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Why human rights organisations have withdrawn their co-operation from the inquiry into torture alleg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that campaigned for its creation, including Human Rights Watch, and lawyers acting for the detainees, have withdrawn their co-operation.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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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.