(London) –The report of an uncompleted inquiry into UK involvement in renditions and overseas torture underscores the need for a full accounting. The government, which received the report in June 2012, finally published it on December 19, 2013.
The government minister responsible for the issue told Parliament on December 19 that the Intelligence and Security Committee will investigate the issues raised by the report. The parliamentary committee has repeatedly failed to hold the government to account for security service failings.
“This report does little to help victims, their families, and the public waiting for the truth on UK involvement in rendition and torture,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of stalling for time, the UK government should honor its promise of an independent judicial inquiry.”
The report contains 27 questions that the inquiry believed must be answered, but was unable to. The inquiry was shelved by the government after strong criticism from nongovernmental organizations over its inadequate powers and lack of independence. It was halted before it questioned any witnesses and is based on solely its examination of documents.
The questions the inquiry posed relate to the interrogation and treatment of detainees, rendition, training and guidance for UK personnel, and policy and communications between ministers and the intelligence agencies.
For instance, the inquiry raised the issues of whether the British intelligence agencies’ own questioning of detainees complied with international law prohibiting coercion or ill-treatment of prisoners of war and whether there were cases in which the UK government was involved in renditions. While the report does not reach any firm conclusions, it strongly suggests that UK security services, at least in some cases, were aware that detainees were being tortured by foreign governments yet continued to engage with them. The intelligence agencies have one month to respond to these issues, but it is unclear whether their answers will be made public.
There is already significant evidence that UK authorities were complicit in torture and rendition to torture. In 2009, Human Rights Watch documented complicity by the UK security services in torture in Pakistan.
Human Rights Watch also uncovered evidence in September 2011 that the UK security services were complicit in the rendition of Sami al-Saadi and Abdul Hakim Belhaj to Libya under Muammar Gaddafi, despite knowledge that they were likely to be tortured. The two Libyan cases are the subject of ongoing criminal investigations in the UK.
In June 2010, when the UK government announced an inquiry into UK complicity in rendition and overseas torture under a retired judge, Peter Gibson, it appeared to be a positive step. But by August 2011, it had become clear that the limitations the government had imposed on the inquiry, including on disclosure of documents and questioning of members of the security services, made an effective process impossible.
At that point, leading groups, including Human Rights Watch, and lawyers for victims decided to boycott the inquiry. In January 2012, the UK government announced it was shelving the inquiry, citing the need for criminal investigations into the Libya cases and indicating that there would be a further inquiry later.
The government announced on December 19, though, that it would hand responsibility for further investigations to the Intelligence and Security Committee rather than establishing a judicial inquiry that addresses all the shortcomings of the Gibson inquiry. It again cited the Libya criminal investigations, and said that after the committee had reported, by the end of 2014, it would assess whether a judicial inquiry would “add any further information of value to future policy making and the national interest.”
It is unclear why the Libyan cases could not be formally excluded from a judicial inquiry until the criminal investigations were resolved, meaning a judicial inquiry could begin now, Human Rights Watch said.
The Intelligence and Security Committee has a poor track record of holding the intelligence agencies to account for their role in renditions and overseas torture. In a 2009 report on allegations of UK complicity in torture, the Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) criticized the Intelligence and Security Committee’s 2007 report on renditions, in which it “found no evidence that the UK agencies were complicit in any ‘extraordinary rendition’ operations.” The joint committee said at the time that allegations of Britain’s complicity in torture “should be a wake-up call to ministers that the current arrangements [of the Intelligence and Security Committee] are not satisfactory.”
A law that went into effect in April 2013 has somewhat reformed the Intelligence and Security Committee by making it a parliamentary committee and giving it the power to oversee the operational activities of the intelligence agencies, not just issues of expenditure, policy, and administration. But the prime minister still nominates its members, and his office has the final say on what material in the committee’s reports can be made public.
When Prime Minister David Cameron announced the Gibson inquiry, he said that the longer the questions about the UK’s complicity in mistreatment of detainees remained unanswered, “the bigger the stain on our reputation as a country that believes in freedom and fairness and human rights.”
The UK is required by international human rights law to conduct effective, impartial, and independent investigations into all allegations of torture, including complicity in torture, and to hold the officials responsible to account.
“The Intelligence and Security Committee lacks the independence, transparency, and credibility to investigate these extremely serious issues,” Ward said. “The serious questions raised by the Gibson report and the wider evidence of UK complicity in overseas torture can only be resolved by an independent judicial inquiry.”