Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

Ending UK involvement in torture: lip service is not enough

The Intelligence and Security Committee recently published its report on British involvement in torture up to 2010 and as part of the ‘war on terror’. Ruth Blakeley and Sam Raphael comment on the report, and explain how the government must respond in order to comply with its human rights obligations.

The long-delayed reports of the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) investigation into Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition have finally been published. The ISC’s investigation, chaired by MP and QC Dominic Grieve, has revealed that the UK’s role in prisoner abuse was even more extensive than our research has found to date. This abuse took place both as part of the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation programme, and at military detention facilities established in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The two ISC reports are hard-hitting. The first, documenting British involvement in torture in the early ‘war on terror’, makes previous UK governments’ denials of involvement completely untenable. Although Jack Straw famously asserted that only conspiracy theorists should believe the UK played any role in rendition or torture, we now know that British intelligence knew about, suggested, planned, agreed to, or paid for others to conduct rendition operations in more than 70 cases. In hundreds of others, UK officials knew that their allies were subjecting prisoners to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (CIDT), and yet continued to supply questions to, and receive intelligence from, those who were tortured.

The second report is no less important. It catalogues a series of failures in government policy, as well as in training and guidance provided to UK security services. The implications are serious: there is every possibility British collusion in torture is being, or could be, repeated.

In our testimony to the ISC, we encouraged the scrutiny of the so-called ‘Consolidated Guidance’, issued to all security agencies and the military from 2010 onwards. The Guidance is intended to assist UK personnel in their dealings with overseas partners, and to protect them from personal liability if abuse of prisoners occurs. We have long argued that the Guidance is little more than a rhetorical, legal and policy scaffold which enables the government to demonstrate a minimum procedural adherence to human rights commitments. The ISC draws much the same conclusion, arguing that urgent review is needed.

Unbelievable as this may sound, the government has no clear policy on rendition. Although the Foreign and Commonwealth Office supposedly has government oversight, it has failed to regularly review policy and was unable to provide a comprehensive picture of its areas of responsibility. The government has resisted including rendition as a form of CIDT in the Guidance, arguing that the absence of a clear definition is grounds for its exclusion. With the ISC, we share the view that this is unacceptable, not least because there is excellent academic work which provides clarity.

There are ‘dangerous ambiguities’ in the Guidance and the ISC concluded that in fact it contains very little guidance. It has to be supplemented by Agency-level material, but there are inconsistencies in how separate agencies are interpreting the Guidance. The ISC insists that the supplemental guidance ought to be made public. We agree.

There is also considerable confusion among Ministers about how concerns relating to prisoner abuse should be treated. Ministers were unclear on whether they could lawfully allow operations to go ahead where there was a risk that prisoners would be tortured. Disturbingly, when giving evidence, senior Ministers including Theresa May, Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson, and Philip Hammond all made references to ‘ticking bomb’ scenarios as potentially justifying operations where torture might occur. This is despite the fact that the scientific record shows that intelligence obtained through torture is notoriously unreliable. The Guidance must be updated to specifically refer to the prohibition on torture enshrined in domestic and international law, and it should be crystal clear that Ministers cannot lawfully authorise action which they know or believe would result in torture.

Operations conducted in collaboration with a range of external partners, including non-state actors, failed states, and joint unit operations with third party states, fall outside the scope of the Guidance. This means that, in theory, prisoner abuse could be outsourced to external partners (a mechanism which the ISC found was used extensively 2001-2010 to hide the UK’s role in abuse).

There is considerable reliance on seeking assurances that prisoners will not be abused from overseas partners. Several concerns arise. First, the assurances are not a pre-requisite, according to the Guidance, and operations can still go ahead even if assurances cannot be obtained. Second, assurances can be provided orally rather than in writing, with very obvious scope for confusion and malfeasance. Relatedly, the UK Agencies have no real mechanism for following up on those assurances to ensure they are enforced. Last, record-keeping on the securing of assurances was poor.

