When is a promise no promise at all? Sadly, when the US makes a promise and then decides it's inconvenient.
This week, the US chose to break a highly significant promise made to the UK. Indeed, it was a binding legal obligation. A 29-year-old Pakistani man named Yunus Rahmatullah was detained by UK forces in Iraq in February 2004. The US and the UK had a memorandum of understanding (MoU), a promise between parties: if the UK transferred Rahmatullah into US hands, the US would treat him consistent with the Geneva conventions and, if the UK asked, would return him to British custody.
The first part of the promise was ignored when the Americans took Rahmatullah to Abu Ghraib – within days of a secret Red Cross report (later leaked) describing some of the horrors that would later be documented by photographs. The US reneged again by rendering Rahmatullah illegally to Bagram air base in Afghanistan – a country at war, where he had never been. And, finally, the US broke its promise this week, refusing to comply with a British request (and a British court order) demanding the return of the prisoner, so he could be released.
Rahmatullah hails from Pakistan, and Pakistan is willing to have him back. Even the US military decided he should be set free two years ago – yet today, eight years later, he remains in Bagram.
Much more than Rahmatullah's fate is at stake. In January, following the UK court's order, Britain duly "requested" their prisoner back. One must read the letter to judge the conviction with which Britain made its request. Was Britain being honest, or did the British wink to their American counterparts, essentially asking them to be promise-breakers?
Predictably, the US national security council "considered" the request, and then refused it. In other words, they announced that an American promise is not worth the paper it is written on.
You may conclude that Britain did not want the US to keep its word, because British officials had conspired to break the Geneva conventions: Yunus Rahmattullah will one day be a witness in their criminal prosecution.
And why did the US lie so readily? A recent article in the Washington Post suggests, on the one hand, that the US has no desire to continue to hold Rahmattullah. On the other, there is an election going on, and US officials do not wish to be seen to bow to the orders of faraway judges in faraway lands.
But the longer-term consequences are dire: if the US does not see fit to fulfil its promises why, for example, should Britain comply with the bilateral extradition treaty, which promises to send British citizens to face trial in the US? Why should we send Gary McKinnon to face a spurious trial on hacking into computers? Why should we send student Richard O'Dwyer to face trial for running a website with links to television programmes on the internet? Why should we send Chris Tappin to face trial for something that would not be a crime in England?
We teach our children to tell the truth. Government is the great teacher, either for good or for ill. This case is a matter of honour between friends. The US's betrayal of its British ally is short-sighted and self-defeating, and the consequences will haunt both nations for many years to come.
This article first appeared on the Guardian's Liberty Central blog on 23 February 2012