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?”


13 comments to this article

  1. Anthony Miller

    on January 21, 2013 at 10:21 pm -

    Anyway …changing the topic completely
    I’ve just finished reading Martin Howard’s DIS evidence / transcripts
    and fitting them together with the fallout of the Petraeus affair.

    Also covered is George Monbiot’s Arrest Blair campaign
    And the various goings on at KCL
    Seems Sir Lawrence Freedman who has been a Professor of War Studies at Kings College London since 1982 was actually on the Red Team employed by the DIS to QC their work for the various JIC reports…? So he’s actually QCing his own QCing.
    Except, of course, that he now insists he wasn’t really involved in the Red Team only setting it up.

    And if you dont know what a Red Team is – that is covered too.

  2. chris lamb

    on January 22, 2013 at 8:39 pm -

    This is not the first time that R2I (‘resistance to interrogation’ abuses) have been raised in relation to the UK and US (or that policy makers at the top must have known about their use in Iraq). They also figured strongly in the Abu Ghraib scandal-

  3. John Bone

    on January 24, 2013 at 11:10 am -

    Red Teams. The interesting point for me in the transcript from the session with Martin Howard comes just after the red figures in the Pear Shaped document.

    Roderic Lyne says: –

    ” You talked earlier about planning for the wrong kind of aftermath, and lack of understanding that a vacuum was developing. But again, if one reads back some of the papers like the JIC, or indeed the very first Red Team paper, key judgments, the first sentence warns of an internal security vacuum, warns that support for the Coalition would erode rapidly, fertile ground for Al Qaeda. You find similar sentiments in JIC papers at the time, a warning in the April paper I mentioned earlier about popular frustration and resentment growing, giving the opportunity for significant resistance to develop. How was it that these important messages embedded in the material did not get through to our top decision-makers and get embedded in our planning?”

    Howard never really answers the question. He admits that these concerns did filter up to the top of the JIC pile but then goes into some waffle about these concerns being lost, though he does admit that most of the policy making was being done in Washington.

    In the period immediately after September 2001 when they were trying to persuade the public to
    support the invasion of Afghanistan, and the War in Terror in general, politicians like Blair and Straw were always talking about the risk that terrorism would find room to develop in failed states and ungoverned spaces. But then George Bush decided that the War on Terror involved invading Iraq, which was not a failed state or an ungoverned space. It was also clear, even to a layperson, that starting a war risks creating a vacuum and that in the Middle East this could be exploited by terrorist organisations.

    This is, of course, what did happen and terrorist organisations used Iraq as a training ground and took what they had learnt back to Afghanistan. The politicians said that this could not have been predicted. Roderic Lyne is saying, though, that it was predicted. So what happened to this concern? Martin Howard is saying that it got lost among other issues. This is humbug: how could the risk of something that we had been fighting against in late 2001 simply get ignored a few months later?

    The truth is more likely to be that the UK could not get the US to focus on this risk, so pressing the issue would have meant the UK not getting involved in the invasion while the US went it alone. But Blair had already decided that he had to support Bush 100% if he was to have any influence over him! So a killer assumption was ignored.

    I wonder how Chilcot will deal with this kind of issue. In the transcripts many of the redactions occur when an issue related to UK/US relations comes up. Will Chilcot be able to point out the futility of the UK doing its own risk assessments if the UK has already decided to support the US 100% and will he be able to draw on redacted material to support his point?

  4. Anthony Miller

    on January 24, 2013 at 5:27 pm -

    John, Thanks … I’ve given it a tiny tidy and spell check … I’m afraid my spelling and grammar are awful. It’s amazing what a difference it makes in making the thing easier to follow simply having the questions and answers in different colours I find…

    Yes, it’s interesting just how much fluidity there is beween US policy and UK policy. But then when you think about logically … I suppose there would be. After all what are we in NATO for?

    I dont know that the US were not aware of the risks though …they just didn’t care. Or they didn’t want to see them. That said really, as I understand it, the job of the Red Team is to anticipate what will happen and how they would frustrate the UK if they were the enemy. There is a subtle difference between this and giving the UK actual policy advise on whether or not to undertake the invasion. Or maybe there isn’t. But I feel there’s some distinction somewhere.

    I also found the debacle over the Scarlett nuggets very interesting. Remarkable how quick the US are to force the UK government to own up and repent after the hasty marriage. Of course the truth could not be concealed forever but it seems very much like US domestic politics is pushing events in this section.

    As usual… mind-dumbingly dull stuff but then so is panning for gold.

  5. John Bone

    on January 25, 2013 at 1:54 pm -

    Red Teams.

