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The British government is eager to present itself as a global opponent of torture, but its track record tells a different story, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

The 45-page paper, “Dangerous Ambivalence: UK Policy on Torture since 9/11,” documents how the UK government is undermining the torture ban, even as it proclaims its efforts to combat torture worldwide. Torture, including returns to risk of torture, is prohibited by international law. No exceptions are allowed, even in time of war or national emergency.

“Britain cannot have it both ways,” said Benjamin Ward, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “The government claims to oppose torture. Yet at the same it is actively trying to undermine the global ban against it.”

The UK government is reportedly preparing new legislation on torture to be announced in the Queen’s Speech to Parliament on November 15. The measure would allow the government and the courts to balance the risk of torture against national security, allowing terrorism suspects to be deported even where they were known to be at risk of torture on return. If enacted, the proposal would violate international law.

In a related effort, the British government is trying to persuade the European Court of Human Rights to weaken the ban on torture. It has intervened in the Strasbourg court in the case of an Algerian, Mohammed Ramzy, and asked that a 1996 case, Chahal v. the UK – a key judgment affirming the absolute ban on returns to torture – be set aside. London has persuaded Lithuania, Slovakia and Portugal to do the same. British Home Secretary John Reid claims that those who defend the Chahal judgement “just don’t get it,” by failing to understand what is at stake.

The Human Rights Watch briefing paper sets out the costs of abandoning the rules on torture. Accepting torture aids the terrorist’s cause by weakening and dividing society. It alienates British Muslims, whose cooperation with the police and security services is crucial to successful counterterrorism efforts. And it damages Britain’s standing at home and abroad.

“Opening the door to torture won’t make Britain safer,” said Ward. “The most effective response to terrorism is good police and intelligence work, not setting aside core values.”

Last year, when the Law Lords (Britain’s highest court) ruled unanimously against the use of evidence gained through torture in British courts, Lord Bingham, the senior law lord, said he was “startled, even a little dismayed” that the government could raise the question in the first place. The use of such evidence is explicitly prohibited by the UN Convention against Torture, to which Britain is bound.

The paper also documents the British government’s attempts to secure “memoranda of understanding” with countries that have poor records on torture – Jordan, Libya, and Lebanon, to date – so that it can deport terrorism suspects to places where they face the risk of torture so long as the receiving countries promise humane treatment. Experience shows that such promises, known as “diplomatic assurances,” do not protect against ill-treatment, even when there is post-return monitoring.

The UK government remains committed to its policy, despite mounting criticism, including from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, and the UK Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which said in May 2006 that the government’s policy “could well undermine well-established international obligations ... [and] if relied on in practice ... present a substantial risk of individuals actually being tortured.”

“When it comes to torture, diplomatic assurances simply don’t work,” said Ward. “Putting them in a ‘memorandum of understanding’ and adding post-return monitoring does nothing to change that.”

“Dangerous Ambivalence” also documents the British government’s whitewashing of U.S. abuses, including the constant insistence, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that U.S. policy is not to blame. Yet the government has acknowledged that “when governments condone [torture], they risk losing their legitimacy and provoking terrorism.”

British ministers sometimes argue that they have no other option except to deport, whatever the risks of torture, because of the difficulties inherent in prosecuting terrorism suspects. Lifting the current ban on the use of phone tap evidence in court – as recommended by Britain’s most senior police officer and several British parliamentary committees – would be an obvious solution to facilitate prosecution. However, the government has refused to do so. Britain is one of only two Western countries that maintain a total ban on the use of such evidence in court.

The British government was once a leader in confronting torture worldwide. It continues to encourage other governments to sign up to the optional protocol to the UN Convention against Torture. Human Rights Watch urged the British government to resume its leadership against torture.

“It’s not too late for Britain to change course,” said Ward. “If it fails to do so, the damage will be incalculable.”

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