(London) - The new Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government should re-establish Britain's reputation as a champion of human rights by opening a judicial inquiry into allegations of complicity in torture and by affirming support for the Human Rights Act, Human Rights Watch said today.
"The two parties in government have indicated they are in substantial agreement on civil liberties," said Tom Porteous, London director at Human Rights Watch. "They should translate that into practice by making a clean break with the previous government's abusive approach to counterterrorism and by strengthening the UK's role in bringing to justice those responsible for international crimes at home and abroad."
Allegations of complicity by UK intelligence services in the kidnapping and torture of terrorism suspects, including UK nationals, have badly damaged the UK's reputation as a nation that respects human rights, Human Rights Watch said. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) and the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee have both issued critical reports about this issue. The JCHR, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition, the Liberal Democrat Party and several Conservative Members of Parliament have called for a judicial inquiry.
"An abusive approach to counterterrorism is also a counterproductive approach," Porteous said. "There's an urgent need to open a thorough and rapid judicial inquiry into these allegations of torture. Anyone found responsible for wrongdoing should be held accountable."
In opposition the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat parties both called for a review of counterterrorism legislation. Human Rights Watch urged the government make good on its promises of reform by allowing the 28 days pre-charge detention power to lapse when it comes up for annual renewal in July, and by committing itself in the first Queen's speech to the repeal of the discredited system of control orders.
A comprehensive and speedy review of counterterrorism laws and policies should include a reconsideration of the policy under which terrorism suspects can be deported to countries where they risk being tortured, Human Rights Watch said. Research by Human Rights Watch has shown that the policy, known as "deportations with assurances," breaches the UK's human rights obligations.
Human Rights Watch also urged the incoming coalition government to affirm its support for the Human Rights Act. Since it was introduced by the Labour government in 1998, the Human Rights Act has delivered practical benefits and protections against excessive state power. However, it has come under sustained attack both from the media and from politicians of the right and left since it was introduced in 1998. The Liberal Democrat Party has supported the Human Rights Act, but the Conservative Party pledged in its manifesto to replace it with a Bill of Rights.
"The attacks on the Human Rights Act are mostly based on myths and misconceptions," said Porteous. "The Act reflects long-standing traditions on law in the UK, including the presumption of innocence, the right to liberty, the right to a fair hearing and the prohibition of torture. The new ministers should pledge to support the Human Rights Act and govern according to its principles. Scrapping the Act would signal that the UK was turning its back on human rights."
One achievement of UK policy under Labour was its support for international criminal justice, including its support for the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002. Human Rights Watch urged the new government to reaffirm its support for the ICC and for the broader principles of international justice that underpin it, namely accountability for grave international crimes such as torture and war crimes. There has been growing evidence during the past year of torture, deaths and other serious abuses of detainees by British forces during the occupation of Iraq.
The new government should ensure that British nationals or anyone in British territory against whom there is evidence of responsibility for international crimes are investigated and either prosecuted in British courts or extradited to countries that will prosecute them. Currently the Attorney General, a government minister, has the power to veto any prosecution for international crimes.
"The UK needs to ensure that accountability for war crimes is not just for a few African warlords and dictators," Porteous said. "The new government should ensure that British police and prosecutors can and will independently investigate and prosecute those responsible for torture and other international crimes without interference from ministers."
The UK has been considering proposals to curtail the authority of British courts to issue arrest warrants initiated by private parties under universal jurisdiction, the legal principle by which certain crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, can be prosecuted in any jurisdiction. Human Rights Watch urged the government to retain the right for private individuals to apply for such warrants, which are only issued after a senior judge is satisfied that there is credible evidence of wrongdoing, and which serve as an important mechanism to allow prompt action when alleged war criminals are present in the UK.
An important concern of UK voters during the election campaign was immigration and asylum. But there has been little attention from politicians or the media to the human rights costs of current UK immigration and asylum policies. In particular, Human Rights Watch's research has shown that the "Detained Fast Track" asylum procedure is dysfunctional and unfit to deal with complex refugee claims that go through it regularly. Human Rights Watch urged the new government to reform this part of the asylum system in accordance with the right to a full and fair examination of asylum claims, and to ensure that any changes to the asylum system enhance access to protection for those fleeing persecution overseas.