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UK and its Intelligence Agencies Slammed for Role in Ill-Treatment of Terrorism Suspects

Parliamentary Reports Underscore Lack of Accountability and Scant Learning from Past Mistakes

A motorboat passes by the MI6 building in London August 25, 2010. © 2010 Reuters

Today, the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee confirmed that, while cooperating with US-led post-2001 counterterrorism operations, the UK took and tolerated actions that were “inexcusable”. For those unfamiliar with polite euphemisms in British English, some of the actions the report is talking about were torture and other ill-treatment, acts which are illegal under international law.

This is exactly what nongovernmental organizations and journalists have documented for years.

The Committee’s verdict came in two reports resulting from its inquiry into UK complicity in sending suspects to countries without due process, a practice called extraordinary rendition, despite the knowledge they risked torture, as well as UK complicity in the torture and ill-treatment of suspects outside the UK between 2001 and 2010.

The reports are excoriating. They reveal layer after layer of illegal behaviour and failure to stop the abuses. They also underscore the UK government’s unwillingness to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

The first report details a litany of failures by UK intelligence agents cooperating with other governments between 2001 and 2010 . While it found no evidence of direct “physical mistreatment” of detainees by UK officials, it did find two cases where UK personnel were “party to mistreatment administered by others”, 13 incidents where UK personnel witnessed detainee ill-treatment, 232 cases where the UK gave questions to other states’ intelligence services after they knew or suspected ill-treatment, and 3 cases where UK intelligence agencies offered financial benefit to others to conduct a rendition.

The second report, which examines UK policy since 2010, is if anything even more troubling. It concludes that the UK government and intelligence agencies somehow failed to see these patterns, identify risks, and revise policy quickly enough. Although the UK committed in 2010 to not make the same mistakes, it is not keeping good records about its policy on how detainees are treated by other intelligence agencies, nor is it making changes to its policy guidance as recommended by oversight bodies.

The UK has a duty under international law to prevent and punish torture. This means criminal investigations and prosecutions where evidence exists of criminal responsibility for torture.

Yet there is little in the committee’s findings to reassure us that if faced with a similar situation again, the UK’s response would be one that places human rights front and center. The government’s response to the committee has been guarded thus far. Until government decision-makers and intelligence agencies heads amend existing policies, ensure those in charge of oversight have the transparent data they need, and know they will face prosecution if they are responsible for crimes, there is real danger that UK agencies could be complicit in torture again.

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