The Wretched “War on Terror” and the Rule of Law

The wretched “war on terror” has led to the invention of phrases and rebranding of nasty illegal practices, in a cynical way to circumvent the rule of law, with the English language stretched to the point where words began to take on new more sinister meanings. People arrested in faraway places were labelled “unlawful enemy combatants” instead of “prisoners of war”, thus circumventing the Geneva Convention, international law and U.S domestic law. Note that although the word war is used in the phrase “war on terror”, people detained in faraway places as the American military roams the world are not called “prisoners of war”. Torture is not allowed under international law. No problem. Replace the word “torture” by “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Another sinister phrase that entered the language was “extraordinary rendition”. Under this title “unlawful enemy combatants” were transported around the world to countries whose governments have no compunction to torture on behalf of the U.S, as they do it routinely to anyone of their citizens who dare criticize their tyrannical rule.

Add to that the shocking images of abuse of Iraqi detainees in the American-run detention centre in Abu Ghraib, Baghdad, and that of a battered to death Baha Mousa, the Iraqi hotel receptionist in a British-run detention centre in the south of Iraq, and you get the idea that these thugs and torturers felt international law did not apply to them. Apart from the immorality, inhumanity and criminality of these actions, they are totally counterproductive. A report published by the Watson institute, Brown University in the U.S., puts the effect of such inhumanity and lawlessness thus:

In Iraq, over 100,000 prisoners have passed through the American-run detention system, with many of those detained in the first years of the war processed through the Abu Ghraib prison. In 2004, accounts of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse… and death of Abu Ghraib prisoners came to public attention. Iraqi security chiefs allege that the existence of, and conditions in U.S. [run] prisons actually strengthened Al Qaeda, and they blamed the detention system for increased violence in 2010.

The Guardian (August 5, 2011) under the heading “revealed: Britain’s secret policy on overseas torture” reports that:

A top-secret document revealing how MI6 and MI5 officers were allowed to extract information from prisoners being illegally tortured overseas has been seen by the Guardian. The interrogation policy – details of which are believed to be too sensitive to be publicly released at the government inquiry into the UK’s role in torture and rendition – instructed senior intelligence officers to weigh the importance of the information being sought against the amount of pain they expected a prisoner to suffer. It was operated by the British government for almost a decade.

The government has rightly set up an inquiry to look into British complicity in torture and rendition, which would begin after a police investigation into torture is completed. One of the most admired traits in western societies is their adherence to the supremacy and universality of the rule of law. That principle has been battered by the “war on terror”. Any inquiry that is serious in restoring the reputation of the UK must be robust and serious; what better way to do that than to address the concerns of human rights groups that have worked tirelessly to bring some of these abuses to light. The previous government fought doggedly to keep these shameful actions from the British public. Witness the case of Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohammed, when the previous foreign secretary was ordered by six high court judges to release CIA information about the torture of the detainee. David Miliband took the case to appeal, where three of the country’s highest-ranking judges dismissed his appeal with the Lord Chief Justice’s remarks reported by the Independent (February 10, 2010):

He [the Lord Chief Justice] pointed out that the redacted paragraphs would not reveal information which would be of interest to a terrorist or criminal or provide “any potential material of value to a terrorist or a criminal”. The judge added: “Indeed, it seems right to emphasize that the publication of the redacted paragraphs would not and could not, of itself, do the slightest damage to the public interest.” Lord Judge said there was no secret about the treatment to which Mr. Mohamed was subjected while in the control of the U.S. authorities.

Is it surprising that human rights groups that include Amnesty, Liberty and Human Rights Watch want openness and transparency before they take part in such an inquiry? Their concerns were expressed in a letter, reported in the Guardian (August 5, 2011):

We are particularly disappointed that the issue of what material may be disclosed to the public will not be determined independently of government and, further, that there will be no meaningful participation of the former and current detainees and other interested third parties… As you know, we were keen to assist the inquiry in the vital work of establishing the truth about allegations that UK authorities were involved in the mistreatment of detainees held abroad. Our strong view, however, is that the process currently proposed does not have the credibility or transparency to achieve this.

Mr. Cameron, the alleged illegal violations of human rights of detainees did not happen under your watch. You have an opportunity to draw a line under what happened, and restore Britain’s reputation, which is extremely important in fighting terrorism, by having a credible inquiry that satisfies the objections raised by the lawyers representing these reputable and internationally respected organizations.

The universality of human rights, respect for the rule of law, and avoiding double standards in dealing with nations and individuals should become the guiding principles of America and Britain. Now, that in parallel, with good intelligence and effective policing, is the moral, smart, and effective way to fight terrorism.

Adnan Al-Daini (PhD, Birmingham University, UK) is a retired University Engineering lecturer. He is a British citizen born in Iraq. He writes regularly on issues of social justice and the Middle East. Read other articles by Adnan.