<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

British Complicity with Torture

The United States is the only major Western democracy to openly espouse detainee abuse by its own interrogators, but Britain has adopted policies that would make it complicit in torture.  In 2005, Prime Minister Tony Blair proposed sending terrorist suspects to governments that have a history of torturing such people—a policy that the United States had already adopted, in a practice sometimes referred to as “extraordinary rendition.” 

The U.N. Convention against Torture prohibits without exception sending anyone to a country “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”  Yet, following precedents set by the Bush administration, the Blair government proposed sending terrorist suspects to places such as Libya, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia—all governments with notorious records of torturing radical Islamists.

The fig leaf offered to cover this complicity with torture had two parts.  First, the British government proposed signing memoranda of understanding in which the government receiving a suspect would promise not to mistreat him.  General agreements of this sort were reached with Libya and Jordan and were in the works as of late 2005 with other North African countries.  Second, the agreements allowed for monitors to periodically check how detainees were being treated. 

But these agreements, known as diplomatic assurances, are not worth the paper they are written on.  All the governments in question have ratified the Convention against Torture—a major multilateral treaty—yet routinely flout it.  Why would they pay greater heed to a bilateral agreement which, because of the embarrassment of non-compliance, neither the sending nor the receiving government has any incentive to enforce?

The monitoring will not help either. Round-the-clock monitoring might deny torturers an opportunity to ply their trade, but the Blair, like the Bush, government contemplates only periodic monitoring.  Occasional monitoring would permit a general sense of how detainees across an entire institution are treated, as the International Committee of the Red Cross obtains during its prison visits, because detainees can benefit from safety in numbers to report abuses anonymously and thus minimize the risk of retaliation. 

But episodic visits cannot protect an isolated detainee.  Indeed, they are cruel.  Imagine the awful dilemma of an isolated torture victim receiving a monitor.  Does the victim pretend he was never mistreated, denying the shattering experience of torture?  Or does he report his mistreatment, knowing that the account will be traced right back to him and, in retaliation, he might be returned to the torture chamber?  No detainee should be made to face that dreadful choice.  For such reasons, the U.N. Committee Against Torture ruled in May that Sweden violated the anti-torture convention by relying on diplomatic assurances to send a terrorism suspect, Ahmed Agiza, to Egypt, a country with a long record of torturing Islamic radicals.  Agiza was, predictably, tortured.

This plan’s incompatibility with international law led the British government to try to change the law.  At the U.N. General Assembly in New York, the British delegation, working with the United States, objected to a resolution affirming that diplomatic assurances do not relieve governments of the duty never to send suspects to countries that are likely to torture them.  At the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the British government contended that this duty should be balanced against security needs—that an absolute prohibition should be made conditional.  Britain encouraged other European governments to join it in this retrograde position. 

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2006