The testimony from torture victims themselves demonstrates the human cost of torture. UK security actors appear to be concerned only with the letter and not the spirit of the Guidance. This is perhaps to be expected, given that the underlying logic of the Guidance is not to make UK personnel aware of the human effects of torture, but rather to shield agents from personal liability. Every aspect of the Guidance seems to be geared towards allowing UK personnel and Ministers to operate as close to the wire as possible. Yet the conclusions of the ISC demonstrate gaps in the Guidance so wide that a coach and horses could be driven through. It fails to offer the protections the security agencies are seeking. But most of all, it fails to protect prisoners.

With the anti-torture norm being eroded at the very top of the US government, it is high time the UK government took rendition and torture seriously. Indeed, we share the view that only a judge-led inquiry, with full powers of subpoena, can bring to justice those at the highest levels of government that colluded in torture. Only this will demonstrate that the government pays more than lip service to its human rights obligations.


About the Author

Ruth Blakeley is Professor at the University of Sheffield, and Co-Director of The Rendition Project.



Sam Raphael is Senior Lecturer at the University of Westminster, and Co-Director of The Rendition Project.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Public Domain.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Trump has a point on May’s Brexit deal

Leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg on Friday said President Donald Trump’s warning that Theresa May’s choice to stand by the EU’s common rulebook for goods post Brexit would “limit” the U.K.’s ability to strike a trade deal with the United States was “perfectly reasonable.”

Referring to an interview with the Sun in which Donald Trump accused the British prime minister of “killing” any chance of a future trade deal with the U.S., Rees-Mogg told BBC Radio 4’s Today program it was reasonable for a U.S president to intervene in matters of trade and foreign policy.

“What Donald Trump has set out is primarily his view on whether the U.S. will do a trade deal with the U.K. if we adopt the EU’s common rule book — he said that was a choice for the U.K. but that he may not deal with us if we [made that choice]. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing for an American president to say.”

The leading Euroskeptic MP said it was important to note that the EU’s “process-driven” rulebook would “limit the U.K’s ability to make changes to regulation.”

Doubling down on previous criticism of the U.K. government’s new, softer approach to Brexit, Rees-Mogg said Trump’s latest comments struck a significant cord because the U.K. government continues to advertise this deal as “good for trade.”

“This is very important, because if you can’t do trade deal with your closest ally then who [with]?”

However, Sadiq Khan shot down Trump’s comments that the London Mayor was to blame for terror attacks in the U.K capital. Speaking to Good Morning Britain, Khan said other cities like Paris, Brussels, Berlin and Nice had also been hit by the “evil of terrorism,” and said the “obvious question” was why Trump had chosen to “single me out?”

Read this next: Trump ‘plays Russia’s game’ with NATO attacks, former officials say

Four factors affecting how the Republic of Ireland deals with the legacy of the Troubles

The Northern Ireland conflict is usually analysed from the British and Northern Irish perspectives. But the Republic of Ireland was a participant too, and how the state now deals with that past is shaped by four key factors, writes Thomas Leahy.

An estimated 3720 people died as a result of the Northern Ireland conflict, including 121 in the Republic of Ireland. The Irish state had a direct involvement in the conflict. Before 1998, the Irish government claimed constitutional sovereignty over Northern Ireland. They also assisted and facilitated the peace process by the 1990s. Dealing with conflict legacy therefore has to involve the Irish state.

Four primary factors help explain the Irish state’s efforts towards dealing with this legacy: the state’s desire to protect its reputation; the electoral and ideological rivalry between centre-right Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and centre-left Sinn Féin; pressure from victims and survivors groups; and the Irish government’s aim to improve cooperation with unionists.

Protecting the Irish state’s reputation

The Irish state is an often overlooked participant in the Northern Ireland conflict. They sought unity by consent in the long-term, but power-sharing in Northern Ireland in the meantime. They also wanted to keep the violence up north if possible to protect their own state. But violence seeped across the border on various occasions. In May 1974, for example, a majority of unionists and loyalists conducted a general strike in Northern Ireland against a new power-sharing government and a cross-border Council of Ireland. On 17 May, loyalist paramilitaries allegedly with the assistance of British security forces conducted various car bombings in Dublin and the border town of Monaghan. Thirty-four people died and over 300 were injured. This attack represents the greatest loss of life in the Republic of Ireland in one day since the state’s formation.

