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19 July 2019updated 04 Sep 2021 3:27pm

The next prime minister must oppose UK involvement in torture

The government’s new torture policy maintains the same loopholes which left the UK complicit in hundreds of appalling human rights abuses. 

Would a Government Minister ever authorise action they knew was likely to result in someone being tortured? This is not something we need to worry about, according to Theresa May’s deputy David Lidington, who yesterday presented the House of Commons with the Government’s new torture policy – branded “The Principles”, with no apparent sense of irony.

He gave this reassurance while defending the most striking element of the new policy: its failure to expressly prohibit Ministers from approving UK action carrying a serious risk of torture.

Surely Ministers didn’t need the rules to be spelled out, he reasoned. After all, he could not imagine “any circumstance in which a Minister of the United Kingdom would authorise action that was contrary to the law”.

There is one kernel of truth in Lidington’s statement: under British, European, and international law, it is unquestionably illegal to commit or enable torture. Torture has not been officially sanctioned since the Long Parliament’s abolition of the Star Chamber in 1640. And the Government’s public position is to “condemn torture in all circumstances” and “call on governments around the world to eradicate this abhorrent practice”.

But both Lidington’s assurance and the UK’s new torture policy rest on a faulty assumption: that if torture is illegal, and Ministers aren’t allowed to break the law, then UK action leading to torture will never get Government sign-off. This is dangerously complacent and ignores everything we have learned about UK involvement in war-on-terror era torture. It depends on Ministers knowing what the law is, and they demonstrably do not.

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Last year, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) asked several cabinet ministers whether they believed they were allowed to authorise action carrying a serious risk of torture. Each Minister gave a different answer, and the majority seemed to think they could indeed give the okay. Troublingly, Theresa May described the question as “a difficult balance” while Philip Hammond imagined “a ticking time bomb scenario where that might happen”.

Whatever Ministers’ (mis)understanding of the law, recent history is littered with instances where they have rubber stamped action leading to appalling abuses. One case among many is that of the Libyan dissident Abdelhakim Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar. In 2004 the couple were kidnapped and rendered to Colonel Ghaddafi’s torture chambers after a tip off from the British Government. Ms Boudchar was pregnant at the time. Last year, the couple received a public apology from the Prime Minister for the UK’s role in their mistreatment.

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The ISC reported last year that the UK maintained a “corporate policy” of paying for renditions. The Committee went on to identify hundreds of cases where the UK had been complicit in mistreatment.

Yesterday, Lidington assured the House of Commons that “lessons have been learned from these challenging events”. But the Government’s new torture policy, which maintains the same loopholes that left the UK complicit in hundreds of appalling human rights abuses, suggests the opposite is true.

This is not an oversight. In the public consultation by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner which informed the drafting of the policy, the vast majority of public submissions recommended an explicit ban on Ministers signing off on action carrying a serious risk of torture. The ISC warned that the previous policy was “insufficiently clear as to the role of Ministers, and what (in broad terms) can and cannot be authorised”.

But after consultation with the Government, the Commissioner confirmed he had “decided not to follow that course” on the basis that “it is not the proper function of this document to seek to limit the power of Ministers to act in such cases”. The implication could not be clearer: a proactive decision has been taken to leave Ministers leeway. And what reason could there be to preserve this wiggle room other than the prospect that Ministers might use it?

It is not surprising the Government has shrunk from tightening the rules in this area. Theresa May fiercely resisted a full review. She was only forced into a U-turn after a leaked document exposed a directive from Downing Street to use a “light touch” on the torture policy. A Government that endorsed a “light touch” on torture was always unlikely to take a firm stand to stop Britain getting mixed up in abuses. But with the Prime Minister’s departure next week, this will soon be someone else’s responsibility.

Let us hope that the next occupant of 10 Downing Street will mount a stronger opposition to UK involvement in torture. With a President in the White House who has proclaimed that torture works, this has never been more important.

Dan Dolan is the deputy director of Reprieve