Stop The Use Of Torture Policy briefing

Fixing the UK’s ‘Torture Policy’

We are making clear Ministers cannot sanction acts of torture.

UK intelligence agencies have shared information about people despite knowing that they would be subjected to torture and rendition. Reprieve has represented a number of these people.

For example, Binyam Mohamed. UK intelligence officers actively traded intelligence about him, even though they knew he was being tortured. And the Libyan dissident Abdelhakim Belhaj received an apology from the Prime Minister in 2018 for the UK’s role in his kidnap and rendition to Colonel Ghaddafi’s torture chambers.

In July 2019, the UK Government published a new policy on intelligence sharing titled “The Principles Relating to Detention and Interviewing of Detainees Overseas and the Passing and Receipt of Intelligence Relating to Detainees”. Effectively this is the UK’s “torture policy”.

This policy is designed to make sure the UK does not pass intelligence abroad, which could lead to someone being tortured; or to use information which may have been obtained under torture. 

MPs from all parties have said that this new “torture policy” should explicitly prohibit UK intelligence sharing where there is a “serious risk” of torture or CIDT. But this policy is still unclear. It simply suggests that Ministers should “look at the full complexities of the case and its legality”.

Unfortunately, uncertainty around this policy has led to significant confusion among Ministers and officials about what kind of intelligence sharing they are legally able to approve.

In April 2019, Reprieve and the Rendition Project revealed that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had maintained a secret policy which suggested that Ministers could approve action carrying a serious risk of torture if “the potential benefits justify accepting the risk and legal consequences.”

The MoD’s secret policy was exposed on the front page of The Times newspaper. MPs – including the former Brexit Secretary David Davis – then called on the Government to change the policy. They succeeded, and this secret MoD was subsequently replaced. But the Government’s wider torture policy remains ambiguous. 

Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has raised concerns that “dangerous ambiguities” in the UK’s torture policy amount to a “structural weakness” that leaves individual Ministers with “entirely different understandings of what they can and cannot, and would and would not, authorise”.

The ISC carried out an inquiry into the policy. As part of this, it asked a number of Secretaries of State whether they were allowed to authorise action where there was a serious risk of torture. Strikingly, each gave significantly different answers.

If the Government is to stand by its position that “the UK government condemns torture in all circumstances”, it cannot reserve the right to authorise UK action when there is a risk that torture may take place.

Torture doesn’t work. It is more likely to harm an urgent investigation than it is to improve it.  For example, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA’s detention and rendition programme could identify no documented instances in which the use of mistreatment generated actionable intelligence. Reserving the right to become involved in torture – as the UK’s current policy does – completely ignores this. Reprieve is calling for a change to the UK’s torture policy. It should clearly and unequivocally prohibit any UK action where there is a “serious risk” of torture and CIDT. And it must clearly set out how intelligence officers and Ministers should establish what constitutes a “serious risk”.