Background Briefing


Torture is one of the worst human rights abuses. As torture is outlawed under general international law as well as specific human rights treaties, when governments condone it, they risk losing their legitimacy and provoking terrorism.
—UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Human Rights Report 2005

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
—Article 2, UN Convention against Torture

 Let no-one be in any doubt, the rules of the game are changing…
—Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking to journalists at Downing Street (August  2005)

I sometimes feel that so many people who should be foremost in recognizing the serious nature of the threat just don’t get it.
—Home Secretary John Reid, explaining his opposition to a key European Court judgment that prohibits returning people at risk of torture (August 2006)

In past years, the United Kingdom has played an important role in confronting torture worldwide. Sadly, there are now two sides to Britain’s role. One involves ongoing support to anti-torture efforts, through training and treaties. The other is directed at bending and weakening the torture ban in the context of countering terrorism. This second strand of policy undermines decades of effort by the UK and others to make the global torture ban stick. 

The threat from terrorism is serious, as the attacks in London in July 2005, in which more than 50 people were killed, and the dramatic alleged airplane bomb plot exposed in August 2006 made clear. Governments have a duty to take positive measures to protect the public from terrorism.

On no account, however, should such measures include softening the ban on torture. That approach would be morally bankrupt, illegal under international law and ultimately counter-productive. And yet, this is the direction that the British government seems determined to follow.

With a series of interconnected policies aimed at countering terrorism, in the past two years the British government has:

§ proclaimed for itself the right to use torture evidence in legal proceedings;

§ devised agreements to make it possible to send people back to the risk of torture;

§ attempted to overturn European human rights law banning such returns;

§ refused to condemn (and thus condoned) the U.S. policy of “extraordinary rendition”—state kidnap, delivering people to be tortured in third countries;

§ shared information with other governments that led to the apprehension of UK residents who were then subjected to “extraordinary rendition” by the U.S.; and

§ whitewashed (and thus condoned) U.S. policies on torture.

There is a contradiction at the heart of the British government’s approach. On the one hand, it emphasizes the importance of human rights around the world, and encourages other states to improve protections against torture. On the other hand, it argues that security in an age of terror requires loosening the rules on human rights, including the ban on torture. Ministers suggest that those who continue to cling to the old rules fail to understand the way that the world has changed. In particular, those who insist on the absolute prohibition of torture in the face of new threats are portrayed as naïve or worse.

Not only is the government’s attitude flawed, it also ignores the damaging consequences of loosening the torture ban for the fight against terrorism. Accepting torture undermines the moral legitimacy of the British government around the world. And it damages the government’s standing at home, especially with British Muslims, whose cooperation with the police and security services is so vital if the terrorist threat is to be addressed.

Britain faces a stark choice. There is still time to turn back to the right path—the rule of law and the unequivocal repudiation of torture wherever and by whomever it is carried out. If Britain continues down the present road, however, this will do lasting damage to its place in the world, to the global ban on torture, and to the values that help keep us safe.