UK must address its disgraceful role in torture

UK must address its disgraceful role in torture
6 min read
29 Jul, 2019
Comment: The British government must acknowledge and investigate its past role in torture, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
'UK ministers have sought to cover up the government's role in torture' writes Fenton-Harvey [Getty]
Britain has long presented an image of itself as a progressive champion of human rights across the world.

This narrative however, is stained by its dark history in enabling torture through support for human rights violating regimes, or even directly carrying out abusive methods on detainees.

The UK government has kept its role in torture secret, and Amnesty International recognises that it is difficult to know the true extent to which Britain was involved in such practices.

In addition, UK ministers have sought to cover up the government's role in torture.

Last week - before announcing his resignation in anticipation of Boris Johnson's premiership - Conservative MP David Lidington
announced a government U-turn on supporting an independent inquiry to investigate accusations of harsh treatment of terrorism suspects after 9/11, following two reports from the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in 2018, indicating Britain's involvement in torture. 

A government guidance document from 2010 addressing torture, actually claims that the UK does "not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture". 

Yet since then, revelations from organisations such as Amnesty International and the United Nation's own Committee Against Torture have delivered a damning blow to these claims, showing the need for further investigation into its links to torture, and particularly the role of intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6.

While the United States' infamous use of harsh measures such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions and other abusive measures against terror suspects has gained notoriety, the UK's involvement in such activities was previously less known. 

The UK government has continuously found legal loopholes that enable it to carry out and support torture

There were hundreds of cases of British personnel from MI5 and MI6 being involved in post-9/11 torture the UK, according to two parliamentary reports by the Intelligence and Security Committee last year. 

In around 232 cases, British personal reportedly supplied questions or intelligence to security services, notably the CIA, even after knowledge of abuse continued to emerge. 

This does not include the MI5, MI6 and military intelligence personnel partaking in roughly 2,000-3,000 interrogations that took place in Guantanamo Bay, according to the ISC reports. Such claims highlighted that Britain knew it participated in torture, yet sought to keep it covered up. 

One recently emerging case is that of Saudi-born Palestinian Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Hussain, detained indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay by the US, and accused of Al Qaeda links.

A parliamentary report last year
concluded that MI6 had "direct awareness of extreme mistreatment and possibly torture". MI6 also sent questions to be put to this man despite their knowledge that he had been waterboarded 86 times by the CIA. 

While promising to investigate such concerns, Britain has continuously avoided fully addressing these complaints. 

During the Iraq invasion, British troops were documented grossly mistreating Iraqi civilians, including hooding them and taking turns to run over their backs, according to four detainees.

The International Criminal Court
concluded that these practices, which breached the Geneva conventions, amounted to war crimes.

Justice George Leggatt said, "none of the claimants was engaged in terrorist activity or posed any threat to the security of Iraq", as the Ministry of Defence was ordered to pay out £22 million in late 2016.

Also in May, a coalition of 80 rights groups presented evidence to the UN Committee that Britain had failed to meet international standards of torture prevention for individuals kept in English and Welsh detention centres. 

Even domestically, according to the UN's committee against torture, Britain uses harsh detention policies, particularly amid its increasingly "hostile" policies against migrants, heightened by its own counter-terrorism rhetoric. 

There are reports of migrants being detained for months even if they have not committed a crime, with some developing severe mental health issues.

Britain itself is clearly enabling these abuses, despite claiming to oppose them

Britain stands as the only European country that allows indefinite detention, despite receiving criticism from the UN, high court judges and local authorities.

Asylum seekers are particularly at risk of mistreatment in English and Welsh detention centres, according to an i
nvestigation by The Guardian, including those who had survived torture in their home countries, most commonly Nigeria.

The UK government has continuously found legal loopholes that enable it to carry out and support torture.

Read more: Top US court upholds indefinite detention of Yemeni at Guantanamo

According to the anti-torture campaign group Reprieve, Britain's own
legislation, drawn up after 9/11, allows British intelligence officers the freedom to use abusive measures if they feel they could extract significantly important and more beneficial information.

Additionally, concerns were raised in May that the Ministry of Defence was developing a secret but illegal torture policy enabling ministers to approve actions and intelligence sharing that could lead to abuse of detainees, if they feel the intelligence benefits will justify the means. 

Britain has not only carried out such abusive methods itself, it enables other states to do the same, particularly its allies with atrocious human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Britain has a dark colonial history of targeting political dissidents, when perceiving threats to its interests or imperial control

The UK enables the sale of torture equipment to states that regularly carry out these barbaric practices. At the arms fairs it hosts, Britain regularly displays illegal torture equipment, without facing any significant scrutiny.

Among these include 
tools from French, Chinese and other international companies, such as electronic shock batons, shackles, gain chains and leg restraints.  

Though the UK government claims to follow EU law and its own restrictions on exporting equipment for torture, it breaches these rules, while granting its close allies further impunity when carrying out domestic human rights abuses.

Furthermore, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's annual 'Human Rights and Democracy' report for 2018 addresses concerns of torture in several countries. Yet Britain itself is clearly enabling these abuses, despite claiming to oppose them. 

Britain also has a dark colonial history of targeting political dissidents, when perceiving threats to its interests or imperial control.  

When facing uprisings against its Aden colony in the 1960s, Britain used torture against Yemeni resistance figures. Though Amnesty International revealed this in 1966, Britain previously blocked all investigations into its violations. 

During "The Troubles" in Ireland, Britain arbitrarily detained hundreds of men, often without trial. Fourteen of those men were thrown from low-flying helicopters while wearing hoods, and deprived of food, water and sleep, according to an Amnesty investigation. 

Despite Ireland taking the case to the European Commission on Human Rights in 1976, Britain successfully appealed the decision in 1978, claiming it did not torture them. 

Amnesty International stated in the report from 2018 that after the 1978 ruling, Britain's actions and impunity set a dangerous precedent for other countries, including the United States and Israel, for carrying out torture methods using "counter-terrorism" pretexts.

While no longer a leading global power, Britain's involvement in the torture industry provides states with the tools they need, as well as granting them the impunity they need to carry out such violations.

The British government must acknowledge and investigate its past role in torture, to prevent it getting involved in further abuses.

It must create stronger safeguards against the exportation of such goods and implementation of it further afield.

Furthermore, it should stop enabling the supply of torture equipment for the sake of profit.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.