More from: Human Rights

UK officials slammed over “non-answers” on Iraq

by Chris Ames

The Guardian’s Ian Cobain reports that:

The UK has faced tough questions this week from a UN panel closely scrutinising the UK’s human rights record, following a series of disclosures about involvement in so-called extraordinary rendition and torture in the years following the 9/11 attacks.

Over two days in Geneva, the UK delegation went before the UN committee which monitors the implementation of the international convention against torture to face hundreds of questions covering a range of issues including: complicity in abusive interrogation; renditions to Libya; the mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq; and the stalled official British inquiry into the treatment of terrorism suspects.


After posing a series of questions about the killing of Baha Mousa and the mistreatment of individuals detained by the British army in Iraq, Xuexian Wang, a Chinese diplomat, complained loudly that while the UK delegation’s responses were being “given in beautiful English”, they seemed “almost to be non-answers”.

These are of course issues that the Iraq Inquiry has avoided looking at while the government avoids looking too carefully at them through other inquiries. The reference in the article to a stalled inquiry links to “The Detainee Inquiry“. The website for that Inquiry does say on its FAQ page that:

We will not exclude any rendition case because it started with the military, as opposed to the intelligence agencies. This will therefore include the cases of two detainees captured by UK forces in Iraq, handed over to the Americans, and then subsequently subjected to rendition to Afghanistan in 2004, as well as any other allegations of the awareness of or involvement in mistreatment or rendition by UK personnel whether they are military or civilian.

That Inquiry was wound up last year and a report on its work so far given to David Cameron. As Cobain noted last month:

An official report into Britain’s involvement in rendition and torture since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US has yet to be published more than nine months after it was completed and delivered to David Cameron.

According to Cobain’s article, a police inquiry into rendition to Libya is only part of the reason for the delay:

David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has said that was only one reason for the decision.

“Part of it was a dispute over the question over who should have the word on disclosure,” he said. “Should that be the security services or should that be the chair of the inquiry? And it was partly that the police decided that it wanted to investigate with a view to some criminal prosecutions, and that in the end was the reason given for the inquiry being put off.”

Under the terms on which the inquiry was established, the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, and not Gibson, will have the final say on which sections of the report will be censored before publication. The Cabinet Office has declined to say whether material may be censored in order to protect the reputations of the UK’s intelligence agencies.

As this suggests, and as the Detainee Inquiry itself acknowledges, these arrangements are based on those of the Iraq Inquiry. There are slightly fewer reasons for blocking disclosure but, with the cabinet secretary having the final say, including on the question of whether a valid reason for blocking disclosure exists, the difference is perhaps academic.

From non-answers to delays and disputes over disclosure, the British establishment does have a way of obstructing inquiries. Of course an establishment inquiry like the Iraq Inquiry is far too polite too complain over non-answers.

Is Britain guilty of systemic torture in Iraq?

By Chris Ames

Is the question posed by an article in the Observer by Ed Vulliamy and, as the piece explains, is the main question “before a judicial review hearing at the high court in London next week in a claim seeking to demonstrate that Britain broke international laws of war by pursuing a policy of systematic torture”:

The British government will argue in court that this apparent litany of abuse by troops it sent to “liberate” the Iraqis does not warrant a public inquiry, since it was not “systemic”.

But the high court will be asked to rule that this position is untenable given the weight and range of the allegations.

As I have repeatedly mentioned here, the question of whether British troops abused and tortured Iraqi prisoners is one that the Iraq Inquiry has shown no interest in raising. There are two ways of looking at this. One is that the Inquiry is proving to be so long, both in terms of duration and the reported length of its report, that it would probably never report if it looked at issues of human rights abuses. The other, to which I would probably subscribe, is that main reason for the delay is that the Inquiry has been so taken up with addressing the fine detail of the military campaign, from the military point of view and with the intention of producing findings that will be useful for the UK government.

It is entirely clear that the UK government, the Inquiry’s customer, does not want any inquiry that it cannot entirely control looking at the evidence of abuse by its forces in a war that was partly sold on the idea of rescuing the Iraqi people from the abuses of Saddam Hussein, which were according to a dossier published by the Foreign office in December 2002, not just systemic, but “systematic”.

Who says Britain didn’t make things better in Iraq? As Vulliamy reports in a news article on the same story:

The hearing comes just weeks away from the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion, and will be counted as a measure of how far Britain can reckon with its own legacy in Iraq. South African archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu last year urged in this newspaper that the then prime minister Tony Blair and others should be prosecuted by the international criminal court over the legality and conduct of the invasion.

