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UK: Promises on Torture Don't Work

"Diplomatic Assurances" will not Protect Deportees

The British government has said it is seeking “diplomatic assurances” that terrorism suspects deported to their home countries will not be tortured there. It argues that, on receipt of such assurances, the men—many of whom have been held without trial for more than two years—could safely be deported. But experience shows that these assurances are an ineffective safeguard against torture, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The British government argues assurances that the men will not be tortured will allow it to deport these men safely,” said Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “That is wrong. The governments concerned often have a long history of systematic torture. The British position is moral abdication—there is a real risk that the men will be tortured if they are returned, whatever promises their home governments may offer."

The government’s plans came to light during a historic legal challenge in the House of Lords to government powers that enable foreign nationals suspected of involvement in international terrorism to be indefinitely detained without charge or trial. To introduce the powers, Britain had to suspend (“derogate from”) part of its obligations under human rights law. The 11 men currently subject to indefinite detention under the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 cannot be deported because the government accepts that there is a real risk they would be tortured if returned to their home countries. (One detainee is a stateless Palestinian).

Torture is prohibited absolutely under article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998. There are no exceptions allowed, even during times of war or public emergency. The government argues that by obtaining assurances from the men’s home countries that they would not be tortured “some or all of the [men] may thus become returnable without risking Article 3 treatment.”

Experience shows that the use of such assurances is an insufficient safeguard against torture and ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said. The government in Sweden relied on diplomatic assurances in the case of two Egyptian nationals wanted in their home countries on terrorism charges. The men—Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed al-Zari— were transferred to Egypt on a US-government-leased aircraft in December 2001 following assurances from the Egyptian government that both men would be given fair trials and not tortured. There is credible evidence that both men were subject to torture and ill-treatment upon return. Ahmed Agiza was convicted and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor by a military security court following an unfair trial monitored by Human Rights Watch. His case will be considered by the UN Committee Against Torture in November.

“The Swedish cases show that diplomatic assurances in torture cases do not work” said Cartner. “Britain has a cast-iron duty not to expose people to torture at home or abroad.”

For more information on the cases of Agiza and al-Zari, please see: https://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2004/05/27/sweden8621.htm

Human Rights Watch raised concerns about the potential use of diplomatic assurances for persons subject to the indefinite detention in the UK, in a June 2004 briefing paper: https://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/eca/uk/index.htm

Human Rights Watch is observing proceedings in the House of Lords. For more background on the House of Lords case, please see: https://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2004/10/01/uk9417.htm

More information on the Swedish cases and the use of diplomatic assurances world-wide can be found at: https://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/un0404/

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