Independent judge-led inquiry into UK complicity in torture needed
Amnesty International believes that there is credible evidence that the UK has been involved in grave human rights violations perpetrated against people held overseas by other authorities since the attacks in the USA on 11 September 2001.
The UN Convention Against Torture states that ‘no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture’. It also states there should be a prompt and impartial investigation wherever there is reasonable ground to believe an act of torture has been committed.
The Human Rights Act 1998 also prohibits torture under any circumstances, and that obligation implicitly requires a prompt independent investigation of credible allegations – the more so when there appears to be a ‘systemic’ problem. The existence of evidence requires the establishment of an independent, impartial and thorough judge-led inquiry, now. Credible allegations implicate the UK in torture or other ill-treatment, unlawful detentions and renditions. Over the years, Amnesty International and others have documented cases of the UK’s involvement in these abuses, including:
- UK personnel were present at interrogations of detainees held unlawfully overseas in circumstances in which the UK knew, or ought to have known, that the detainees concerned had been or were at risk of being tortured and/or whose detention was unlawful and even that they participated in such interrogations
- UK personnel provided information (e.g. telegrams sent by UK intelligence personnel to intelligence services of other countries) that led the USA and other countries to apprehend and detain individuals when the UK knew or ought to have known that these people would then be at risk of torture and/or unlawful detention
- The UK was involved in the US-led programme of renditions and secret detentions through, for example, the use of UK territory (e.g. Diego Garcia) and/or airspace
- UK personnel forwarded questions to be put to individuals detained by other countries in circumstances in which the UK knew or ought to have known that the detainees concerned had been or were at risk of being tortured and/or whose detention was unlawful
- The UK systematically received information extracted from people detained overseas in circumstances in which it knew or ought to have known that the detainees concerned had been or were at risk of torture and/or whose detention was unlawful.
A number of individuals – including former Guantánamo Bay detainees – have spoken publicly about UK involvement in their mistreatment. Shaker Aamer, who was released from Guantánamo in October 2015, after nearly 14 years without charge or trial, has said for example that a UK official was in the room when his head was beaten against a wall.
In 2008 the High Court confirmed that the UK, through its security service MI5, had facilitated the interrogation of Binyam Mohamed in the knowledge that his initial detention in Pakistan was unlawful. Then, during a two-year period, the UK continued to facilitate interviews conducted on behalf of the US authorities when it must have realised that Binyam Mohamed was being held unlawfully by a third country and knew or ought to have known that there was a real risk that he was being tortured.
Proper investigation needed
The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has now been given the task of investigating allegations of UK complicity in torture, but Amnesty International, along with many other anti-torture organisations including the UN, believes that the ISC is wholly unsuited to the task in hand. The structural limitations of the ISC, particularly its lack of power and independence from government, means that any investigation the ISC conducts is unlikely to get to the truth, and cannot satisfy the UK’s human rights obligations. The ISC is not a traditional Parliamentary committee, even though it is made up of parliamentarians. Ministers ultimately decide what evidence the Committee can see, with the Prime Minister controlling what it can publish and even who can be a member. Crucially, the government retains the right to withhold information considered to be “sensitive” or on grounds of national security from the ISC. The definition of what constitutes sensitive information is extremely broad and notably includes information provided by a foreign intelligence agency which can object to further disclosure of that information. Any Secretary of State can determine material is sensitive and in the interests of national security should not be disclosed to the ISC.
The ISC has a poor record in holding the intelligence services to account. In 2007, three years after the rendition of the Libyan families, the ISC produced a report which said that there was “no evidence that the UK Agencies were complicit in any “Extraordinary Rendition” operations.”
In July 2010, the Prime Minister promised to establish an independent inquiry into allegations of UK involvement in torture and other human rights violations with respect to individuals detained abroad in the context of counter-terrorism operations. At the time, David Cameron specifically ruled out the possibility of the ISC carrying out the investigation, recognising that an inquiry led by a judge who is “fully independent of Parliament, party and Government” was required “to get to the bottom of the case”.
In 2011 the Detainee Inquiry was established, led by the retired judge Sir Peter Gibson. Amnesty International and a number of other organisations felt that the Detainee Inquiry fell short of the UK’s international human rights obligations and domestic obligations under the Human Rights Act to fully and independently investigate allegations of UK involvement in torture and other ill-treatment. Of most concern was that the government retained final say on what material could be disclosed to the public and that the protocol did not provide for an independent mechanism to decide on disclosure of national security material.
In January 2012 the Detainee Inquiry was suspended, after Scotland Yard announced a criminal investigation into joint UK/Libyan operations which had resulted in the rendition of Libyan opposition figures. Those investigations are ongoing.
In December 2013 the Detainee Inquiry interim report was published. It highlighted that the evidence it had received indicated that UK agents were aware of abuse of some detainees by other governments and that the UK government may have been involved in rendition. It outlined 27 separate issues that should be subjected to further investigation. Amnesty and others expected this to be followed by a proper full judge led inquiry.
Instead, on 19 December 2013, it was announced that the ISC had been tasked with examining allegations of UK complicity in torture and other ill-treatment of detainees held overseas, which had previously been the subject of the Detainee Inquiry. In September 2015 Dominic Grieve was appointed as the new Chair of the ISC. There is as yet no news on its work in this area.