Select committee issues two damning reports on UK’s role in torture
The Intelligence and Security Committee released its report in the UK’s role in torture on 28 June 2018 and this revealed the shocking extent of MI6’s involvement. It is government policy, and the legal position, that the UK does not use torture nor does it outsource the practice to other agencies or governments. It is counterproductive since under torture, victims are likely to say anything to get it to stop. The evidence thus gleaned is of doubtful value as was dramatically shown in Iraq and our decision to invade. It is also a key part of the Human Rights Act. Article 3 protects you from:
– torture (mental or physical)
– inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and
– deportation or extradition (being sent to another country to face criminal charges) if there is a real risk you will face torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in the country concerned.
As you would expect, public authorities must not inflict this sort of treatment on you. They must also protect you if someone else is treating you in this way. If they know this right is being breached, they must intervene to stop it. The state must also investigate credible allegations of such treatment. Equality and Human Rights Commission
That we were involved in this activity has been known for some time although often the details were not available. So were the denials and here is Jack Straw – the Home Secretary for much of the time when this was happening – claiming in an interview:
Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop. Quoted by Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph, 11 April 2012 [accessed 3 July 2018]
Peter Oborne continued: After Mr Straw spoke out, further denials followed. Tony Blair insisted that Britain had never engaged in the practice. Mr Straw’s successor, David Miliband, was equally adamant. Sir John Scarlett, until recently head of the Secret Intelligence Service (and the official responsible for the notorious dossier of September 2002 which asserted that Saddam Hussein was capable of deploying weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes) was forthright. “Our officers are as committed to the values and the human rights values of liberal democracy as anybody else,” he said, adding that there was “no complicity in torture. (ibid)
The scale of the activity revealed by this report was a surprise. Up until the report was published it was known that the activity had taken place on a modest scale but the facts show otherwise:
• On 232 occasions UK intelligence officers were found to have continued supplying questions to foreign agencies between 2001 and 2010, despite knowing or suspecting a prisoner was being tortured or mistreated.
• There were 198 occasions when UK intelligence officers received information from a prisoner whom they knew was being mistreated.
• In a further 128 cases, foreign intelligence bodies told UK intelligence agencies prisoners were being mistreated.
• MI5 or MI6 offered to help fund at least three rendition operations.
• The agencies planned or agreed to a further 28 rendition operations.
• They provided intelligence to assist with a further 22 rendition operations.
• Two MI6 officers consented to mistreatment meted out by others. Only one of these incidents has been investigated by police.
• In a further 13 cases, UK intelligence officers witnessed an individual being tortured or mistreated.
• MI5, MI6 and the military conducted up to 3,000 interviews of prisoners held at Guantanamo.
• No attempt is being made to find out whether guidelines introduced by the coalition government in 2010 are helping to prevent the UK’s intelligence agencies from continuing to be involved in human rights abuses.
• The UK breached its commitment to the international prohibition of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
• On at least two occasions ministers took “inappropriate” decisions.
• Jack Straw authorised payment of “a large share of the costs” of the rendition of two people in October 2004. The Guardian 2 July 2018
Not that this is the full story. The government prevented individual officers from giving evidence so there may well be more to come out in future. On this matter, Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty said:
It is obvious that the ISC was prevented by the Government from producing a thorough report about what really happened – it says so itself. The ISC had no powers to summon witnesses or demand full evidence, and its findings were always subject to redaction and veto from the Prime Minister herself. Instead of the independent, judge-led torture inquiry promised by David Cameron, we’ve had an under-powered, over-controlled review by a committee that was never empowered to get the job done. While the Committee’s report represents a helpful step forwards, it is not the definitive account of what really happened. It was always the wrong tool for the job.
With the President of the United States personally praising waterboarding and the CIA led by someone closely linked to torture, now is not the time to brush this issue under the carpet. We need a full judge-led inquiry now. Amnesty statement
In the face of damning evidence and a considerable amount of research carried out by the committee over many years, one might have thought that a contrite response from the head of MI6 at the time, Sir Richard Dearlove, would be appropriate, if not a full apology. Not a bit of it. Here he is quoted in the Sun* newspaper:
As far as my former service is concerned, the mistreatment issue has been blown out of proportion by pressure from certain interest groups [one assumes Amnesty is among them]. There never was a systemic problem, and there are no skeletons in the cupboard from my time. The staff served the nation magnificently and with due care for our respect for the law. In extreme circumstances, there will always be incidents that one regrets. But nothing illegal was perpetrated – which is as achievement given the extent of the provocation. Warning of the chilling effect that the MPs’ withering criticism could have, the ex-spymaster added: It’s time to move on and not allow our willingness to take risks to be diminished. The Sun 29 June 2018
No mea culpa there. Quite what the ‘provocation’ is not explained. Torture seems to be part of a need to ‘take risks’. This quotation – if it is an accurate statement of his position – is disgraceful. That the former head of the service brushes aside a comprehensive and detailed description of our – and his service’s role – in water boarding, stress positions and other forms of degrading treatment is utterly reprehensible. His defence seems to rest on the fact that MI6 officers did not actually do the torturing themselves.
But he is not alone. This is the Sun’s editorial position:
WHAT did we gain by MPs blowing five years probing what MI5 and MI6 knew of the US torture of terror suspects back in 2001? Their report admits our spooks were directly involved only twice. And if it extracted vital intelligence preventing further atrocities after 9/11, so what if we turned a blind eye? Yes, torture is barbaric. But the CIA firmly believes it saved lives. Would those people wringing their hands over it prefer to have risked thousands more being massacred by al-Qaeda?
Still perpetuating the myth that torture is necessary and saves lives.
As a nation we pride ourselves on civilised behaviour. We promote such behaviour around the world and in the UN. We are signatories to key treaties and it is government policy that we do not torture people. We have the Human Rights Act which prohibits it. Government ministers constantly claim that such practices are alien to our culture and way of doing things. We have a fundamental sense of decency it is claimed. However, Peter Beaumont, a journalist with the Observer, says over the years he has ‘been lied to a lot’.
British intelligence officers, despite all the denials, were aware of the mistreatment, they benefited from it and even supplied their own questions for the victims of mistreatment despite knowing those being interrogated were being brutalized. 1 July 2018
Even now, people like Sir Richard Dearlove are in denial. The government has done all it can to frustrate the enquiry and to prevent it getting to the truth. Jack Straw and others have many questions to answer.
Joint statement by human rights organisations
*a tabloid newspaper part of the Murdoch group in the UK.