Ten NGOs Withdraw from UK Torture Inquiry, Citing Lack of Credibility and Transparency

4.8.11

As I reported last month, ten NGOs, including Amnesty International, Liberty and Reprieve, announced their intention to boycott the government’s proposed inquiry into UK complicity in torture following the 9/11 attacks, on the first anniversary of Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement that an inquiry would take place. Although the inquiry was initially greeted with guarded optimism, it rapidly became apparent that it was intended to be a whitewash, as I reported here, here, here and here.

Yesterday, the groups confirmed their intention to boycott the inquiry, sending a letter to the inquiry, asserting that “they will not be participating” and “do not intend to submit any evidence or attend any further meetings with the Inquiry team.”

In the letter, the NGOs said that the inquiry’s protocol and terms of reference showed it would not have the “credibility or transparency” to establish “the truth about allegations that UK authorities were involved in the mistreatment of detainees held abroad.”

As the Guardian reported, “Key sessions will be held in secret and the cabinet secretary will have the final say over what information is made public. Those who alleged they were subject to torture and rendition will not be able to question MI5 or MI6 officers, and foreign intelligence agencies will not be questioned.” Specifically, “Former detainees and their lawyers will not be able to question intelligence officials and all evidence from current or former members of the security and intelligence agencies, below the level of head, will be heard in private.”

Moreover, as the NGOs made clear in their letter, the inquiry, as currently planned, does not comply with the government’s international obligations to investigate the use of torture, under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

A second letter, written jointly by Imran Khan and other prominent human rights lawyers who have represented Guantánamo prisoners — including Gareth Peirce, Louise Christian, Irene Nembhard and Tayab Ali — reinforced the criticism of the government.

“We consider it impossible to advise those whom we represent that the structure and protocols now confirmed for the Gibson inquiry can achieve what are essential ingredients for a public inquiry into grave state crimes,” the letter stated, noting that the former prisoners would not even know “if the individuals being questioned are the right ones,” and adding that the lack of input “simply serves to demonstrate that there is no comprehension on the part of the government of the gravity of the crimes which representatives of the state may have committed.”

The letter continued, “We had hoped as lawyers to assist in a transparent exercise of vital importance. It is a matter of profound regret that our assessment is that the inquiry does not provide the means by which this can be realised. In the absence of there being any alteration to the protocols, our advice is compelled to be that it is inappropriate for our clients to submit evidence.”

Providing further criticism, Tara Lyle, Amnesty International’s UK policy advisor, said,”This is a desperately needed inquiry into extremely serious allegations but the arrangements for it are secretive, unfair and deeply flawed. We need an inquiry that is as open and effective as possible, not this semi-secret process that lacks scope and ambition. Those that suffered terrible abuse are set to be let down by this inquiry, while the general public is likely to be denied the opportunity to learn what went wrong during this dark chapter in our history.”

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said, “If this inquiry proceeds without the participation of the victims it will be nothing more than a waste of time and public money. Until a credible, independent process is established this shameful chapter of the war on terror continues.”

Reprieve, whose lawyers have represented dozens of Guantánamo prisoners, issued a press release noting that they and the other NGOs had withdrawn from the inquiry “on the grounds that it cannot get to the truth about torture.” Pointing out that they had previously described the inquiry as “toothless,” because of “its inability to compel witnesses to attend or evidence to be provided,” Reprieve reiterated its criticisms — primarily that “key shortcomings include the reliance on the Government to determine what information is made public and the failure to ensure meaningful participation by detainees.”

In response to the letters from the NGOs and the lawyers, which blows the inquiry’s credibility out of the water, Malcolm Rifkind, the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, desperately attempted to defend the inquiry as “open” on Radio 4’s “Today” programme, asking, “When was the last time the head of MI5 and the head of MI6 — the prime minister has made quite clear — can be summoned to this inquiry and be required to give evidence?” In addition, the inquiry team also tried to shore up its collapsing credibility, issuing a statement that noted:

The inquiry will go ahead. It will examine the relevant documentation held by government. It will hear the key government witnesses. The inquiry offers the detainees and anyone else with evidence relevant to its terms of reference the only opportunity for them to give evidence to an independent inquiry. The detainees and the NGOs have alleged the involvement or awareness of the UK government and its security and intelligence services in relation to the mistreatment and rendition of detainees held by other countries. The inquiry would welcome such evidence.