“This is the crucial moment of decision”, says Williams[the author of a book on the killing of Baha Mousa]. “This is our last chance to get to the truth of what happened. This is what we demand of others, but we do not demand it of ourselves. What kind of message does that give the world about who we are?”


Covering up the abuse

by Chris Ames

As the Iraq Inquiry falls further and further into the background and possible irrelevancy, arguably as a result of the breadth of its remit, the one issue that it has insisted on ignoring keeps making the news. In the last week the doctor who joined in the cover up of the killing of Baha Mousa has been struck off while the Guardian has reported that

The Ministry of Defence has paid out £14m in compensation and costs to hundreds of Iraqis who complained that they were illegally detained and tortured by British forces during the five-year occupation of the south-east of the country.

The row about these abuses goes on with the government determined to resist a full public inquiry and others determined to force one.



Top military legal adviser slams mod over human rights abuses

by Chris Lamb

On Wednesday night Channel 4 News ran an exclusive on Lieutenant Colonel Nick Mercer’s scathing criticism of the MOD over human rights abuses by the military in Iraq following the March 2003 invasion. Lieutenant Colonel Mercer was the top legal affairs commander for British land forces in Iraq.

The story follows a related article in the Independent dating back to 2007 and the 19th Report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights concerned with treatment of Iraqi detainees by British land forces. Given Lieutenant Colonel Mercer’s criticism and the earlier Independent story, it is perhaps now imperative for a full and independent inquiry to take place into whether the Attorney General’s office advised the MOD top military brass on the applicability of ECHR and Iraqi civilian detainees. (Lord Goldsmith has strenuously denied this).

The Iraq Inquiry has given little public consideration of the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by British troops.

Human rights abuses cannot be ignored

by Chris Ames

The Guardian reports that:

Britain was an occupying power after the invasion of Iraq and failed to carry out effective investigations into the killing of civilians, the European court of human rights has ruled.

The decision by the Strasbourg court could open the Ministry of Defence to a deluge of claims and add to the pressure for further public inquiries into the behaviour of troops in and around Basra after the 2003 invasion.

The court found there had not been an effective investigation into five of the killings. It noted that, in contrast, the UK has held an inquiry into the death of Baha Mousa, a hotel worker who died while in the custody of British troops in 2003. A report on the findings is due in the autumn.

Human Rights Watch has, unsurprisingly, welcomed what it calls a “landmark” ruling. It has linked to a letter sent to Sir John Chilcot in August 2009, asking him to include in his Inquiry:

– The allegations of widespread and/or serious abuses committed against Iraqi civilians and detainees by British forces and/or private security outfits contracted to the British government and MNF bodies;

– Abuses attributed to Iraqi security forces established under the supervision of British forces (especially in Basra), and abuses committed by Iraqi authorities against persons handed over to them by British forces.

– The extent to which the United Kingdom has attempted to avoid the application of human rights and other law to its forces in Iraq, especially on the issue of detention.

In particular we urge that the inquiry consider the degree to which the most serious allegations (including unlawful killings, torture or inhuman or degrading treatment), have been addressed by full and public inquiries leading to the identification and prosecution of those responsible including those who gave the orders. This inquiry should also develop recommendations that will reduce the likelihood of human rights abuses by British forces in the future, and when they do occur, ensure they are speedily and independently investigated and where necessary, prosecuted.

We also urge you to consider the degree to which the United Kingdom has attempted to avoid human rights responsibilities for the actions of its forces in Iraq, in particular by denying that human rights law applies.

The UK government’s attempt to deny that human rights law applied at the time that it was an occupying lawyer in Iraq was clearly wrong in law, as well as morally. There is no question of the Iraq Inquiry addressing this issue or the alleged abuses themselves, apparently on the basis – also demonstrated to be wrong – that such issues are being addressed elsewhere.

Iraq abuse probe “is a shambles”

by Chris Ames

Looking at the issues that the Iraq Inquiry has not covered, the BBC reports that: “The team investigating allegations UK troops abused Iraqi civilians has been called ‘a shambles’, after interviewing just one alleged victim.”

The head of the Iraq Historic Allegations (IHAT) team denies this but Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers says that a full public inquiry is needed, an issue over which there has already been a lot of legal argument.

