Campaign group Reprieve on why probes into the UK's involvement in extraordinary rendition will not get to the bottom of Britain's complicity in some of the worst abuses of the War on Terror
Just a few weeks into 2012, we have already been presented with a series of stark reminders of just how far the British government is from its stated aim of "get[ting] to the bottom" of UK complicity in the torture and rendition of detainees during the War on Terror.
January has so far seen the opening of two new police investigations into UK involvement in the rendition of Gaddafi opponents back to pre-revolutionary Libya, where it would have been known they faced torture; the final acceptance by the government that its increasingly discredited Detainee Inquiry was unworkable; and, hanging over this all, the 10th anniversary of Guantánamo Bay, where British resident Shaker Aamer still remains – and which remains open three years after President Obama promised to shut it down. On top of this, and perhaps most disturbing of all, the UK government is pursuing plans to hobble the courts' ability to hold the security services accountable. The Green Paper on Justice and Security, published last October by the Ministry of Justice, would effectively make it far easier to cover up evidence of state involvement in torture and rendition.
Before delving into the policy detail, it is worth remembering just how serious the abuses in which British officials have been complicit were, and the human costs involved. Take, for example, the Libyan rendition cases, which only emerged last summer as rebels sifted through the paperwork in the recently vacated offices of Gaddafi's spymaster. British intelligence was intimately involved in tracking down two Gaddafi opponents in 2004, and ensuring they ended up on planes back to Libya. But it wasn't just these two men – Abdelhakim Belhaj and Sami al Saadi – who became caught up in the crunching gear-change that saw Gaddafi transformed from sponsor of the worst terrorist atrocity in Britain's history to the latest addition to Tony Blair's 'big tent'. On the planes which flew them back from East Asia to Gaddafi's Libya were their wives and, in the case of Mr al Saadi, his four children, all under the age of 14.
This is appalling behaviour for any country, let alone one which professes a commitment to human rights. And it is worth noting that condemnation has not been limited to hand-wringing NGOs. The last head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, has raised concerns that "the judgements made were wrong" when it came to rendering Gaddafi opponents back to the Colonel's regime. And she is not alone among former Security Service chiefs in expressing such concerns – Stella Rimington has spoken of the "huge overreaction" to 9/11, from which "flowed Guantánamo, and extraordinary rendition." So, accepting that there is a need to deal with the unprecedented wrongdoing of the last decade, what is the way forward?
As last year's Libyan revelations so clearly demonstrated, information is still coming to light on the abuses committed by Western intelligence in the post-9/11 era. There is plainly a need for an inquiry with real clout and independence, if we are to get to the bottom of Britain's role. The government's announcement nearly two years ago that one would take place was welcome, but sadly, as the details emerged, it became clear that it would not be up to the job. The Gibson Inquiry – finally put out of its misery by the Justice Secretary last week – lacked powers to compel the production of evidence or the attendance of witnesses; had no mechanism by which the victims of torture and rendition could effectively challenge the accounts of those responsible; and would have been hamstrung by the Government's ability to wield the redaction pen when it came to what information it could publish. The government remains committed to holding an inquiry once the relevant police investigations have concluded, and it has to be hoped that, next time round, they will see sense and establish one which has the powers and independence it needs to do its job.
Clearly, though, we cannot rely solely on the goodwill of government to ensure proper inquiries into abuses such as these take place. It is vital that routes of accountability through the police and the courts also remain open. As has been mentioned, the police are currently investigating the UK's role in organising renditions to Gaddafi's Libya, and those investigations must receive full cooperation from the government.
However, at the same time ministers are proposing new measures which will significantly reduce people's abilities to hold state officials to account. Set out in the Justice and Security Green Paper last year, they would result in a vast expansion of secrecy across the civil court system, and badly undermine the basic principle of English law – that you are allowed to hear and to challenge the case and the evidence which is being put against you.
Everyone accepts that there is always going to be some information that the state must be able to keep secret. However, there needs to be a balance between the interests of the state and the liberties of the individual. The system at present accepts that, and it remains in the hands of an independent judge to weigh this decision. The plans set out in the Green Paper look to dramatically change that, tilting the whole process in favour of the government and putting far more power into the hands of ministers. As with the torture inquiry, there must be independent routes of oversight and accountability – we cannot rely on ministers and officials to guard themselves. Unless the government changes course on its plans, we risk being left unable to even scratch the surface, let alone 'get to the bottom', of Britain's complicity in some of the worst abuses of the War on Terror.Donald Campbell is communications officer at Reprieve. This article first appeared on PublicServiceEurope.com's sister site Defencemanagement.com
Why is revealing the UK's actions in the persecution of terror so important? Where are these human rights groups when soldiers are killed in Iraq and Afghanistan? There's no smoke without fire. If someone has been suspected by the security agencies of being involved in terror activities, it's because he has been linked to those acts - maybe, not to the degree that the security agencies think. In this age, you can't expect that you will get inspired by some crackpot mumbling on the net, visit terror training camps and then claim that it was all "youthful playfulness".
Or that you will work for an Islamic charity linked to terror groups and then claim that you were unaware or that you actively denounce terror, but are in it simply for the charitable work. If you keep within limits, then nobody will be able to make out an effective lawsuit against you.
The recent decision by the European court to reverse the deportation order of a radical UK cleric proves just how much relevant this problem is. How many individuals will lose their fundamental right to live (his right was being tried on evidence obtained under torture) ,if some disciple of that esteemed preacher explodes a bomb somewhere? The judgement itself was a load of tosh. How do you obtain information from a terrorist, if not by such means?
I think, on the contrary, these rights groups should be probed. Where do they get their funds from? Are they themselves involved in dubious activities? Who do they associate with? I'm not saying that all rights groups are, for want of a better word, illegal - certainly a large majority aren't and some might raise pertinent issues from time to time, but until they receive the clean chit, they should be banned.
Aritra - Kolkata, India