known incidences of torture have been remarkable for their absence, despite the evidence inconveniently appearing through leaks, Freedom of Information requests or released by court orders. And when the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, announced to Parliament that the government had reached a ‘mediated settlement’ with the ex-detainees, he, himself, said, ‘No one, I think, has been accused of torturing. It would be a very serious matter if anybody in the British intelligence services was ever found to have taken part in torture or the deliberate ill treatment of a detainee.’
But the UK has done more than support other states’ use of torture, and Sir Peter Gibson’s inquiry should take a close look at the whole history of the UK’s attitude to torture and ill treatment, not just its involvement since 9/11. British troops sent to Iraq as part of the 2003 invasion appear to have been operating under rules that had nothing to do with international and domestic humanitarian law, law that successive governments have committed themselves to upholding. Why, for over more than 30 years, have military, intelligence and police officers, together with the ministries that oversee them, thought it permissible to ignore those laws? Britain needs to face the facts.