Meanwhile, there is better news from the Gibson torture inquiry. According to Joshua Rozenberg in the Guardian:

“Press reports that the government’s forthcoming torture inquiry will not investigate rendition are ‘simply wrong’, the inquiry’s senior lawyer said on Wednesday.”

A whitewash won’t wash

by Chris Ames

The Guardian’s leader today covers growing doubts about the ability of Sir Peter Gibson’s inquiry into UK complicity in torture to establish the truth. It begins its argument by reference to the Iraq Inquiry:

“With Iraq, the last inquiry was always the reason for not calling the next – but the defence never held for long. Each narrow probe revealed murk that warranted fresh investigation. Thus Chilcot followed Butler who in turn followed Hutton and the various parliamentary efforts. The truth has been painfully extracted one inch at a time, at considerable public expense.”

It is worth noting that the Iraq inquiry has not made any serious attempt to investigate allegations of British or Iraqi mistreatment and torture of detainees, or of allegations that British forces rendered captives to their US counterparts, with a strong understanding that they were likely to be tortured.

Margaret Aldred and the rendition cover-up

by Chris Ames

In January 2006 the New Statesman published a leaked Foreign Office memo from the previous month that discussed what the UK government knew about rendition, extraordinary rendition and torture at US interrogation centres. Having established that the US was using its own definitions of torture to ignore international conventions, the memo asked:

“How do we know whether those our Armed Forces have helped to capture in Iraq or Afghanistan have subsequently been sent to interrogation centres?”

The question is a very pertinent one and should be a very important question for the Iraq Inquiry. In 2008, former SAS trooper Ben Griffin revealed the answer:

“Hundreds of Iraqis and Afghans captured by British and American special forces were rendered to prisons where they faced torture, a former SAS soldier said yesterday. Ben Griffin said individuals detained by SAS troops in a joint UK-US special forces taskforce had ended up in interrogation centres in Iraq, including the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, and in Afghanistan, as well as Guantánamo Bay.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesman told the Telegraph:

“We would not transfer an individual to any country if we believed there was a risk of mistreatment.”

Unfortunately, this had long been contradicted by the leaked memo, whose answer to its “how do we know?” question was:

“Cabinet Office is researching this with MOD. But we understand the basic answer is that we have no mechanism for establishing this, though we would not ourselves question such detainees while they were in such facilities.”

The memo was copied to Nigel Sheinwald and Margaret Aldred at the Cabinet, Office, presumably because it was their section, Defence and Overseas Secretariat that was doing the research.

We do not know what answer the Cabinet Office came up with. We do know that the MoD was so keen for the truth not to come out that it obtained an injunction to prevent Griffin repeating his claims.

We also know that the Iraq Inquiry, with Margaret Aldred as its secretary, has avoided the subject. The Inquiry has not published a single document from Aldred’s time dealing with Iraq policy at the Cabinet Office and has therefore not published the outcome of the Cabinet Office’s “research”. As Griffin told me:

“It looks as if the Inquiry has been steered away from this issue.”

No Iraq abuse inquiry – yet

by Chris Ames

The High Court has rejected an attempt by Iraqis who claim they were mistreated by British troops to force a public inquiry. According to the BBC:

“Two judges upheld Defence Secretary Liam Fox’s refusal to order a wide-ranging investigation, but said one could be ‘required in due course’.”

There are currently two public inquiries looking into specific cases, as well as a series of criminal investigations by the MoD’s Iraq Historic Cases Team.

The Iraq Inquiry has barely touched the issue, in spite of seeing 45 military witnesses.

Guantanamo settlement paves way for cover-up

by Chris Ames

The BBC report on the settlement agreed between the government and 16 men who allege that the British state was complicit in them being tortured takes an interesting line on the government’s motives.

The settlement has implications for the promised inquiry into torture and rendition, which will include allegations – partially confirmed but ignored by the Chilcot Inquiry – that British forces in Iraq rendered detainees to the US, knowing that they would be tortured. The main BBC report says:

“The police are still investigating allegations made by some of the detainees – but Mr Clarke said that once those inquiries were complete, a judge-led inquiry could begin.”

In a side panel, Dominic Casciani BBC News home affairs correspondent, says:

Settling the case therefore achieves the government’s greater aim.

It paves the way for a judge-led inquiry into complicity and rendition. That inquiry will soon go about its business but the main accusers won’t be appearing in public demanding the exposure of a secret paper trail from Afghanistan to government offices in London.

Paying out millions looks bad, but ministers know that exposing state secrets is worse still.