An Independent Commission of Inquiry into the attacks in 2003 concluded that ‘[w]hen information was given to [the Irish state] suggesting that the British authorities had intelligence naming the bombers, this was not followed up’. A fear of jeopardising the Irish state’s security partly explains the reluctance to fully investigate the attacks at the time. The Irish government did not even hold a day of mourning, fearing this could increase IRA sympathy. This fear was based on what happened in southern Ireland following a day of mourning after Bloody Sunday in Derry city in January 1972, when a crowd in Dublin burned down the British embassy. Patrick Cooney, the Fine Gael Justice minister in 1974, mentioned in relation to the Dublin-Monaghan independent inquiry in the early 2000s that the ‘burned out British Embassy was…a stark reminder that democracy could very quickly become anarchy’. Cooney implied that the Irish government had to be careful in the 1970s not to provoke further violence. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil wanted Irish unification by consent in the long-term. But they did not want a civil war to achieve it, which could jeopardise the southern Irish state’s security.

Pressure from outside groups

Prior to the 1990s, there was also no coherent victims and survivors group from these attacks pressuring the Irish state to reinvestigate the bombings. Sinn Féin also did not acquire seats in the Irish parliament between 1982 and 1997. They offered little electoral pressure to the Irish government in order to encourage them to reinvestigate the incidents.

Following the conflict’s conclusion in 1998, the Irish state has cooperated with independent investigations into these attacks, and in 2008 they accepted Justice Barron’s suggestion that the state failed to fully investigate them. The Irish Parliament also passed three all-party motions in 2008, 2011, and 2016 calling on the British government to release archival material related to the attacks. The Justice for the Forgotten campaign has influenced this change in approach. Since the 1990s, they have promoted inquiries and the release of documentation relating to cross-border loyalist attacks. Sinn Féin’s increased vote since 1998 has also incentivised the Irish state to discuss the bombings. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil recognized a potential small electoral advantage for Sinn Féin in calling for further investigations into these attacks.

Improving cooperation with unionists

Another standout theme surrounding the Irish state’s engagement with conflict legacy involves unionist allegations of Irish security force collusion with the IRA. Many unionists believe the Irish state’s reluctance to re-investigate various IRA cross-border killings of British security forces and protestant civilians is suspicious. Doug Beattie of the Ulster Unionist Party suggested in 2017: ‘Given that the Dublin Government are not neutral in our troubled past, withholding information can only serve to protect their part in it’.

But the Irish state has investigated some unionist allegations of Irish security force collusion with the IRA. Judge Smithwick conducted a Tribunal of Inquiry into potential collusion between the Irish police and the IRA into the killings of two Royal Ulster Constabulary superintendents in south Armagh in 1989. In 2013, his final report concluded that individuals from the police colluded with the IRA, and the Irish Prime Minister apologised.

Party politics

In light of the Smithwick Tribunal, it seems that the Irish state has not conducted further inquiries into other IRA collusion allegations partly because there is a lack of evidence. The British government has also repeatedly failed to act on Irish all-party motions to release files on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. If the Irish government investigated various unionist allegations of collusion between the Irish police and IRA, without the British government cooperating with investigations into the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, the Irish state would appear weak. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil may fear Sinn Féin gaining a small electoral advantage in this scenario. With the unionist communities residing in Northern Ireland, there is also no electoral pressure on Irish political parties to reinvestigate these incidents. Nonetheless, the Smithwick tribunal also demonstrates the Irish government’s willingness to address unionist concerns about the past to some extent. The aim of such investigations is partly to improve relations and trust between Ulster Unionism and the Irish state.

The Irish government’s persistent engagement with conflict legacy debates is crucial if it wants to continue promoting reconciliation across the island of Ireland, and three other factors may further influence efforts towards addressing conflict legacy: British government action or inaction towards dealing with Northern Ireland’s conflict legacy; Brexit; and if any governing coalition in Dublin includes Sinn Féin.

About the Author

Thomas Leahy is Lecturer in Irish and British Politics and Contemporary History at Cardiff University. He was previously an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow at the National University of Ireland Galway. He has a forthcoming book partly based on his PhD completed at King’s College London looking at the Intelligence War Against the IRA in Northern Ireland, 1969-1998. For a full list of publications and projects see here.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

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