"My torture inquirys better than yours"

I found myself yesterday secreted in an airless passage at the UK Parliament’s Portcullis House with the Dominic Casciani from the BBC and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez, talking accountability. It was one of those funny moments when you think ‘this is a bit odd’ and then get on with it (we were in the airless passage as we needed somewhere quiet to record an interview).

Mr Mendez was in London as part of an impressive panel assembled by Amnesty, all of whom spoke with authority about inquiries into torture, to an audience of officials, lawyers, NGOs and members of the UK Detainee Inquiry panel itself. Our hope was to reinforce the importance of the UK inquiry, the requirements of it under international law, and  the seriousness of the task ahead.

The UN Special Rapporteur spoke very encouraging about the UK inquiry, particularly as he hopes that it will put pressure on other countries to do the same. Previous inquiries have only concerned individuals rather than systematic practices, which also makes the UK inquiry a bit special.

I was particularly interested in what Paul Cavalluzzo had to say about the Arar inquiry in Canada (for which he was lead counsel). For starters it sounded exhausting – he had to fight the government at every stage as they attempted to redact (censor) almost every document they tried to make public. In the end, he said, they simply published the final report, let the government make their redactions then spent another year (largely successfully) challenging that censorship in the federal court.

Paul outlined some of the features that, in his expert view, would be required of an effective inquiry. It must be independent; it must have the resources and expertise to handle govt agencies (who will be well-resourced and willing to fight to keep certain things under wraps); it must be able to compel people to attend and compel agencies to hand over documents; it must have a mechanism to handle secrecy and be able to challenge government demands for excessive secrecy; and it must gain the confidence of victims and public alike so it should be fair and public in nature.

If these requirements are met, he added, an inquiry can really help to restore public confidence in government agencies and the rule of law.

Other speakers included:

Nicola Piacente , Milan’s Deputy Public Prosecutor who helped to convict 22 CIA operatives for their role in the 2003 abduction and rendition of Abu Omar in Milan; Henrikas Mickevicius from Lithuania, an expert in international and European Human Rights Standards and accountability; Mikołaj Pietrzak,  who represents Guantanamo detainee Abd al-Rahim Al-Nashiri in Poland’s criminal investigation into the operation of the CIA secret prison in Poland; and Ashley Underwood QC, leading Counsel to two ongoing UK inquiries and founder of publicinquiries.org.

All the speakers stressed just how encouraging it is that the UK is holding this inquiry, what a great opportunity it is, and just how important it is for the inquiry to be as open and public as it possibly can be.

Ashley Underwood underlined just why it’s so important.  The true test of a civilised society, he said, is its reaction to terror. And if the government has gone down the wrong route in its reaction to terror, an inquiry can help to put things right again. The question, he added, is whether the Gibson Inquiry will step up to the mark and do this – will it be open, impartial and effective?

From what I heard yesterday, there are a lot of people hoping that it will.


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