Human rights groups and victims abandon ‘toothless’ British torture inquiry

Ten leading human rights organisations, along with victims of torture and their lawyers, have today withdrawn from the British Government’s Detainee Inquiry on the grounds that it cannot get to the truth about torture.

In a letter to the Inquiry, the groups – including Reprieve, a legal action charity which has represented all British nationals and residents held in Guantanamo Bay – state that that “the process currently proposed does not have the credibility or transparency” to establish “the truth about allegations that UK authorities were involved in the mistreatment of detainees”.

Key shortcomings are the reliance on the Government to determine what material is made public and the failure to ensure meaningful participation by detainees.

In addition, Reprieve has criticised the ‘toothlessness’ of the inquiry, citing its inability to compel witnesses to attend or evidence to be provided.

Reprieve Investigator Tim Cooke-Hurle said:

“Since the torture inquiry was announced a year ago, we have tried repeatedly to make it work. It is frustrating that the Government has instead chosen to proceed with a secretive and toothless review. By ignoring the concerns of torture victims and major human rights organisations, the government risks a whitewash.”

The full text of the letter – signed by The AIRE Centre; Amnesty International; British Irish Rights Watch; Cageprisoners; Freedom from Torture; Human Rights Watch; Justice; Liberty; Redress; Reprieve – is as follows:

04 August 2011

Dear Ms Carnegie

We refer to your letter of 6 July 2011 sent to nine of the ten organisations listed below and letter to Human Rights Watch dated 15 July 2011.

We have carefully considered the contents of the letters as well as the Terms of Reference and Protocol published on 6 July 2011. Plainly an Inquiry conducted in the way that you describe and in accordance with the Protocol would not comply with Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. We are particularly disappointed that the issue of what material may be disclosed to the public will not be determined independently of Government and, further, that there will be no meaningful participation of the former and current detainees and other interested third parties.

As you know, we were keen to assist the Inquiry in the vital work of establishing the truth about allegations that UK authorities were involved in the mistreatment of detainees held abroad. Our strong view, however, is that the process currently proposed does not have the credibility or transparency to achieve this. If the Inquiry proceeds on this basis, therefore, and in light of indications from the lawyers acting for former detainees that they will not be participating, we do not intend to submit any evidence or attend further meetings with the Inquiry team.

Notes to editors

1. For further information please contact Katherine O’Shea or Donald Campbell in Reprieve’s press office on katherine.oshea@reprieve.org.uk / donald.campbell@reprieve.org.uk / +44 (0) 20 7427 1082 / (0) 7931592674 or go to: http://www.reprieve.org.uk/investigations/ukcomplicity/

2. The (Gibson) Detainee Inquiry published its terms of reference and protocol on the 6th July. These failed to provide for a full and open evaluation of the way in which Britain was complicit in torture and rendition.

Reprieve — together with other NGOs and lawyers for the victims — had made a number of suggestions on how the inquiry could work, both before these protocols were made public and after, but these have been largely ignored. Instead, the government has consistently maintained that this inquiry need not comply with UK and international legal requirements for the effective investigation of serious human rights abuse. The Inquiry will suffer from several key shortcomings:

First, the definition of evidence that will remain classified forever ishopelessly overbroad. Set out in Annex A, this effectively includes anythingthat would in any way breach an “understanding” between the UK and itsallies – in other words, anything the Americans would find embarrassing willnot be made public. If – when — a British agent watched Americans abusinga prisoner in a secret site (such as Bagram), the Inquiry will determinethat the agreement was that they were only present on the “understanding”that nothing should be made public. Given that the essence of Britishcomplicity involves working with the US on torture and rendition, theexception to publicity swallows the rule.

Second, there is no meaningful, independent (preferably judicial) review ofwhat should be kept secret. The Inquiry may only refer its own complaints(based on a definition that would justify classifying anything) to the verybody that has previously insisted on secrecy. Unlike other inquiries wherevictims have made serious allegations of torture, the victims will not havemeaningful legal representation. Their advisers will be denied access to anydocuments or hearings deemed secret by the inquiry.

Third, the Inquiry is left toothless due to a lack of powers to compel theattendance of witnesses or the provision of evidence or information from anyparty or organisation. Notably, the inquiry has refused to consider evidenceagainst UK based corporations with alleged links to the US renditionprogram.

There are a number of other issues that are not resolved, and have not beenaddressed by the protocol. In summary, the vast majority of what is secretwill remain secret and the public will receive no assurance that Britain haslearned from its mistake.