    Martin Howard said:- “Well, it’s not a new idea. The idea of a Red Team has been around for many years. I think Kennedy used it during the Cuban missile crisis. It wasn’t embedded as a way of doing work in DIS. And part of the problem was that people mean different things by Red Teams.”

    Close (but no cigar). Red Teams were used by JFK while handling the Cuban missile crisis, and part of that involved people putting themselves in the shoes of Krushchev. The origin of the idea, however, was a few months earlier after the debacle of the Bay of Pigs invasion. JFK realised that he had been misled by the CIA, and he realised that he needed advisers who would be devil’s advocates and who would help him to test the assumptions being made by the CIA. The CIA had assured him that the USA would not need to provide open military support to the invading exiles until they had established a provisional government in the mountains of Cuba. The CIA knew that there were lots of risks in this plan but assured him that there weren’t (and counted on bouncing JFK into providing military support as soon as the invading exiles got into difficulty, which might be well before they got to the mountains). In fact when the CIA tried to bounce JFK into providing military support he refused – something to do with international law! He then realised that the CIA had been trying to pull a fast one and he needed advisers to act as devil’s advocates. He needed people who would help him to critically examine the assumptions that were being made in plans presented to him, and avoid the echo chamber effect where nobody is asking “What if this assumption isn’t true?”

    A Red Team just has to ask questions about the assumptions that are being made in a plan, and sometimes these are very obvious questions. Sometimes putting themselves in the shoes of the opposition can help but it isn’t always necessary. If JFK had had a Red Team for the Bay of Pigs they would probably have questioned the assumption that there would be a lot of popular support for an invasion, and the assumption that a provisional government could be got together and flown into the mountains of Cuba (oddly similar to the erroneous assumptions made about Iraq). In practice the locals went off to telephone El Jefe as soon as they saw armed men landing at the Bay of Pigs, and the provisional government was still in separate hotel rooms in Miama sending rude notes to each other. A Red Team might have sniffed this out and led JFK to ask questions that would expose the weakness of the plan and stopped the invasion.

    In the case of Martin Howard and his Red Team, we learn that they identified a fatal flaw in the concept: we just shouldn’t have been running the risk of creating another failed state post-9/11. It isn’t the role of a Red Team to make a decision but it is their role to point out clearly when there is a serious flaw in a project. In this case it seems that DIS and the JIC were very aware of this but then nobody can explain what happened next. It isn’t credible to claim that this concern just got lost among other stuff. As far as I am aware we have no information of how the UK government assessed the military viability of the invasion plans: the Downing Street documents suggest that in July 2002 this is the only step that had to be taken before making a decision to get involved but then there seems to be no more information about this assessment. Was this just another of those hurdles where the answer had to be “yes”?

  6. John Bone

    on January 25, 2013 at 2:05 pm -


    In theory the military of each member is separate. In practice there would seem to be a lot of integration. An interesting point in the Dutch report about the invasion of Iraq is that, even when no decision had been taken either way, Dutch military were on board US warships on their way to the war zone. When the decision was taken to not be directly involved in the invasion, Dutch military personnel had to be winched off by helicopter.

  7. Bobm

    on January 25, 2013 at 8:05 pm -

    I have a clear recollection of seeing footage of Blair himself saying, [to a committee?] that action [in Afghanistan[?]] could generate an adverse reaction and inspire local terrorism..but I cannot locate it..anyone else recall this?

  8. John Bone

    on January 30, 2013 at 3:46 pm -

    “The great debate: was it worth it?”

    I am unsure why we need a debate: the WMD that we went to war to get rid of were not there.

    Presumably the organisers want to have a debate so that people like Rentoul and Aaronovitch can make the curiously contradictory arguments that
    – the UK went to war for other reasons that the public were not told about, so it was worth it
    – the politicians did not lie to the British public about why we were going to war.

  9. chris lamb

    on February 2, 2013 at 7:49 am -–Damascenes-silk-suits-gold-bling-fled.html#axzz2JiyfGSMH I am afraid I am going to veer off in another direction; following news that Syria has warned of a retailatory attack on Israel in the aftermath of Israel’s air strike on what Syria has termed a scientific research facility in the north west of the country and with Iran, Syria’s ally, waiting in the wings and Russia (another ally) pointing out (correctly) that Israel’s attack was in defiance of the UN Charter, it is useful to revisit an excellent Mail on Sunday article by the Oxford University historian, Mark Almond, about the rise of an aggressive alliance system in the context of international law and the institutions designed to uphold it along with international peace and security being sidelined and undermined. The Iraq invasion was a watershed in causing irreparable damage to international law and its institutions; namely, the United Nations and its Charter. In his article, Almond warns that we are gong back to the national hubris and aggression which defined the alliance system responsible for the First World war. He wonders if Syria could be the flashpoint of no return which Sarajevo was in 1914.