The UN Convention Against Torture: 25 and rendered numb

Yesterday was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the UN Convention Against Torture, one of the most significant international efforts to halt obscene coercive practices. But while progress has been made, stories of unsanctioned techniques carried out in secret provide testimony of what is still to be done. 

Aisha Maniar
27 June 2012

Yesterday was International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, a day, since 1998, “on which we pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable”. It was also the twenty-fifth anniversary of the UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) becoming international law in 1987.

Torture is usually a secret process: unseen and unspoken. One of the more pernicious and disturbing variations to emerge in the twenty first century is the outsourcing of torture, or extraordinary rendition: the effective kidnap and torture of individuals all around the world. Almost all countries have colluded, in one form or another, in this extralegal CIA-run programme.

European states are no exception. In a 2006 report for the Council of Europe, Swiss senator Dick Marty described their collusion as “a spider’s web”. Torture denial long precedes the UNCAT and is of a nature more akin to a horror film plot; German rendition survivor Khaled El-Masri reported that he was told not to tell anyone his story “because no one will believe you”.

Although the cloak of secrecy around the issue is difficult to shake, there has been some progress across Europe recently. The European Parliament is currently investigating European collusion in running secret torture prisons for the CIA. Following official admission of the existence of “black sites” in the country, Poland announced an investigation into secret prisons in the country and pressed charges against the former intelligence chief. With other claims of torture collusion pending against Lithuania and Poland, last month Khaled El-Masri brought the first case to the European Court of Human Rights against Macedonia for its role in his rendition.

In Britain too, progress has been made with criminal investigations. In January, following revelations disclosed by Human Rights Watch of the lead role Britain played in the rendition to Libya of Abdul Hakim Belhaj, another man and their families in 2005, the police announced an official investigation into the claims, leading to the collapse of the Gibson (Detainee) Inquiry. The police will also investigate claims relating to torture concerning the intelligence services made by Shaker Aamer, a British resident still held at Guantánamo Bay.

It is not all positive news, however. The government’s recent publication of the Justice and Security Bill is a major setback to accountability and human rights, pushing the legal system to a pre-Magna Carta era. It follows a controversial green paper on Justice and Security published last year. While some problematic elements, such as secret inquests, have been removed, the bill still proposes to introduce ‘secret justice’, a euphemism for injustice.

Although the 30-odd pending cases that could be affected by these measures do not concern allegations of torture alone, it is the cases brought by former Guantánamo Bay prisoners and Binyam Mohamed against government collusion in their rendition and torture that largely provide the stated rationale.

The proposal is indeed to prevent such cases being brought to court again and the evidence of such allegations against government agencies ever seeing the light of day. The “national security” excuse is likely to be little more than a cover for collusion in international crimes, as evidenced from the above cases and others.

The question of the proposals’ “fairness” is the main concern that has been raised across the board. Yet there is little that is fair or just in the experience of torture and “rendition” victims. Burying the truth, as will emerge from the Belhaj case, does not make it go away, nor does it deal with the criminal practices in question. Instead, it just helps conspiracy theories to flourish, distract and create the demonisation of victims.

The road to justice can be long and arduous; it can years and according to human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, it “takes stamina”. But not all victims do or will give up. The British government should be well aware of this. Just last week, a former Republican prisoner, Liam Holden, who once faced the death penalty, had his conviction for murder overturned when it emerged he had been waterboarded, among forms of torture, by the British army in the 1970s in Northern Ireland.

The purpose of this day was to show solidarity. Please show yours, however you can. On 4th July the London Guantánamo Campaign is holding a protest outside the US Embassy in a special demonstration to mark American Independence Day. Alternatively, please add your name to this e-petition to the British government calling for the return of Shaker Aamer to the UK

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