If Trump brings back torture, can the UK be trusted not to collude in it?

Keeping it clean. EPA/Dennis Brack

Throughout his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump insisted he would reintroduce torture against terror suspects. In an interview after taking office, he said he “absolutely thinks waterboarding works”, and that “we have to fight fire with fire”.

This puts him at odds with both domestic and international law, and with key members of the US Congress. It also ignores the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), whose exhaustive inquiry into the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) programme concluded that torture (including waterboarding and so-called enhanced interrogation techniques) was “not an effective means of obtaining accurate information” and that it did little to make detainees co-operate.

The committee also found that using these methods “damaged the US’s standing in the world”. And yet, Trump persists in his views – threatening to make life rather uncomfortable for some of the US’s key allies.

Just before her visit to meet Trump for the first time, the British prime minister, Theresa May, was asked if she would make clear to Trump that she will not permit Britain to be dragged into facilitating torture. She answered: “We do not sanction torture, we do not get involved in that, and that will continue to be our position.”

But despite May’s assurances, the UK’s position in recent years has been far more unclear – and indeed, there is substantial evidence that Britain has over the years been complicit in CIA prisoner abuses.

Part of the problem

Investigations by human rights groups have found that MI6 probably co-operated in the “rendition” (extrajudicial arrest and transportation) of Libyan citizens. MI5 and MI6 questioned prisoners despite clear evidence they had been abused, as the UK High Court found in the Binyam Mohamed case. UK agencies passed information to the CIA which resulted in rendition and torture, as established in the case of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el Banna, and received information from the CIA which was obtained through the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; CIA interrogators subsequently acknowledged that the information was false. At least 20 rendition operations are also thought to have been facilitated by refuelling stopovers in both mainland Britain and the British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia.

Despite the fact that so much evidence is now in the public domain, public investigations into the full extent of British involvement have struggled to get off the ground. The judge-led Detainee Inquiry announced in July 2010, was delayed while the panel awaited the outcomes of police investigations into specific cases, and was then also hamstrung when leading human rights organisations withdrew their co-operation because the government would not disclose evidence in relation to specific victims they represent.

The inquiry was ultimately wound up in 2012, and it was announced that the panel would produce a report on its findings so far to be taken forward by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). An ISC Inquiry was duly commissioned in December 2013, but was delayed by staff shortages and the start of a new parliament.

More than three years later, its work is still ongoing. This is not good for the UK. Whereas the US Senate’s inquiry gave the US a chance to evaluate the consequences of the CIA’s RDI programme, strengthening many policymakers’ resolve to maintain and reinforce prohibitions on torture, these endless delays mean there has been no such reckoning at the British end.

There has also as yet been no thorough investigation into whether UK intelligence and security agencies are adequately equipped to prevent torture where they have a chance to stand in its way.

Extrajudicial rendition flights have long been used to move detainees around the world for interrogation. Fasttailwind via Shutterstock

In 2002, after an MI6 field operative raised concerns about the abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan, all MI5 and MI6 officers were issued with guidance on how to handle detainees. First, UK authorities must never take legal custody of prisoners; second, UK personnel should not “engage in any activity that involves inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners”. But this left plenty of scope for UK personnel to collude in coercive interrogations just so long as they weren’t physically present.

The CIA’s RDI programme was finally shut down in 2009, and the following year, new Consolidated Guidance was issued to UK military and intelligence personnel, covering detention of prisoners and information sharing.

These guidelines are more comprehensive, but they still leave considerable scope for co-operation with third party states who torture and abuse prisoners.

Wiggle room

The tone of the Consolidated Guidance is set by its opening statement: “Personnel whose actions are consistent with this guidance have good reason to be confident that they will not risk personal liability in the future.” There is no reference to the immorality of torture, nothing about its effects on victims and perpetrators, and nothing about its weaknesses as a tool for obtaining of credible intelligence.

The guidance states that before interviewing prisoners held by other states, UK personnel must consider whether they may have been subjected to “unacceptable standards of detention or treatment”. They should consider attaching conditions to information they pass on, and they are instructed to consider “obtaining assurances” regarding prisoners’ treatment. Where they consider assurances to be reliable, they may proceed with interviews – but no detail is given on how they distinguish which assurances are “reliable” and which are “unreliable”.

The guidelines say that where personnel consider there to be a “lower than serious risk” of cruel treatment, they may proceed with interviews, yet no specific explanation is given on how such risk assessments are to be made. The guidance repeatedly encourages staff to report concerns to superiors, who are required in turn to escalate serious cases to ministers.

So far, we have no way of knowing whether any concerns about treatment of prisoners by the UK’s allies have been raised at any level since these guidelines were introduced. This would seem to be an extremely important line of enquiry for the ISC investigation.

In the absence of a comprehensive and detailed account of British involvement in CIA counter-terrorism activities, whether under the RDI programme or since, there is no hard evidence to suggest that the culture of UK-US co-operation in this area has changed. As such, any statement that the UK does not sanction or collude in torture is at best naive, and at worst disingenuous and irresponsible.

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