Demand a torture inquiry

The government must establish an independent judge-led inquiry into UK involvement in torture and rendition overseas
“No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification.”
UN Convention against Torture

It is illegal for any State to carry out or take part in torture, no matter the circumstances – but there is strong evidence of UK involvement in US torture and rendition post-9/11. 

In 2018, The Government promised to decide whether to set up an independent, judge-led inquiry into the Uk's role in torture overseas. We are still waiting.

 

The prohibition on torture and ill-treatment in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights is one of the few absolute rights. This means a State can never torture someone or be complicit in torture or ill-treatment carried out by others, regardless of the circumstances.

There is strong evidence that the UK was involved in torture and extraordinary rendition – sending people to another country where they might be tortured – after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

In June 2018, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) published a damning report into UK involvement in detainee mistreatment and rendition between 2001 and 2010. But the Government blocked access to key witnesses, stopping a full investigation.

Following the report, the Government promised to make a decision within 60 days on whether it would finally establish a torture inquiry. We are still waiting. 

Under Article 3 ECHR, States must carry out an ‘effective’ investigation into complaints of violations of the prohibition – but the Government has so far ignored this obligation. 

We urgently need a full, independent, judge-led inquiry to unearth the full story, bring the perpetrators to justice and make sure it never happens again

What should a torture inquiry look like?

Any proposed inquiry must meet certain baseline standards of independence and effectiveness: 

  • It must be headed by a judge and be established under the Inquiries Act 2006. 
  • It must be fully independent and involve open proceedings with published outcomes. 
  • It must examine all relevant evidence and cases, including those which are yet to be properly examined.
  • It must ensure meaningful involvement of torture survivors. 

There can be no compromise when it comes to torture. Only by dragging this shameful episode out of the shadows and into the light will the UK be able to move forward – and ensure crucial lessons are learned. 

UK Involvement in torture and rendition

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US started a campaign of kidnap, torture and detention without charge or trial. The horror of the CIA torture programme was laid out in a 2015 report by the US Senate Intelligence Committee. 

From 2002, UK intelligence and security agencies participated in an estimated 2,000-3,000 detainee interviews conducted by US authorities in locations including Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. 

It’s long been known that the UK got its hands dirty in the process. There is strong evidence that UK agents played an active role in abuses committed by the US and other partners around the world.  But – 17 years on – the full extent of their involvement remains unknown. 

Hamstrung investigations

Liberty has been calling for a torture inquiry since 2003. As time passed, public attention has moved away from this issue. But this doesn’t mean it has gone away. Transparency and accountability are crucial both to achieving justice for the victims of this horrifying abuse but also to ensure that the UK faces up to what it did and learns vital lessons. Without such a reckoning, it is impossible for the UK to say it won’t repeat the failings of its recent past. 

Successive governments have repeatedly committed to holding a robust, independent inquiry – but all attempts to date have been seriously flawed.
 
In June 2018, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) published two comprehensive reports: one on detainee mistreatment and intelligence sharing between 2001 and 2010 and the other on current issues. 

What they revealed was shocking:

  • At least 166 instances in which UK personnel either directly witnessed or had credible information suggesting torture and abuse carried out by US personnel. 
  • 232 cases where UK personnel continued to ask questions of or provide intelligence regarding a US-held detainee after they knew or suspected that person had been mistreated. 
  • 192 cases where UK agents accepted intelligence information obtained by the US from detainees who they knew or should have suspected had been tortured or abused.
  • Many dozens of instances in which the UK provided intelligence or financial support to US efforts to conduct extraordinary renditions – where a person was seized by US officials and transported to a place where there was a real risk of torture and degrading treatment. 
  • The ISC suggested that UK intelligence agencies may have been “deliberately turning a blind eye so as not to damage the relationship [with the US] and risk the flow of intelligence.” 

But even the ISC process was hamstrung. The Government and intelligence agencies denied the Committee access to a raft of critical evidence, including withholding key witnesses. The ISC was only allowed to examine four intelligence officials, and they were instructed not to provide evidence on specific cases. 

The report itself notes that the “terms and conditions imposed” meant they were “unable to conduct an authoritative Inquiry” and the report “must not be taken to be a definitive account.” The ISC described the Government’s attempts to block the investigation as “regrettable”. 

 An independent, judge-led inquiry is the only way to uncover the full truth, ensure lessons are truly learned, and make sure nothing like this ever happens again.