For that to happen, a wholesale rethink is required, and I hope that the government will face increased pressure to replace the planned whitewash with a full public inquiry, as, for example, with the Baha Mousa inquiry, held under the Inquiries Act of 2005, as Reprieve requested last summer, noting that that particular inquiry, which is due to issue its report on September 8, was “a model of an inquiry functioning efficiently, including the hearing of secret evidence.” Last summer, Reprieve lamented that, under the plan for the torture inquiry, “there is no formal mechanism for civil participation — so Reprieve and other civil organisations will not be allowed access to documents and proceedings,” whereas, under the Inquiries Act, “document classification review proceedings are sophisticated and rightly allow the judge to balance the need for national security against the need for transparency.”

As I explained last month, however, “as everyone has now realized, justice is not what the Gibson inquiry is meant to provide. Instead, it is meant to be nothing more than an expensive version of the swift, private inquiry with a pre-ordained conclusion that David Cameron wanted last summer,” when, as the Guardian reported, he wanted an inquiry to examine only one case — that of Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who was seized in Pakistan in April 2002, rendered to torture in Morocco and Afghanistan, and then held in Guantánamo from September 2004 to February 2009 — and that he wanted the allegations to be “examined briefly, and in secret, by a commission sitting over the summer,” until Nick Clegg told him that would be perceived as a whitewash. Most importantly, according to these reports, Cameron “had already concluded that the country’s intelligence agencies were guilty only of errors of omission, not commission.”

That is the illusion of justice that those of us seeking the truth still need to demolish — David Cameron’s simulacrum of fairness and transparency in which he had already made up his mind what he wants to hear, and is trying only to arrange it so that the facts can be shaped around his conclusion.

Below is the letter written to the Detainee Inquiry by the ten NGOs:

Sara Carnegie
Solicitor to the Detainee Inquiry
35 Great Smith Street
London
SW1P 3BQ

3 August 2011

Dear Ms. Carnegie

We refer to your letter of 6 July 2011 sent to nine of the ten organisations listed below and letter to Human Rights Watch dated 15 July 2011.

We have carefully considered the contents of the letters as well as the Terms of Reference and Protocol published on 6 July 2011. Plainly an Inquiry conducted in the way that you describe and in accordance with the Protocol would not comply with Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. We are particularly disappointed that the issue of what material may be disclosed to the public will not be determined independently of Government and, further, that there will be no meaningful participation of the former and current detainees and other interested third parties.

As you know, we were keen to assist the Inquiry in the vital work of establishing the truth about allegations that UK authorities were involved in the mistreatment of detainees held abroad. Our strong view, however, is that the process currently proposed does not have the credibility or transparency to achieve this. If the Inquiry proceeds on this basis, therefore, and in light of indications from the lawyers acting for former detainees that they will not be participating, we do not intend to submit any evidence or attend any further meetings with the Inquiry team.

Yours sincerely

The AIRE Centre
Amnesty International
British Irish Rights Watch
Cageprisoners
Freedom from Torture
Human Rights Watch
Justice
Liberty
Redress
Reprieve

In its press release, Reprieve summed up and added further complaints, which I’m posting below as they help to flesh out the fundamental and irreconcilable problems with the inquiry as it currently stands:

Reprieve — together with other NGOs — had made a number of suggestions on how the inquiry could work, both before these protocols were made public and after, but these have been largely ignored. Instead, the government has consistently maintained that this inquiry need not comply with UK and international legal requirements for the effective investigation of serious human rights abuse. The Inquiry will suffer from several key shortcomings:

First, the definition of evidence that will remain classified forever is hopelessly overbroad. Set out in Annex A, this effectively includes anything that would in any way breach an “understanding” between the UK and its allies — in other words, anything the Americans would find embarrassing will not be made public. If — when — a British agent watched Americans abusing a prisoner in a secret site (such as Bagram), the Inquiry will determine that the agreement was that they were only present on the “understanding” that nothing should be made public. Given that the essence of British complicity involves working with the US on torture and rendition, the exception to publicity swallows the rule.

