It's time for the UK to come clean about torture
By Rachel Logan, Law and Human Rights Programme Director at Amnesty UK
There’s a terrible irony that on a day dedicated to victims of torture worldwide, the UK government appears to be on the verge of standing with those accused of significant abuses, instead of those calling for truth and accountability.
Today, the Times reports that the US government is demanding pre-publication changes to the imminent reports from the Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) investigation into the UK’s involvement in torture and rendition during the so-called ‘war on terror’. Those reports were due to be published on Thursday morning, and are likely to have been heavily redacted already by the government.
The government’s likely redactions will happen because it has the power to control what the public (and parliament) see of the ISC report, it also had control over the evidence the ISC itself could see in the first place. Together with other structural flaws, it’s clear that the committee cannot get to the bottom of this nor provide the appropriate public assessment, no matter how diligent and committed its members may be.
David Cameron himself recognised that when he was Prime Minister, he vowed that the UK would have an independent, judge led inquiry into what happened, and specifically stated that the ISC was the wrong body to do this critical work. Together with the other key civil society groups working in this field, Amnesty has said from the outset that the ISC is not capable of carrying out the necessary kind of independent and effective investigation into these allegations (which human rights law requires); intervention from the US underscores that point. If the UK is to get to the bottom of what happened and learn the right lessons to stop such abuses recurring, a proper judge led public inquiry is necessary.
Unfortunately, the government went back on its promise for a judicial inquiry, handing the investigation over from its failed and short-lived ‘Gibson’ inquiry to the ISC, yet excluding from it those cases then known to be under criminal investigation (which have since been wrapped up without any charges being brought).
Civil society united in opposing the choice of the ISC – pointing to the need to get to the truth and learn lessons to stop future abuses, and the problems with asking the committee to try and do that independently. As Amnesty and others predicted, a press report today suggests the government did indeed block access to key witnesses that the ISC wanted to question. We don’t know yet the extent of such interference, or what other evidence may have been kept from them. The problems with the ISC as a vehicle for this inquiry go even further; the ISC will presumably have had to investigate itself, having apparently made serious mistakes in its statutory oversight of the intelligence services in the period - most notably when it reported that the UK had not been involved in rendition and torture overseas.
Last month, the government finally admitted that was not the case, in an unprecedented step, the Prime Minister apologised to Mr Belhaj and his wife for the active role the British government played in their rendition and torture.
There are numerous credible allegations of similar abuses perpetrated by the CIA and its other partners in the ‘war on terror’, and of UK involvement. Those agencies must not be permitted to influence the findings of this limited investigation into UK involvement in their actions, nor what is put in the public domain.
At a time when the President of the USA has expressed vocal support for the use of torture on detainees and appointed someone deeply implicated in the historic abuses to lead the CIA, it has never been more important for the UK to stand with victims. Our government must ensure it stands firm against torture and learns from past mistakes.
This means it must be transparent about what changes the US have demanded and what they have agreed to and ensure the independence and effectiveness of the ISC report is not compromised any further. However, that simply isn’t enough, a full judicial public inquiry must now be established.
We will be scrutinising the ISC reports carefully on Thursday, (or when they do finally appear), and will be looking closely to see what concrete and useful evidence has emerged that can be built on by an inquiry.
Sunlight, undoubtedly, remains the best disinfectant. Sadly, the ISC reports will do little more than highlight where the shadows remain. As has always been the case, only a full judge-led inquiry can bring all cases of torture and abuse into the open, and tell us what needs to happen now to fulfil the promise of ‘never again’.
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