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The “War on Terror” or a war of horror?

Do you remember where you were on September 11, 2001? It’s one of those days that most people remember – most people with access to TV and the internet that is – because the events of that day were so shocking.

I was working in a call centre and was on my afternoon break. I remember watching the second plane fly into the World Trade Center in real time, with a cup of tea in one hand, a cigarette in the other, my jaw dropped open in horror.

Because it was horrifying wasn’t it? Almost 3000 people died in the attacks and hundreds of thousands of people, millions probably, from all over the world, watched it happen or watched the aftermath.

I can understand why individuals, countries and the international community wanted a response. Unfortunately the response that came, the “War on Terror”, is just as horrifying to me as the event that triggered it.

The “War on Terror” phrase was first used by U.S. President George Bush in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. It became synonymous with the “Bush Doctrine”, or the foreign policy of the two-term Bush Administration, of pre-emptive strikes against individuals suspected of terrorism, or countries suspected of harbouring them.

Leaving aside Iraq and Afghanistan (I’d need several blogs to discuss the human rights concerns there), the “War on Terror” has been invoked to justify a whole host of human rights abuses: extraordinary rendition, torture, secret detention, detention without charge.

Plus, of course, the embodiment of all those things –Guantanamo Bay, where British Resident Shaker Aamer is currently on hunger strike after 11 years of detention without charge.

For me the stories of Guantanamo Bay detainees are those out of a horror film: kidnap, interrogation, torture, enforced sleep deprivation, beatings, mock executions. All of these are illegal under international law, yet as time passes we see more and more allegations of those laws being broken, but a lack of adequate investigations and accountability.

Amnesty has today launched a report describing Poland’s involvement in US-led rendition and secret detention programmes. In a nutshell, Poland is accused of hosting a CIA ‘black site’ (or secret prison) for three years, in which people suspected of terrorism-related acts were held and tortured before being moved to Guantanamo.   

The Polish authorities seem to accept that they have a legal obligation to conduct an effective investigation, hold perpetrators accountable in fair trials, and deliver justice to victims of these practices. But the criminal investigation that was initiated in Poland is now five years old, shrouded in secrecy and yet to conclude.

Amnesty believes that if trials commence there is a good chance that high-level (and/or former) Polish officials will be convicted, resulting in political embarrassment at home and trouble with the USA abroad. No prizes for guessing why the investigation has stalled.

But Poland is not alone in being implicated in human rights abuses committed by the US in the name of the “War on Terror”. The UK government also has a lot of questions to answer, which it is yet to do. In fact just two weeks ago the UN committee against torture (UNCAT) published a quietly devastating review of the UK’s record on preventing, punishing and remedying torture.

In 2010 David Cameron acknowledged that allegations of UK complicity in rendition, secret detentions and torture of detainees, in places such as Pakistan or Afghanistan, risked tarnishing the UK’s reputation as a country that “believes in human rights”.

Yet three years has now passed and the original (and flawed) ‘detainee inquiry’ has stalled with no successor and its interim report, produced over a year ago, remains unpublished. UNCAT describes the failure to investigate allegations of the UK’s complicity in abuses, committed in the context of counter-terrorism abroad, as deeply concerning.

The “War on Terror” was brought about as a response to horrifying circumstances, but from the US to Poland and the UK, the horror of those two planes has been met with the horror of torture, rendition and detention without charge.

The UK, Poland and any other state implicated must adequately investigate those horrors, prosecute those responsible and provide victims with remedy. There must be no more stalling and no more excuses.

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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