Second, there is no meaningful, independent (preferably judicial) review of what should be kept secret. The Inquiry may only refer its own complaints (based on a definition that would justify classifying anything) to the very body that has previously insisted on secrecy. Unlike other inquiries where victims have made serious allegations of torture, the victims will not have meaningful legal representation. Their advisers will be denied access to any documents or hearings deemed secret by the inquiry.

Third, the Inquiry is left toothless due to a lack of powers to compel the attendance of witnesses or the provision of evidence or information from any party or organisation. Notably, the inquiry has refused to consider evidence against UK based corporations with alleged links to the US rendition program.

There are a number of other issues that are not resolved, and have not been addressed by the protocol. In summary, the vast majority of what is secret will remain secret and the public will receive no assurance that Britain has learned from its mistake.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

42 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Lilia Patterson ‎wrote:

    ? is that good or bad? Does it mean that those responsible for proposing this inquiry are drop-outs?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, it ought to shatter what little credibility the inquiry has, Lilia, and oblige the government to think about conducting something more thorough and open, although that’s clearly not what they have in mind, as the only thing they’re interested in is having a whitewash and drawing an arbitrary and convenient line under the past.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Richard Osbourne wrote:

    Wow. Should be front page news but I bet it won’t be.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Well, I did read about this early this morning or late last night. I think in the Guardian. So the news is out, I think, but what will be the reactions and how does one measure them?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    Andy, I think the big question here is how can secretive organisations covered up by official secret acts be held accountable to the public, to ensure that their acts are maintained always for the benefit of the greater good, and most of all to ensure that they are not hiding criminal acts behind their cloak of secrecy?

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’m Digging this, Andy.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    HEidi PEterson wrote:

    who is goıng to make the investigation and hold those accountable for crimes?

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Brian Barth wrote:

    The typical inqury bullshit must go. It’s a parliamentary standard cover up.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    Heidi, who knows. Personally I consider the fact that Amnesty and the various other NGOs have dropped out in order to be ‘proud’ of not even taking part in the inquiry is not going to particularly help. If people wanted ‘accountability’ they should have stood their ground, to get what they wanted rather than just dropping out with self-righteous pride. I would also say that negligence of responsible observers in many cases is also an integral aspect of any future disaster will then occur as a result. How many times have we seen people ‘abdicating’ because they ‘don’t want to be held responsible’ for irresponsible actions, then the very fact that they have ‘abdicated’ then means that they have essentially allowed irresponsible acts to continue to take place anyway, once they have left and gone, with noone to take responsibility as a result.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    I understand your concerns, Lilia, but I do have to say that I believe the NGOs are right not to participate in something that would be a whitewash. Instead, those of us who care will be able to publicize the real stories — what the government is not talking about — through the media, showing up the inquiry for the sham it is, unless the government changes its mind. Clare Algar of Reprieve has covered these points well in a Comment is free article for the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/​commentisfree/2011/aug/04/​ngos-quit-torture-inquiry

    She writes:

    [T]his is the culmination of a long year of utterly fruitless negotiation with the detainee inquiry and the government. On numerous occasions, we’ve met with the inquiry and submitted letters to them and to the prime minister, only to have our proposals stonewalled or, at times, even ignored for weeks on end.

    The shortcomings of the inquiry as currently set up fall broadly under three headings: toothlessness, secrecy and a lack of independence.

    With regard to the first shortcoming, the inquiry quite simply lacks the power to compel anyone to do anything. It cannot force witnesses to attend or require evidence to be provided. This leaves it entirely at the mercy of politicians, civil servants and intelligence personnel, who can decide whether or not to turn up and what to hand over. Additionally, the inquiry is hopelessly understaffed, which will make it extremely difficult for it even to adequately identify what evidence it needs to see. In short, not only is it unable to force people to provide the evidence it needs to do its work, but it is hamstrung from the start in terms of even being able to determine what that evidence may be.

    Second, the inquiry is hampered by a far greater degree of secrecy than seems necessary. We accept that sensitive matters of intelligence and national security will mean that it is simply not possible to have an entirely public process – however, little or no attempt seems to have been made to even strike a balance. Particularly problematic is the failure to provide any real inclusion in the process for the victims of torture or their lawyers – as it stands, they would have no way of challenging the accounts provided by the security services, rendering any participation by them effectively meaningless.

