On Britain's use of torture

On the anniversary of the UN Convention Against Torture, it's important to remember Britain's uncomfortable relationship with this particular international crime.

Aisha Maniar
26 June 2014

This year, the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) turns 30. A crime against humanity, torture encompasses not only the act, but also the facilitation, failure to prevent and transfer of an individual to a state where they are at risk of torture. Since becoming international law though, rather than serve as a means to prevent state crimes, the use of torture has proliferated worldwide. The United Kingdom is very much a part of this global phenomenon.

Over the past decade, claims have emerged steadily of the British state’s involvement in torture, mainly relating to the behaviour of the British military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of intelligence agents’ involvement in the CIA’s kidnap and torture programme, extraordinary rendition. Some of the claims have been clearly proven, such as British involvement in the “rendition” of Libyan Abdel Hakim Belhaj, whereas others have not. The common denominator in all such claims is the British government’s denial of liability.

Judicial attempts at transparency and accountability have largely ended in secret out-of-court settlements and criminal prosecutions have fallen through due to a lack of evidence or private settlements. The vague and non-specific concep of “national security” is used to shroud evidence of wrongdoing in perpetual secrecy, leading to the establishment of secret courts that deny victims the right to a fair hearing and justice.

The seriousness of claims is often downplayed, even in cases such as that of Iraqi civilian Baha Mousa where hours of torture ended in his death. Official inquiries have been a whitewash. The inquiry into Mousa’s 2003 torture and death was damning of the practices of the British military and the treatment of prisoners but nonetheless, by the time the inquiry published its report in 2011, the only soldier convicted of war crimes in the case had long served his one year sentence and been released. Although cases have been brought against intelligence officers, serving members of parliament and soldiers, prosecutions have been few and convictions even fewer. Another Iraq torture inquiry continues to face many obstacles. Impunity reigns in a culture of secrecy.

The UK’s actions have not gone unnoticed. In its latest observations, the UN Committee Against Torture criticised the UK’s use of secret courts, urged that an effective torture inquiry “should ensure that all perpetrators of torture and ill-treatment identified in the context of the inquiry are duly prosecuted and punished appropriately, and that effective reparation, including adequate compensation, is granted to every victim,” and with respect to torture in Iraq, that there is accountability.

More recently, the British government’s failure to investigate has prompted the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague to hold a preliminary examination into British war crimes in Iraq, including more than 170 claims of prisoner abuse. The UK is the only western country to face such action from the court.

Torture has a long history in the UK, often linked to its colonial past. In a 2013 out-of-court settlement, former Mau Mau fighters were compensated for the torture they faced in Kenya in the 1950s. As with claims by former Guantánamo prisoners, the government nonetheless disclaimed liability and offered no apology. Torture was also used extensively in Northern Ireland, as evidenced by a key European Court of Human Rights case, Ireland v UK. Prior to the current World Cup, the BBC reported that Britain had shared its torture techniques used in Northern Ireland with the then dictatorship in Brazil.

One of the questions raised during the Baha Mousa Inquiry was how these techniques, the “5 techniques” used in Northern Ireland, banned decades ago in Britain, could still be used by the British army and others? Impunity is the theme of International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June this year and this question is fundamental as to why accountability and transparency matter. As well as closure for victims, without investigation, and prosecution, there is no way of guaranteeing that such actions will not be repeated in future. Claims continue to emerge of the UK intelligence services’ involvement in torture abroad, particularly in East Africa.

Secrecy surrounds both the actions and the method of operation of the intelligence services. This lack of accountability, checks and balances is a slippery slope: torture is just one facet. In a resolution demanding transparency and accountability by European Union states for their involvement in extraordinary rendition last year, the European Parliament stated that “the climate of impunity regarding the CIA programmes has enabled the continuation of fundamental rights violations in the counter-terrorism policies of the EU and the US, as further revealed by the mass surveillance programmes of the US National Security Agency”.

This impunity is not just intended to protect British intelligence agencies but relations with its allies, specifically in the US. This has been cited many times in court cases and in parliament as a reason for secrecy, placing US interests above due process rights and democracy. While David Cameron laments Britain’s loss of sovereignty to European bodies, subservience to the US is a given.

This relationship does involve some reciprocity: the US’ image as a rogue cowboy that openly disregards international law has made it easy for its allies to hide behind and point to its wrongdoings instead: US abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan are well known, whereas those of Britain and other states are not.

Britain’s failure to hold its politicians, military and intelligence to account has undermined its democracy and damaged public trust in the authorities. The intelligence services and the Foreign Office have stated many times that they do not practice or condone torture, yet evidence indicates otherwise. The failure to investigate places Britain in the same category as many states whose human rights’ record it criticises. Nonetheless, accountability and prosecutions of those responsible can go a long way to repairing some of the damage done.

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