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MI6, torture, secrecy and dirty words

You can watch the first ever public speech from a serving chief of MI6 here, delivered yesterday to a select gathering of journalists. Given that the UK only stopped pretending that MI6 doesn’t exist in 1994, on the surface this seems like great progress towards transparency.

That Sir John Sawers should use this opportunity to reaffirm the UK’s opposition to torture, which, he described as “illegal and abhorrent”, is also worthy of applause. The man also known as “C” then went on to emphasise that “we have nothing whatsoever to do with it” [torture]. Better still.

However, as Kim Sengupta points out in the Independent, he was far less emphatic about evidence extracted through torture:

"We can't do our job if we work only with friendly democracies. Dangerous threats usually come from dangerous people in dangerous places. We have to deal with the world as it is. Suppose we receive credible intelligence that might save lives. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it.”

That sounds suspiciously like a willingness to use information that has been extracted using the ‘abhorrent’ practice of torture. The raft of allegations and credible evidence that MI5 and MI6 have been complicit in human rights abuses overseas – outlined in this Amnesty briefing – add more weight to this interpretation.  Sounds like the UK might have something to do with it then?

The other big theme of Sir John’s speech was the operational necessity that the secret services remain secret. “Secrecy is not a dirty word”, he stated, adding that the UK’s ability to foil terrorism plots would be severely curtailed if more openness was demanded of it by the public, the government or the courts.

It would be a naïve human rights campaigner indeed who called for all secret service agents to be publicly named, or made to wear MI6 branded uniforms. But secrecy does become a dirty word if it hides dirty practice. The pro-secrecy camp would be equally naïve if they claimed that secrecy doesn’t hinder transparency or accountability.

The UK authorities, including MI5 and MI6, have been able to hide behind a wall of secrecy when it comes to allegations that they were complicit in abuses including rendition, unlawful detention and torture. Sky News’s Tim Marshall, blogging today, feels there is enough accountability already. We disagree – the difficulty in getting any information about, for example, the case of Binyam Mohammed shows that more effective and independent oversight of the intelligence services is clearly needed.

The Gibson Inquiry, announced by the UK government earlier this year, should shine a light on just these kinds of abuses.It was welcomed – cautiously – by Sir John in yesterday’s speech. But secrecy will once again be an issue. We all know that the Inquiry won’t be conducted 100% in public. But it mustn’t be a secret court that covers up the truth. It should be empowered to find out the truth about UK involvement in abuses overseas. And it must be as transparent as possible – we have had quite enough secrecy when it comes to these cases.


About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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