    Third, the inquiry is almost entirely under the thumb of the very institutions it is meant to be investigating: the British government and its security services. MI5, MI6 and government departments will have the final say on what information they hand over, while Cameron and the head of the civil service, Gus O’Donnell, will decide what information is made public – this extends even to how much, if any, of the final report is cleared for publication. There is no independent mechanism to determine what should be released, and the inquiry itself has no real powers in this area.

    We – and our fellow human rights NGOs – attempted to engage constructively with this inquiry for as long as we felt was possible, but the sad fact is that this got us nowhere.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I agree with you and Ms Algar. Besides the reasons she gives, joining will give the investigation a false aura of legitimacy, since there is no way that it can be complete and objective.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Brian Barth wrote:

    These bastards rule much of our lives. You know the scheme, as much as I do. The time of being patient is over, but really, what to do? The New Age movement was created to fool the massess.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Richard, George, HEidi, Brian — and Lilia again, and everyone who has shared this. Much appreciated.
    Interesting point about the New Age, Brian. I date a dangerous decline in those questioning the direction of our world to the point in the early 70s when the “hippie” movement, which had started off both political and “spiritual,” split, essentially, and the latter became dominant — the quest for self-knowledge transforming into the New Age movement and, ultimately, a society founded on the desires of the individual rather than on anything more collective. This focus on the self has taken over, and has been used cynically by politicians and advertisers, but I think that ultimately it reflects a shift of position that suited all parties. The rich stand to make more money from it, but the defining theme of the last 30 years is self-gratification. This is off-limits to the absolute poor, who still make up the majority of the world’s population, and are mercilessly exploited, but everyone else — from the rich to the merely solvent (and, until recently, those able to live on credit) — has been enabled largely to focus on their own whims and desires to the exclusion of anything resembling the notion of “the common good.”

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    Andy, surely those elected to represent the British people, should do their job, on behalf of the British people, so therefore if they are not being accountable for their actions, they are not doing their job, and if they are not allowing themselves to be accountable for torture, they are also participating in war crimes. I don’t see why anyone should ‘let it go’ and let them carry on, otherwise, what is the point in them having ‘an inquiry’ in the first place, if they are not allowing themselves to be ‘accountable’?

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    They won’t just “let it go,” Lilia. They’ll be making exactly the kind of fuss that has got us all talking now. And in Britain human rights groups have friends in significant places – the Guardian, the Independent and Channel 4 News, for example, as well as some support in Parliament, and the opportunity for coverage by the BBC and other newspapers and broadcasters. And also, these are NGOs — they’re not elected to represent the people, so they don’t have to be involved in something that is cynical and wrong. I do appreciate your concerns, but I have to stress again that it’s not a question of abdicating responsibility for anything. These groups — and some of them, in particular — will continue to publicize the reasons why a proper public inquiry is needed, and to press for ministers and those in charge of the intelligence services to come clean. None of this would have been possible if they capitulated and agreed to take part in a toothless, sham process that was empowered only to prevent the truth from being disclosed.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    Andy, I hope so.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Let’s keep our eyes on them, Lilia.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Andy, you could not have put it better. I saw the entire development of New Age, from one of its hot-spots, Amsterdam. I was appalled by the same things you were, but also, as a university teacher, the parallel declines in student’s rationality and teaching standards. I can go on forever about this, with arguments and examples, but not now. Suffice it to say that I consider New Age and other trends- mainly in pop psychology- to be major causes of the decline of Socialistic thinking (hopefully until recently), in Europe and the States. It ruined a generation or more of potentially good social thinkers, by turning their dumbed-down minds’ priorities from solidarity to clueless individualism. I bumped up against two such persons this afternoon, online.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    George, yes! I’m bouncing your agreement with me back to you, and wondering how to get out to Sweden to buy you a drink! I do hope we can see a return to Socialist thinking — and I don’t mean that in any party political manner, as I’ve never joined any particular group — but in the sense that, without thinking about the common good and trying to work towards it, we end up slipping into the kind of dog-eat-dog barbarism that has been growing in influence over the last 30-odd years, and that now threatens to topple our remaining notions of civilization, and leave most of us in medieval squalor in less than a generation.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Richard Osbourne wrote:

