UK Human Rights Groups Dismiss Rendition and Torture Inquiry as a Whitewash


An image of torture.Nine human rights groups in the UK are boycotting the official British inquiry into the treatment of “detainees” in the “war on terror” and the UK’s involvement in rendition, “grievously undermining the controversial inquiry,” as the Guardian described it.

The nine groups, who have written a critical letter to Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, stating that they “do not propose to play a substantive role in the conduct of [the] inquiry,” are Amnesty International, the AIRE Centre (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe), Cage (formerly Cageprisoners), Freedom from Torture (formerly the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture), JUSTICE, Liberty, Redress, Reprieve and Rights Watch (UK).

Britain’s treatment of prisoners and its involvement in rendition was a matter of concern to Conservative MP William Hague when he was the shadow foreign secretary, prior to the Tories forming a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in May 2010. Hague seemed genuinely appalled by what had taken place since 9/11 — a litany of broken laws and human rights abuses, including, most noticeably, the torture of Binyam Mohamed, whose case had reached the High Court in 2008, causing embarrassment to both the UK and US governments.

David Cameron announced a judge-led inquiry in July 2010, which was cautiously welcomed, as I wrote about here, although it soon became apparent that it would not be adequate.

Shortly after the inquiry was announced, Clive Stafford Smith, the founder and director of Reprieve, called for the judge assigned to the inquiry, Sir Peter Gibson, to resign, because, as he pointed out, “As the Intelligence Services Commissioner (ISC), it has been Sir Peter’s job for more than four years to oversee the Security Services,” and “he cannot now be the judge whether his own work was effective.”

In September 2010, nine groups wrote a detailed letter to Gibson, proposing crucial guidelines for the inquiry to be credible, and in February 2011 I first mentioned a whitewash, in a report about how the human rights groups involved in this latest letter were considering whether to boycott the inquiry. As the Guardian explained at the time, the NGOs feared that the inquiry would “not be sufficiently independent, impartial or open to public scrutiny.”

In July 2011, lawyers boycotted the inquiry, and on August 3 the NGOs sent a letter to the inquiry stating that they would not be participating” and did “not intend to submit any evidence or attend any further meetings with the Inquiry team.”

Shorn of NGO involvement — and any credibility — Gibson’s inquiry limped on until January 2012, when it was cut short amid what the Guardian described as “dramatic, first-hand evidence of MI6 involvement in another rendition, that of two prominent Libyan dissidents, Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi.” Belhaj is currently suing the British government, while al-Saadi and his family accepted a settlement of £2.23m from the British government in December 2012.

That abrupt conclusion was pretty shameful, because such important allegations had just surfaced (although the excuse was that the police were investigating), but Gibson managed to issue an interim report in December 2013, after examining around 20,000 confidential documents, and as the Guardian described it:

Gibson questioned whether the UK had “a deliberate or agreed policy” of turning a blind eye to the mistreatment of prisoners, and whether the two intelligence agencies were willing to “condone, encourage or take advantage of rendition operations” mounted by others.

At the same time that Gibson delivered his interim report, it was announced that the full inquiry would be handed over to the ISC.

In their new letter to the ISC (dated October 30, 2014), the nine organizations brought the story up to date, stating that, although, in March this year, they had raised concerns with the government about whether its decision to allow the ISC to lead the inquiry was “lawful or appropriate”, their concerns “remain unaltered and have not been allayed” by a response from the foreign secretary.

As the Guardian described it, the anger of the NGOs “follows assurances by David Cameron that the inquiry into whether MI5 and MI6 were actively involved in the secret rendition and torture of UK citizens and residents would be headed by a senior judge.”

The Guardian added, “When the coalition government came to power, Cameron told MPs that no other arrangement would command public confidence, and vehemently rejected suggestions that the ISC should conduct the investigation. He said that only a ‘judge-led inquiry’ could ‘get to the bottom of the case.'”

The Guardian also noted, “The boycott follows the debacle of the independent inquiry into child abuse, which has been dogged by whitewash claims and recently lost its second chair, Fiona Woolf, after she accepted that abuse survivors had lost confidence in her ability to conduct the investigation impartially.”

The Guardian also pointed out that the ISC “has faced years of criticism as evidence of UK involvement in rendition has emerged, and was also condemned for failing to report on the bulk surveillance being conducted by the UK’s signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, until after it became public.”

In their letter, the NGOs state, “We remain unpersuaded that the decision to cut short the work of the flawed Gibson inquiry and to pass the baton on to the ISC is an adequate substitute for the establishment of an independent judicial inquiry.”

The groups also expressed their concern that the make-up of the membership of the ISC meant that it could not deliver an “impartial and thorough” investigation. As they note, “The ISC is not and cannot be, by its very design, adequate to the task of carrying out an independent investigation of these violations. It remains the case that the prime minister holds an absolute veto over its membership, the evidence which it is allowed to examine, and the information which it is allowed to publish. We are therefore of the view that the committee has neither the powers nor the independence necessary to get to the truth of Britain’s involvement in the rendition and torture of detainees abroad. Any investigation conducted by the ISC will be inherently flawed.”

Clare Algar, the executive director of Reprieve, said, “What little credibility the ISC had left is rapidly evaporating. It should now be abundantly clear that it is simply incapable of getting to the truth on the UK’s role in rendition and torture. Last time they looked into this issue, they gave the agencies a clean bill of health. We now know that conclusion was spectacularly misguided — so why should we expect anything more than a whitewash this time around? The government must now abandon this farce.”

Despite the criticisms, former Conservative defence secretary and foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chair of the ISC, said the inquiry “would continue regardless of the boycott,” as the Guardian described it. He added, “It’s not going to be remotely possible to complete it before the election. Apart from that, we can’t even start on the Libyan stuff because of the police inquiries,” a reference to the fact that police investigating MI6’s involvement in the kidnapping of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi and their rendition to torture in Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya have just “passed a file of evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service.”

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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7 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    For my latest article, I look at the recent decision by nine NGOs to boycott the British inquiry into post-9/11 rendition and ‪‎torture‬ that is being conducted by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, because the ISC is incapable of doing an adequate job. What is needed, of course, is an independent judicial inquiry.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Aaron Ben Acer Quinn wrote:

    Is This Who We Are? Action to mark 13 years of Guantánamo, Sunday 11 January 2015

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for mentioning the London Guantánamo Campaign’s protest on Jan. 11, the 13th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo, Aaron. I’ll be in Washington D.C. as usual, outside the White House.
    I was just thinking that when Guantanamo opened, my son, who is 15 next month, had just turned two. I can’t imagine having been separated from him for all that time, like so many of the men in Guantanamo with their kids.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Aaron Ben Acer Quinn wrote:

    unfortunately we live in a world where leaders like Obama break their promises…. and the public sits back…. such a grave injustice Gitmo and shame on all these politicians

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, absolutely, Aaron. The Guantanamo prisoners have been failed by all three branches of the US government – the administration, Congress and the courts (especially, in recent years, the Supreme Court), and, in large part, the media and the American people. A great, great shame.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Aaron Ben Acer Quinn wrote:

    and lets not forget the part our UK government has played in all this, allowing the renditions to occur, the alphabet agencies, turning a blind eye to what they knew was going on, grrrrrr

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, absolutely, Aaron – just what an independent judicial inquiry should establish. Like the evidence that emerged here:

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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