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Government use of torture in the U.K.?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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July 7, 2010

Belatedly it now looks that the new Conservative-Liberal Democratic government of Britain is prepared to grasp the nettle of the previous Labour government’s alleged acceptance of torture. If America won’t then Britain will, even though in both cases the culprits are the senior elected leaders of the previous administration and their secret services whom they allowed to do their dirty work.

A commission will investigate (although there is still no when) what exactly was tolerated under the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair. The wheels of justice in Britain can grind exceedingly slowly but in the end they usually grind small. Thirty eight years after Bloody Sunday, when it was alleged that British soldiers killed 16 peaceful demonstrators in Londonderry in Northern Ireland, the official enquiry which took 12 years to complete - a ridiculous amount of time - announced two weeks ago that it found the soldiers guilty of lying about the demonstrators use of guns. Cover up can last an exceedingly long time, even in a democracy.

In 1215 the Lateran Council condemned torture as cruel. From the fifteenth century onwards the common law of England (which is also the original common law of America) adamantly set its face against torture and the admission of evidence procured by torture. The judges who presided over these decisions pointed to the inherent unreliability of the evidence in confessions procured by torture since a person subjected to unbearable pain will say anything to get it stopped. Voltaire, who lived in London for three years, wrote of how he admired the English attitude. Nevertheless, the special Court of the Star Chamber could issue torture orders, but one of the very first acts of the Long Parliament in 1640 was to abolish this court and since then no torture warrant has been issued in England.

In Prussia torture was abolished in 1740, in France in 1789 and in Russia in 1847. In 1791 the US constitution in its eighth amendment forbad cruel and unusual punishment, echoing word by word the British Bill of Rights of 1689.

All these countries are party to the Geneva Conventions, to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and, most importantly, the UN Convention Against Torture, which allows no exceptions even in a time of warfare or emergency. The very conservative administrations of President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were founding ratifying members of the Convention.

Unlike the U.S. the UK is not accused of using torture on its own soil but of sending those who it wanted to be vigorously interrogated to countries which sanction torture. Even worse it went to court to argue that it should be allowed to use intelligence obtained by torture. In October 2005 before the House of Lords (the Supreme Court) for the first time in over 200 years the government argued for the right to use torture. The law lords turned the government down flat. Nevertheless, the government, reinterpreting the words of the judges, argued that the judges had “held that it was perfectly lawful for such intelligence information “to be relied on operationally and also by the government in making executive decisions.” – presumably using the information obtained by non-British intelligence services and only from torture victims not selected because of a British government request. That is some hair-splitting.

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In his new book, “The Rule of Law”, Tom Bingham, the former Senior Law Lord of the UK’s Supreme Court, argues that “it cannot be said that that the UK has shown that implacable hostility to torture and its fruits which might have been expected of the state whose courts led the world in rejecting them both.”
He concludes his book by quoting the ringing words of a Council of Europe (representing all European governments) statement made in 2002: “The temptation for governments and parliaments in countries suffering from terrorist action is to fight fire with fire, setting aside the legal safeguards that exist in a democratic state. But let us be clear about this: while the state has the right to use to the full its arsenal of legal weapons to repress and prevent terrorist activities, it may not use indiscriminate measures which seek only to undermine the fundamental values they seek to protect. For a state to react in such a way would be to fall into the trap set by terrorism for democracy and the rule of law”.

At last, the question whether the government of Tony Blair was complicit in the use of torture is being asked and probably will be investigated. Hopefully it will not take 12 years to unearth the truth in a legally satisfying way.

If the commission finds that Britain of all nations has allowed itself to cross the boundary from the lawful to the unlawful then Britain should voluntarily forsake any interventions it may wish to make in European and UN affairs promoting human rights until it has made a suitable act of public contrition.


Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
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Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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