Clive Stafford Smith

All talk and no trousers

on 10 August 2009


Indignant government rhetoric on torture rings hollow. The evidence tells a very different story.

It was grandstand stuff. "This is not just about legal obligations," wrote David Miliband and Alan Johnson in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, trumpeting Britain's unceasing efforts to expose and eliminate torture. "It is about our values as a nation, and about what we do, not just what we say." It was also, sad to say, all talk and no trousers.

The foreign and home secretaries indignantly denied that "alleged wrongdoing is covered up". As with the whole article, this is just so much ipse dixit, without a shred of proof. The evidence tells a different story. Let me mention three instances, from just the last 10 days, where we at Reprieve have had to sue the government to get to the truth.

One is the case of Binyam Mohamed. He was the unfortunate man rendered by the US to be tortured in Morocco, and then moved on to Guantánamo Bay. In the past week it has emerged that British agents lied about their involvement in Binyam's rendition – they were still sending questions to be put to him two years into his torture. One agent was actually in Morocco at the time the razor blade was being taken to Binyam's genitals. I have seen much of the classified evidence of torture that was in the hands of the UK government. You – the public – have not. Why not? Because David Miliband has argued in the high court that if Britain does not continue to hide it, this will annoy the Americans. And the cover up continues, seven years on.

The second case involves Diego Garcia. Last year, Miliband wrote us a polite letter about the two men who were rendered through the Indian Ocean island, apologising for earlier false statements made by the UK government about use of the base for these illegal acts. We wrote back asking him for their names, so that we could help restore them to their legal rights. These were not forthcoming. Seventeen months later the cover-up continues – the UK's values, as a nation that respects the law, somehow evaporate when it comes accountability to those who suffered our wrongdoing. So we are having to sue the government again.

The third case involves Britain's complicity in renditions of prisoners from Iraq to abuse in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, John Hutton (then minister of defence) admitted that the UK had been involved in sending two prisoners to the legal black hole of Bagram Air Force Base. The government had known about this offence for five years, but had disclosed nothing. I immediately wrote to the minister asking for the victims' names, so we could reunite them with the rule of law. Three months later the MoD wrote back saying – if you can believe it – to turn the names over would violate the individuals' data protection rights. We'll be giving them notice of our intent to sue on this one on Tuesday.

So much, then, for the claim that Britain would never cover up evidence of torture. What is being done to ensure that these mistakes do not happen in the future? Messrs Miliband and Johnson argue that the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) is independent and rigorous when it comes to criticizing misconduct by the intelligence services. What they don't say is that the prime minister gets to redact out anything he does not want made public from the ISC reports.

They write that "the steps outlined by the prime minister in March, including on the publication of consolidated guidance, are part of the process of setting out for the public the responsible way in which we approach these difficult issues."

The last time I saw Mr Miliband he was being questioned by the Foreign Affairs Committee. He was asked why this guidance had not been made public more than four months after it was promised. And he explained that he would not agree to publish the earlier, excruciatingly embarrassing guidance, that allowed Binyam Mohamed's torture to go ahead unchallenged.

Miliband and Johnson are right about one thing, and that is that we do need action, rather than words. Yet the decisions that need to be made are not nearly as difficult as these two gentlemen make out. When torture has taken place, it is not merely a moral imperative to come clean about it and condemn the perpetrators – it is our legal obligation under the UN convention against torture. A simple recognition of this would save the government from being sued so often.

Our values as a nation do align us against torture, and against nations that torture. This should be viewed as a practical stand, as well as a moral one. It is in our interest, since by far the most effective weapon of counter-terrorism is the rigorous enforcement of human rights. When we stand up for our principles, fewer people want to harm us and more want to help us. When we are hypocrites and fail to practise what we preach, we lose on both scores.

I once met Robin Cook, and commended him for what I thought was his mantra – that Britain would henceforth have an "ethical foreign policy". To my surprise, he bristled, and said he had never used the term. That was a shame. It would be a very good idea.

This blog also appeared on the Guardian website.

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