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Letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair

British Territory Must Not Be Used for Torture

December 28, 2002

Rt Hon Tony Blair MP
10 Downing Street
London SW1A 2AA
United Kingdom

Dear Prime Minister:

We write to urge you to take steps to ensure that torture does not take place on British soil, including the islands that are part of British Indian Ocean Territory.  According to press reports in the United States, U.S. forces are holding and interrogating suspected al-Qaeda detainees at a U.S. operated facility on the island of Diego Garcia. ("U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations," the Washington Post, December 26, 2002). U.S. interrogations of al-Qaeda detainees reportedly include "stress and duress" interrogation techniques and other abusive practices that violate customary and conventional international law prohibitions against torture and mistreatment. 

The allegations reported in the Washington Post, if true, would place the United States in violation of some of the most fundamental prohibitions of international human rights and humanitarian law.  We have asked President Bush as a matter of urgency to clarify that the use of torture is not U.S policy, to investigate the Post's allegations, to adopt all necessary measures to end any ongoing violations of international law, and to prosecute those implicated in such abuse.

The treatment of detainees on Diego Garcia also implicates the legal obligations of the British government.  As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), your government should not turn a blind eye to the practices of U.S. personnel on Diego Garcia.  The U.K. government's duty to prevent, investigate and prosecute any case of torture applies to all land subject to British jurisdiction.

We urge your government to reaffirm your commitment to these human rights obligations immediately, unequivocally and publicly.  We also ask you to communicate to the U.S. government your insistence that anyone held by the United States on Diego Garcia be treated at all times in a manner consistent with international prohibitions of torture. You should put the U.S. government on notice of your determination to comply with your international legal obligation to secure the prosecution of anyone, including U.S. personnel, who engages in torture. We also urge you to request a commitment in writing from the U.S. government as a condition of continued use of the island that it will comply with international law governing the treatment of detainees.

Prohibition against Torture

As you undoubtedly know, the absolute prohibition against torture is a fundamental and well-established precept of customary and conventional international law.  Torture is never permissible against anyone, whether in times of peace or war. 

Article 7 of the ICCPR states: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."  Under CAT, your government is required to take effective measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction, Art 2(1); to establish its jurisdiction over cases of torture committed in territory under its jurisdiction (Art 5(1)); to take into custody persons alleged to have engaged in torture (Art. 6(1)); and, if it does not extradite such person, to submit the case to competent authorities for prosecution (Art 7(1)).

There is no human rights law or provision that would permit or condone the use of torture by the United States or any other government against al-Qaeda detainees. There is no "war-time" or "emergency" exception to the right to be protected from torture.  Under the ICCPR, the right is non-derogable, meaning that it applies at all times, including during public emergencies or wartime.

We write to urge you to take steps to ensure that torture does not take place on British soil, including the islands that are part of British Indian Ocean Territory. According to press reports in the United States, U.S. forces are holding and interrogating suspected al-Qaeda detainees at a U.S. operated facility on the island of Diego Garcia. ("U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations," Washington Post, December 26, 2002). U.S. interrogations of al-Qaeda detainees reportedly include "stress and duress" interrogation techniques and other abusive practices that violate customary and conventional international law prohibitions against torture and mistreatment.

The allegations reported in the Washington Post, if true, would place the United States in violation of some of the most fundamental prohibitions of international human rights and humanitarian law. We have asked President Bush as a matter of urgency to clarify that the use of torture is not U.S policy, to investigate the Post's allegations, to adopt all necessary measures to end any ongoing violations of international law, and to prosecute those implicated in such abuse.

The treatment of detainees on Diego Garcia also implicates the legal obligations of the British government. As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), your government should not turn a blind eye to the practices of U.S. personnel on Diego Garcia. The U.K. government's duty to prevent, investigate and prosecute any case of torture applies to all land subject to British jurisdiction.

We urge your government to reaffirm your commitment to these human rights obligations immediately, unequivocally and publicly. We also ask you to communicate to the U.S. government your insistence that anyone held by the United States on Diego Garcia be treated at all times in a manner consistent with international prohibitions of torture. You should put the U.S. government on notice of your determination to comply with your international legal obligation to secure the prosecution of anyone, including U.S. personnel, who engages in torture. We also urge you to request a commitment in writing from the U.S. government as a condition of continued use of the island that it will comply with international law governing the treatment of detainees.

Prohibition against Torture

As you undoubtedly know, the absolute prohibition against torture is a fundamental and well-established precept of customary and conventional international law. Torture is never permissible against anyone, whether in times of peace or war.

Article 7 of the ICCPR states: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Under CAT, your government is required to take effective measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction, Art 2(1); to establish its jurisdiction over cases of torture committed in territory under its jurisdiction (Art 5(1)); to take into custody persons alleged to have engaged in torture (Art. 6(1)); and, if it does not extradite such person, to submit the case to competent authorities for prosecution (Art 7(1)).

There is no human rights law or provision that would permit or condone the use of torture by the United States or any other government against al-Qaeda detainees. There is no "war-time" or "emergency" exception to the right to be protected from torture. Under the ICCPR, the right is non-derogable, meaning that it applies at all times, including during public emergencies or wartime.

Humanitarian law (the law of war), which applies during armed conflict, also prohibits the torture or other mistreatment of captured combatants and others in captivity, regardless of their legal status. Regarding prisoners-of-war, article 17 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949 states: "No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind." Detained civilians are similarly protected by article 32 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The United States does not recognize captured al-Qaeda members as being protected by the 1949 Geneva Conventions, although Bush administration officials have insisted that detainees will be treated humanely and in a manner consistent with Geneva principles. However, at minimum, all detainees in wartime, regardless of their legal status, are protected by customary international humanitarian law. Article 75 ("Fundamental Guarantees") of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, which the United Kingdom has ratified and which the United States recognizes as restating customary international law, provides that "torture of all kinds, whether physical or mental" against "persons who are in the power of a Party to the conflict and who do not benefit from more favorable treatment under the [Geneva] Convention," shall "remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever, whether committed by civilian or military agents." "[C]ruel treatment and torture" of detainees is also prohibited under common article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which is considered indicative of customary international law.

International Prosecutions for Torture

The willful torture or inhuman treatment of prisoners-of-war or other detainees, including "willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health," are "grave breaches" of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, commonly known as war crimes. Grave breaches are subject to universal jurisdiction, meaning that they can be prosecuted in any national criminal court and as well as any international tribunal with appropriate jurisdiction.

As noted above, the Convention against Torture also obligates a State Party to prosecute anyone who is implicated or complicit in acts of torture on territory under the State Party's jurisdiction. This obligation includes the prosecution of anyone within a government's territory who has committed acts of torture elsewhere and has not been extradited for prosecution.

The Washington Post's allegations about U.S. treatment of detainees are extraordinarily serious. They have put the United States on notice that acts of torture may be taking place with U.S. participation or complicity. They also put the British government on notice that acts of torture may be taking place on land subject to British jurisdiction. Your government should act now to meet its treaty obligations to prevent torture on British soil, to investigate these serious allegations of torture, and to ensure the prosecution of those who engage in it.

Thank you for your attention to this important concern.

Sincerely yours,

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director

Steve Crawshaw
London Director