There's a single word in a recent Foreign Commonwealth Office report that underlines a central myth used to justify torture. Responding to recent revelations that the British security services had colluded with shocking abuses, the Annual Report on Human Rights 2009 says: "We must work with intelligence and security agencies overseas. Some of them share our standards and laws while others do not. "But we cannot afford the luxury of only dealing with those that do. The intelligence we get from others saves British lives." I'm struck by the word "luxury." It implies that human rights are like shopping at Waitrose - all very nice in good times but in tough times, Tescos will do. I thought the point about "rights" was that they are inviolable - while evidence has been seeping out about torture for some years, the case of Binyam Mohamed has clarified exactly how the US government treated its detainees. Mohamed was arrested in Pakistan where he was tortured by the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and then taken by US agents to Morocco where he was tortured for 18 months by the Moroccan authorities and simultaneously interrogated by the CIA. Then it was on to US detention centres in Bagram and Kabul where he was tortured by various means - sleep deprivation, continuous and literally maddeningly loud music, hooding - and finally to Guantanamo.
His account shows that the US practised torture directly and sub-contracted some of it out to other governments. Mohamed's account, accepted as true by British and US judges, has confirmed accounts from other detainees. The Bush government never denied that it practised "torture-lite" but was much more uncomfortable with the actual details being made public. The British security services knew that Mohamed was being tortured. Their agents questioned him in Karachi after having been formally told about his treatment by the CIA. When Mohamed was being tortured and interrogated in Morocco some of the questions referred to information from the British security services and his answers were passed back to Britain. British security services didn't themselves cut Mohamed's genitals with a scalpel but they knew of the torture and threatened him if he didn't "co-operate." They were happy to be involved in the interrogation process. British citizens Salahuddin Amin and Zeeshan Siddiqui each describe being tortured by Pakistan's ISI and then questioned by MI5. Human Rights Watch quotes ISI agents as saying that in both cases MI5 knew that the men were being "processed in the traditional way" and were "grateful.".
The FCO justification is therefore a surprisingly honest statement of actual practice. British security services are prepared to turn a blind eye to torture. The problem for the government is that the law is unequivocal - torture is absolutely prohibited both under long-standing common law and the European Convention on Human Rights. The government is caught in a cleft stick, which is no doubt why it is refusing to publish its guidelines on torture. For most of us, the moral case against torture is sufficient. The deliberate infliction of pain on an individual is absolutely and indisputably wrong. When private individuals torture another human being, it's illegal and horrifying. But for proponents of torture, the legal and moral arguments are mere luxuries and they constantly fall back on the "ticking time bomb" argument in which human rights "liberals" are condemned for not condoning the ill-treatment of one person when it will - or might - save the lives of thousands. They see themselves as the pragmatic ones and the life-savers. The ticking time bomb scenario is staple fare all the time in film and TV programmes such as 24 and Spooks and you're likely to come across at least one during any night's viewing. We are all very familiar with the scenario and it's that familiarity through fiction that allows the torture proponents to get away with telling us that the scenario is real.
But in the real world, no-one can point to an actual ticking time bomb scenario because presumptions underlying it are false. The security services don't usually know that a terrorist attack is about to happen or who might know about it. They didn't know about September 11, despite the US having Zacarias Moussaoui in detention for immigration offences at the time. Moussaoui was subsequently convicted of being part of that conspiracy. But since the CIA didn't know September 11 2001 was about to happen it had no reason to interrogate someone detained for other reasons. International terrorism like most serious criminal activities depends on hardly any of the players knowing the full story, especially not the actual perpetrators. Who knows what most of the September 11 2001 hijackers knew in advance? Or what the London bombers knew before the morning of July 7? What we do know is that torture produces unreliable evidence. This seems obvious - people being tortured tell their torturers what they want to hear. So the detainee eagerly assents when asked if there's a bomb in London and the spooks go haring off on a wild-goose chase. In fact the bomb was always in Paris.
