Hague announces a UK 'torture inquiry'

The Guardian broke the news last night of Foreign Secretary William Hague’s announcement that there would be a judicial inquiry into UK complicity in torture. Quite right, too, that it should be journalist Ian Cobain who got the scoop – he’s followed this issue with such tenacity that we should probably be offering him a job.

I’d just come out of the cinema watching Robin Hood when the Guardian phoned me for a comment on Hague’s announcement, so it didn’t seem very real – I was still trying to get my head round the idea of Robin as a civil rights campaigner with a Liverpool accent. When you find out that something you've worked on for ages is actually going to happen – as with the Arms Trade Treaty and the UK ratifying the trafficking convention – it’s almost hard to believe.

So in case I haven’t made it clear enough, Amnesty welcomes the announcement that there will be an inquiry. As we’ve said for some time, the UK’s reputation has been sullied and only a full investigation is going to draw a line under these allegations. International law requires a thorough, independent and impartial inquiry.

Those three words – thorough, independent and impartial – are very important. The devil is going to lie in the detail when a formal announcement is made, reportedly in the next week or so, about the nature of the inquiry. The inquiry should also look closely at the policies and practices that led to the UK becoming involved in these abuses. And we would want it to make recommendations for independent scrutiny of the intelligence services, in order to ensure their full accountability.

In March this year Amnesty published a report that set out in some detail the reasons why an inquiry is needed, and some of the questions it should answer. I’ve summarised them below:

1. What have been the UK government’s policies and practices in response to human rights abuses like torture and ill-treatment, enforced disappearance, rendition and unlawful detentions perpetrated by the USA and others against people, including UK nationals, held overseas since 11 September 2001? Have they changed since then? If so, when, how and why?

2. In relation to seeking to obtain, receiving and using information that may have been
extracted under torture or otherwise obtained unlawfully, what was the UK  government’s policy and practice prior to 11 September 2001? Have these changed since then? If so, when, how and why?

3. What steps did the UK government take when in 2003 the Red Cross first raised concern about grave human rights abuses at the hands of Coalition Forces in Iraq, at Abu Ghraib?

4. What were the terms of the agreements the UK signed at the request of the US
in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 purportedly under the principle of collective defence under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty?

5. Were there further bilateral secret agreements on “war on terror” cooperation and if so, what did they entail?

6. What oversight mechanisms were in place to ensure that adequate record-keeping was maintained regarding counter-terrorism? In cases where record-keeping was poor or non-existent, how does the government explain these
inadequacies?

7. How many times since 11 September 2001, and precisely in what circumstances, have authorisations under section 7 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994 been issued?

8. What was the guidance regarding the role of the security services in the treatment and interviewing of detainees held overseas prior to 11 September 2001? Has it changed since then? And if so, when, how many times, in what respects, and why?

9. What has been the role of military intelligence agencies and agents in all and any of the above?

10. What has been the role of lawyers and civil servants in all and any of the above?

It’s not an exhaustive list and I’m sure there will be other questions that need asking (and answering).  But it’s great news that this is happening – now we just have to ensure that the inquiry really is empowered to get to the bottom of this murky business, and help to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

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