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Shocked by UK complicity in torture? The so-called ‘war on terror’ deeply damaged global attitudes to torture

admin - June 29, 2018 - United Nations Committee against Torture, Torture

“The illegality of torture in England has been a subject of boasting among Englishmen for more than five centuries”

-Lowell, 1897


Long before the worldwide prohibition on torture became an accepted standard of international law, England had hundreds of years of history when it came to outlawing torture. Under the English common law, evidence obtained by torture has long been considered ‘unreliable, unfair, offensive to ordinary standards of humanity and decency and incompatible with the principles which should animate a tribunal seeking to administer justice(A & Others 2006).

Yesterday, the parliamentary intelligence and security committee published two damning reports into the UK’s complicity in the rendition, torture and mistreatment of terror suspects after 9/11. The reports found that whilst the UK didn’t directly participate in the torture and mistreatment of suspects, it knowingly funded the extraordinary rendition of suspects into the custody of states who the UK knew were using torture. Not only this, the UK also received information from interrogations that they knew involved torture and mistreatment, and even supplied questions to be put to suspects during these interrogations in over 230 cases.

In a new research report, Tainted by Torture: Examining the Use of Torture Evidence, Fair Trials found that rather than remaining in military ‘blacksites’ where it was extracted, information obtained by torture was passed to intelligence services around the world as if it was verified evidence, and slowly a trickle of this information started to creep into criminal trials and immigration proceedings across the globe, even right here in the UK.

So why did the UK suddenly turn its back on hundreds of years of history?

It would be naïve to think that the UK personnel haven’t participated in torture over the last 500 years, but between 2001 and 2010, the UK was part of a sustained, planned and coordinated campaign of torture in the name of the so-called ‘war on terror’. With then-Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, authorising payments for some of these renditions, even the highest levels of Government have been tainted by the findings of these reports.

The barbaric attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001 shocked the world, but what has happened since- the practices of states who claimed to be acting in the interest of democracy- has been equally shocking.

Over recent decades, the political rhetoric around torture in the context of national security has represented a significant challenge to human rights law, especially the prohibition on torture. Programmes like 24 and Homeland, where ‘good guy’ Western intelligence agents torture ‘bad guy’ terrorists in order to obtain crucial information, effectively made torture in the context of terrorism part of Western pop culture. Far from being confined to the screen, torture really was being carried out by Western state officials, which scandals such as Abu Ghraib proved long before yesterday’s reports. But the horrors that occurred both in fiction and in real-life, combined to warp public perceptions around the morality and utility of torture.

After years of building international and regional jurisprudence on the unequivocal nature of the prohibition on torture, and the progress of the ratification of international instruments such as the UN Convention Against Torture and its Optional Protocol, the war on terror threatened to undo that progress.

So warped was the public consciousness by 2005, that when a case of evidence obtained through torture of a terror suspect came before the UK courts in A & Others vs Secretary of State for the Home Department, the court actually ruled that evidence that might have been procured by torture inflicted by foreign officials (without the complicity of the British authorities) was admissible; and that the facts of the torture were simply relevant to the weight to be given to the evidence. This ruling was later overturned by the House of Lords, but it demonstrates how easy it is for practices that were once deemed unthinkable to slowly bleed into the fabric of society.

Once a source of international outrage, little international media attention is given these days to the human beings held indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay, with no due process and no prospect of a fair trial or freedom. Whilst it is necessary for states to investigate and prosecute terrorism, this must never come at the price of hard-won but ultimately basic rights, like the right not to be tortured, or the right to have a fair trial. 

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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