The war on language: renditions
Ghost prisoners. Enhanced interrogations. Stress and duress techniques. Black sites. Enemy combatants. Spot the connection? Yes, as readers of this blog will certainly know, they’re all new – or rediscovered – phrases associated with the “war on terror” (another new phrase). Others include “fear up harsh” (a US interrogator’s technique, basically shouting in the face of a prisoner to intimidate them) and waterboarding (ie partial drowning, an ancient form of torture, though this particular term dates from only 2004). And, of course, we’ve had renditions. Up until about 2004 I doubt that more than one in a hundred people had heard of the American legal term “rendition”, where fugitives in lawless parts of the world were forcibly taken to the USA to face justice in court. This was going on under the Clinton government, well before George W Bush had even thought of a leaving Texas for a run at the presidency. To most people, me included, a rendition was a version of something, usually a song (as in “MIA’s version of that Elton John song is brilliant”). But now we know different. As I’ve said before, snatching people off the streets, spiriting them from country to country, imprisoning them in unofficial jails, torturing them and/or arranging for “outsourced” torture from “specialist” in countries like Egypt, Syria or Morocco – these have become the hallmarks of the CIA-run renditions programme, aka “extraordinary rendition”. The end of the nightmarish renditions journey for some has been Guantánamo. For others … well, we don’t know. People have disappeared and never reappeared. We still know very little about how many people have been subject to some form of rendition (it probably runs into thousands), who actually carried out or authorised the transfers, who did the torturing, who knew about part or all of this but did nothing to stop it (or, if they were an intelligence officer, whether they were quietly reporting it back to their home governments). And, in fact, we don’t know for sure whether it is still going on. Actually, the issue of renditions is very much unfinished business. As a new Amnesty report shows, the US authorities have basically thrown up the shutters and refused to investigate the thousands of crimes covered by this term. Instead, it’s been largely left to secondary “partners in crime” like the UK, Italy and Lithuania to investigate whether there was involvement in US-led rendition from officials in these countries (read the full report here).
With the UK set to hold an inquiry under Sir Peter Gibson, we may learn a lot more about the UK angle. And that’s still the issue: knowledge, accountability, justice. So today’s news that some former “war on terror” detainees in the UK are to be compensated for their years of detention and alleged abuse is … one thing. The other, as Amnesty’s Nicola Duckworth says, is getting to the truth and holding people to account for their crimes.
The damage done to these men has, you might say, been the collateral damage caused by the war on terror. In an ironic linguistic twist, they’ve gone from being “high value” detainees in Bagram or Guantánamo, to innocents in the UK receiving pay-outs that the Daily Mail calls “hush money”.
Whatever happens next, though, there musn’t be a cover up. To stick to plain, old-fashioned language for a moment: we still need to know the truth of what happened in the “war on terror” and the extent of the UK’s involvement.
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