How not to get to the truth about UK complicity in Gaddafi-Era abuse

Why human rights organisations have withdrawn their co-operation from the inquiry into torture alleg

Confronted with fresh evidence unearthed by Human Rights Watch that the UK security services were complicit in the rendition and possible torture of opponents of the Gaddafi regime, David Cameron last week gave a confident performance in the House of Commons. He told MPs that the "significant accusations" would be looked at "very carefully" by the existing Detainee Inquiry.

Judging from the coverage across most of the British media, all's well that ends well. The Detainee Inquiry will examine the claims, the truth will out and the right lessons will be learned.

In fact the Detainee Inquiry has been so hamstrung by the government that a full reckoning is practically impossible. As a result, leading nongovernmental organisations that campaigned for its creation, including Human Rights Watch, and lawyers acting for the detainees, have withdrawn their co-operation.

The inquiry suffers from two key defects. First, members of the security services (with the exception of the MI5 and MI6 chiefs) will give evidence behind closed doors. That means there will be no meaningful opportunity for those who were subject to torture, rendition or illegal detention and the groups that documented those abuses to challenge the official version of events. The inquiry will be denied the full picture and will be less likely to identify all relevant evidence. Creating a mechanism that allows interested parties to test secret evidence is vital to the success of the inquiry.

Second, the Inquiry isn't authorised to decide what documents or evidence to publish. That power rests solely with the government. While the inquiry can argue for publication, the government has wide grounds for refusal, including preserving diplomatic relations. The Cabinet Secretary has the final say.

If the tenacious efforts by the previous government to block publication of a paragraph implicating the UK in the abuse of the former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed are any guide, the government will never approve for publication embarrassing documents like the ones my organisation discovered last weekend.

The government insists that the inquiry will have access to all the documents and that their access is what matters. But it is far from clear how the inquiry will be able to determine whether there has been full disclosure. The individuals, journalists and groups best placed to help identify missing documents will have no idea what the gaps are.

Public knowledge of what transpired is also crucial to prevent these abuses from happening again. Human rights groups like ours reported for years about the involvement of the UK and other European governments in US rendition and other abuses in the name of counterterrorism. Our efforts, and investigations by the Council of Europe and European Parliament, were met with persistent and barefaced denial by the European governments involved.

Only when classified documents were published demonstrating that knowledge and involvement did the wall of denial begin to break down.

Some documents should not be made public for genuine national security reasons. But the presumption should be in favour of publication, and the final decision should rest with an independent judge -- not the government.

The Coalition Government was not in power when the alleged abuses took place, but its initial decision to announce an independent inquiry was courageous. It has since lost its nerve.

The Prime Minister told the Commons in July last year that the Inquiry was necessary to "restore Britain's moral leadership in the world," adding that, "The longer these questions remain unanswered, the bigger the stain on our reputation as a country that believes in freedom, fairness and human rights grows."

The documents from Libya should be a wake-up call for the government. If it is serious about restoring moral leadership and preventing the recurrence of abuses that continue to stain Britain's reputation, it should start by reforming the Detainee Inquiry.

Benjamin Ward is deputy Europe division director at Human Rights Watch.

 

Benjamin Ward is deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division

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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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