Evidence obtained under torture is so inherently unreliable that its substantive value is always nothing. How could anyone identify scraps of truth - if there are any - among the fiction invented to please the torturer? Torture proponents will argue that each of those presumptions simply requires better security work. But the point is that each presumption is so unrealistic that the overall scenario is utterly far-fetched. Which is why it has never happened. Were the scenario to be realistic, then surely it would have happened at least once. But I have never heard a torture proponent able to point to one instance. I appreciate that security services can't talk about terrorist attacks that they have prevented, but surely some example would have leaked out given the current debate? There is simply no example of torture preventing a ticking time bomb. And while nobody can point to one instance of lives being saved as a result of torture, what is clear is that the US and British government's war on terror has made us less safe.
Guantanamo, torture, uncritical support for Israel and the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq are all reasons why some people come to believe that terrorist attacks can be justified. Renouncing torture is a pragmatic position as well as a legal and moral one; it makes us safer. Withdrawing from Afghanistan, providing reparations for Iraq and supporting the rights of the Palestinians would also help. Practising torture - and colluding with it - doesn't just fail to detect terrorism. It also helps to make terrorism more likely. It's of some comfort that MPs and peers obviously feel just as worried about the issue, since they consistently revisit the issue in committee, even though they appear to lack the courage to do anything more direct within the various Houses of Parliament. And it's quite proper that they should feel worried, since the provisions of the anti-terror legislation consitute the biggest erosion of civil liberties in living memory, with the possible exception of the Tory - and now new Labour as well - anti-union laws. It's an unfortunate fact of political life in bourgeois democratic Britain that, when it comes to restricting human and civil rights, the temporary and short term seem to metamorphose effortlessly into the long term and the long term into the permanent.
Parliament's joint committee on human rights clearly recognises this and has called for a review of all such laws passed since September 11 2001. The committee rightly questions whether ministers can legitimately still argue that a "public emergency threatening the life of the nation" remains. And it further says that the government's "narrow" definition of complicity in torture is "worrying." Too right it is. And so is detention without charge, continual abortive attempts to extent the period of such detention, trials without publicly displayed evidence, trials without juries, derogation from aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights and all the rest of the panoply of repression which has become the norm of government over the last decade. The committee says that it is pleased to see that ministers claim that a commitment to human rights "underpinned" counter-terrorism work, but it said "all too often" it was "squeezed out by the imperatives of national security and public safety." Perhaps someone ought to warn these MPs that "all too often" is hardly a sufficient evaluation. Maybe it ought to be a building worker, because at least he or she would be able to remind them that, if just one part of underpinning is "squeezed out," the wall is likely to collapse and, if one wall falls down, the whole house is likely to collapse with it. The civil and human rights that used to be taken for granted in Britain are under extreme threat. Those rights, fought for by working people over hundreds of years, are not negotiable.
It was always obvious that the phoney "war on terror" would raise these dangers. Indeed, there are conspiracy theorists around who say that it is so convenient for a repressive government to have such an excuse that it may have been among the reasons for promoting the phoney war in the first place. While not going that far, simply because we're not in the habit of making assertions unsupported by concrete evidence, it needs to be remembered that many of the vicious repressions of nazi Germany were justified on the basis of allegations that an invisible enemy was eating away at society. Socialists have always been aware of this danger, which is one reason that the defence of civil rights is so high on any progressive agenda. And it is time that we reminded the MPs and peers in the two Houses of Parliament that it is not sufficient to merely sit on the sidelines and comment wryly on the erosion of liberty in the country. Nor is it enough to warn the government that it might have gone a teeny weeny bit too far. If the case is made, and the human rights committee has made it adequately, then it's the task of MPs to get off their behinds and do something concrete about it. Otherwise the committee system ceases to be of any democratic value and merely acts as an escape valve to let MPs air legitimate grievances and feel that they have done their duty, without actually changing anything.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.