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U.K.: Torture a Risk in Libya Deportation Accord

International Law Prohibits Deporting Individuals to Countries That Practice Torture

The United Kingdom cannot deport individuals to Libya without violating the international prohibition against sending persons to countries where they face a serious risk of torture, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Memorandum of Understanding signed by the British and Libyan governments today allows Britain to deport individuals to Libya if the Libyan government gives diplomatic assurances the deportees will not be subjected to torture. In the case of diplomatic assurances given by Egypt, Syria and other countries with records of torturing detainees, Human Rights Watch has found that such promises do nothing to reduce the risk or to satisfy the obligation not to torture people in custody.

“Britain can’t hide behind the fig leaf of Libyan diplomatic promises,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “Deporting suspects to Libya would put them at serious risk of torture.”

The first deportees could be five Libyan nationals detained by British authorities on October 3 under immigration law because their presence in Britain allegedly threatens national security or is otherwise “not conducive to the public good.” The five men, who were living in Britain, are reportedly involved in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an armed opposition group that has been fighting to overthrow the Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi since the mid-1990s. Reportedly, several of the five individuals had been recognized as refugees in the United Kingdom.

Despite improvements in recent years, torture remains a problem in Libya. Human Rights Watch has testimony from individuals in Libya who were beaten, hung from walls and inflicted with electric shock.

The United Kingdom and Libya are both parties to the Convention against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The treaty prohibits torture, and the transfer, return or expulsion—or refoulement—of persons to countries where there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be in danger of being subjected to torture. Under international law, the prohibition against torture and refoulement is absolute and cannot be waived under any circumstances.

Human Rights Watch said the Memorandum of Understanding represents an effort to circumvent the Convention Against Torture’s strict prohibition of refoulement and has no mechanism for accountability. Under the proposed memorandum, only verbal notice is required to set proceedings in motion.

Diplomatic assurances such as the MOU fail to protect against torture, Human Rights Watch said. Torture is practiced in secret and its perpetrators are generally adept at keeping such abuse from detection. Neither a sending nor a receiving country has an incentive to expose abuse. By doing so, the receiving country would acknowledge its use of torture or ill-treatment, and the sending country would admit that it has violated its obligation against refoulement.

In addition, as the name implies, diplomatic assurances are generally subject to the limits of diplomacy and by their very nature lack effective mechanisms to secure compliance. Diplomatic assurances also have no legal effect, leaving the person they aim to protect no recourse if they are breached.

The proposed agreement with Libya follows a similar agreement that Britain concluded with Jordan in August. Human Rights Watch said that Britain plans to conclude similar agreements with other countries across the region, including Egypt and Algeria—both countries with notorious records of torture.

“Britain’s policy of shipping unwelcome foreigners to countries that practice torture is illegal and immoral, regardless of unenforceable promises that deportees will not be tortured,” Whitson said.

In August, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, expressed alarm about British plans to rely on assurances to return people to Jordan and other countries with poor records on torture. He said that Britain’s new policy “reflects a tendency in Europe to circumvent the international obligation not to deport anybody if there is a serious risk that he or she might be subjected to torture.”

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