    Eloquently put about the New Age Andy. Hadn’t thought of it that way. I come from the Spiritual angle of real practice with a real teacher, nothing whatever to do with self-fulfilment. I find those really into the New Age to be quite deluded, even about some very ordinary truths about life (suffering etc.). Not bad intentioned at all, just without sufficient discrimination to see that what they are saying (love) and what they are doing are actually two different things.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Richard. Very good distinction, I think, between good intentions and a more complete understanding of how life actually works, and how we might be more complex and multi-faceted than we would tend to believe when we are young. There’s a lot of immaturity about, and I don’t mean that horribly; just observing that it won’t take us anywhere — or certainly not anywhere useful.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    Andy, you may need some strong glue then.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Ha, Lilia! Yes, insomnia and hyper-vigilance. The usual response to the precipitous decline of civilization, then …

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Thanks Andy. There’ll be opportunities, I’m sure. Perhaps there are cheap flights. As for myself, I’m medically incapable of travelling until at least June of next year.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    George, it would be nice if Amnesty and/or other NGOs could get me over to show “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo,” and give a talk, wouldn’t it?

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    Andy, I was thinking more of needing to detach your eyeballs and superglue to them to whoever you wanted to keep your eyes on. (metaphorically speaking of course).

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    OK, Lilia. Sounds painful, but I’ll bear it in mind …!

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I was thinking along those lines too, Andy. I’ll see what I can do. I do think there’s a need to open some eyes here. After more than 60 years of reasonably good government, too many Swedes have fallen asleep, become naive, or switched sides. Basic knowledge of, say, America’s torture programme, is almost non-existent.

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    That would be excellent, George. Thanks. And also, of course, there are still dozens of men in Guantanamo, who cannot safely be repatriated, and who are hoping that other countries will offer them a new home. Sweden hasn’t helped out, even though, in 2009, it accepted an asylum appeal from a Uighur who had initially been rehoused in Albania, and even though the Swedish government was involved in one of the first rendition scandals in 2001 when it helped the CIA kidnap two refugees and fly them to torture in Egypt. As a result, it’s always seemed to me, the Swedish government could have pressure exerted on it to take a few Guantanamo prisoners as some sort of apology.

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    Earl Feagans wrote:

    L&S, thanks

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’ll try, Andy. Perhaps there’s someone at the university who can arrange something. I do know one person who would like to invite you, but although he lives here, he works in Stockholm. And yes, I do remember that rendition case.

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    Andy :-) please don’t think I meant it seriously, I was just making a joke out of the sentence “keeping an eye on people”. I wish you all the best of luck and congratulations for all of the work that you have done so far, with your extensive work.

  33. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, George, and yes, Lilia, I know you were only joking. I do intend to keep both eyes actually in my head! And thanks for the supportive words. I do appreciate your support.

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    Andy, good, I am glad, I would not want to wish for you to lose your eyes, I am sure they would be more effective and useful while retained still within your head. I hope for you that they may continue to be useful to you for a very long time.

  35. Andy Worthington says...

    Me too. I do need glasses though, Lilia. I had perfect vision until I was 45, and then suddenly, almost overnight, I couldn’t read small print anymore.

  36. Peace Activist says...

    I think this boycott by these NGOs will seriously damage the credibility of any out come of this inquiry. To be honest I was totally sure there would be continued criminality two days after 9/11 that would be related to that day. I strongly feel that a large campaign towards the UK, US other governments and the UN and EU regarding the trading of ‘said to be’ criminals, terrorists and so forth, internationally would help. Cash for defendants, is a form of people trafficking; rendition flights are also a form of trafficking. This sort of thing brings all sorts of problems regarding quality of evidence; with the subsequent secrecy.

  37. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Peace Activist. Good to hear from you.

  38. Andy Worthington says...

    Dejanka Bryant wrote:

    Shared, thanks, Andy.

  39. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Dejanka.

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  41. The Baha Mousa Inquiry: A Good Day For British Justice - OpEd says...

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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