Easing restrictions on torture may be all too tempting for the British Government, as its US allies resume the tactics of the war on terror. Donald Trump has said he wants to restore waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse”, and has nominated one of George W. Bush’s torturers in chief to lead the CIA: Gina Haspel, who oversaw a Bush-era ‘black site’ and helped destroy video evidence of detainees being subjected to extreme abuse.
As the US takes a step backwards, the British Government is rewriting its rules on torture behind closed doors, against the recommendations of its own commissioner.
Here are five things you need to know about the UK’s torture policy:
1. Britain’s torture rules allowed torture
Britain’s rules on involvement in torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment overseas were for a long time deeply flawed. Drawn up as the US-led ‘War on Terror’ began in 2001 they allowed senior intelligence officers to weigh the level of mistreatment a prisoner was likely to suffer against the importance of the information they thought would be extracted.
These rules meant the UK gave a green light to torture – a practice that is illegal, immoral and on its own terms does not even ‘work’.
2. The rules were rewritten and made public after a series of scandals were exposed
The torture rules, cryptically known as the ‘’consolidated guidance”, were rewritten and made public by the coalition government in 2010. This followed revelations that British intelligence officers were involved in the torture of detainees held overseas, and that MI6 was involved in rendition operations, in which people were kidnapped and sent to third countries to be brutally tortured – this included Abdul-Hakim Belhaj, a known dissident of Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi, who alongside his then pregnant wife, Fatima Boudchar, was snatched in Thailand, and delivered to the regime’s notorious torture chambers.
3. Human rights organisations like Reprieve have been calling for proper safeguards for almost two decades
It is absolutely critical that British intelligence officers are firmly and unambiguously required to reject all complicity in human rights violations – both to safeguard those detained by foreign intelligence services overseas and to protect UK personnel from the real risk of criminal liability.
But now there are serious concerns that the Government may be seeking to amend or even water-down the existing Torture Guidance behind closed doors.
4. The government is ignoring recommendations from its own commissioner
“Accordingly, I would recommend that the Cabinet Office reviews the Consolidated Guidance… In order to improve transparency and accountability, I would further suggest that the Cabinet Office invites and consider contributions from others with an interest in this subject, e.g. the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Fair Trials Abroad, Prisoners Abroad, Redress and Reprieve”.
Former Intelligence Services Commissioner, Sir Mark Waller, 2016
The Government’s torture review is underway, but it has sought no input from human rights organisations or wider civil society, and provided no justification for why it has failed to adhere to the recommendations of its own Commissioner.
This means that the government is effectively reviewing its own guidance in secret, without public consultation or scrutiny.
5. A secret review of activity the government has previously tried to cover up is doomed to failure
Existing internal oversight of the Torture Guidance has repeatedly failed to stop misconduct, and previous attempts to review these matters in secret have led to serious failures – with flawed inquiries reaching erroneous conclusions later proven false by evidence uncovered later by journalists and organisations like Reprieve.
In 2007, after repeated denials, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament published a report categorically stating that the UK was not involved in extraordinary rendition—the practice of kidnapping individuals for them to face secret detention and abuse.. It is only through the work of those attempting to hold the government to account that its complicity in the rendition and torture of these individuals was brought to light. Any internal, Government-only review, therefore, is likely doomed to fail.