UN report accuses Britain of condoning torture

A new report by UN Special Rapporteur Martin Scheinin finds evidence of UK complicity in a wide range of grave human rights violations, including torture – the prohibition of which constitutes an “absolute and peremptory norm of international law.” The report is only the latest in a growing series of indictments against the criminal conduct of the British state.

Britain has been condemned in a highly critical United Nations report for breaching basic human rights and “trying to conceal illegal acts” in the fight against terrorism.

The report is sharply critical of British co-operation in the transfer of detainees to places where they are likely to be tortured as part of the US rendition programme.

The report accuses British intelligence officers of interviewing detainees held incommunicado in Pakistan in “so-called safe houses where they were being tortured”.

It adds that Britain, with a number of countries, has sent interrogators to Guantánamo Bay in a further example of what it says “can be reasonably understood as implicitly condoning” torture and ill-treatment, adding that the US was able to create its system for moving terror suspects around foreign jails only with the support of its allies.

Some individuals faced “prolonged and secret detention” and practices that breached bans on torture and other forms of ill-treatment, the report says.

The document, drawn up for the UN general assembly by Martin Scheinen, the organisation’s special rapporteur on the “promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism”, is likely to add to pressure on the government, which is already facing demands from human rights groups and frontbench opposition MPs for an inquiry into the role of UK security and intelligence officials in the CIA’s secret transfer of detainees to “dark prisons”.

The UN report adds to growing evidence of collusion in the ill-treatment of prisoners, and comes just days after fresh disclosures about MI5 co-operation in the secret interrogation and torture of Binyam Mohamed, the UK resident recently released from Guantánamo Bay.

While the practice of extraordinary rendition was devised and put in place by the US, it was only possible through collaboration from other countries, the report says.

It identifies the UK, along with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Georgia, Indonesia, Kenya, Macedonia and Pakistan, as states that have provided “intelligence or have conducted the initial seizure of an individual before he was transferred to (mostly unacknowledged) detention centres in Afghanistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Thailand, Uzbekistan … or to one of the CIA covert detention centres, often referred to as ‘black sites'”.

It adds: “Grave human rights violations by States such as torture, enforced disappearances or arbitrary detention should therefore place serious constraints on policies of cooperation by States, including by their intelligence agencies, with States that are known to violate human rights. The prohibition against torture is an absolute and peremptory norm of international law”.

It continues: “The active or passive participation by States in the interrogation of persons held by another State constitutes an internationally wrongful act if the State knew or ought to have known that the person was facing a real risk of torture or other prohibited treatment, including arbitrary detention.”

In one of its most damning passages the UN report recognises that governments may limit the disclosure to the general public of specific information that is important for the protection of national security, for instance about the sources, identities and methods of intelligence agents. However, it highlights concerns about “the increasing use of State secrecy provisions”.

It accuses the UK, along with the US, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, of concealing “illegal acts from oversight bodies or judicial authorities”. The use of such acts, it says, is “to protect [countries] from criticism, embarrassment and – most importantly – liability”.

Information that is inaccurate and wrongly recorded can lead to innocent people being identified as terrorist threats, the report warns, referring to Bisher al-Rawi, a British resident seized in Gambia after MI5 tipped off the CIA about his movements.

In a further unmistakable reference to Britain, it points to governments using “undisclosed evidence gathered by intelligence agents in administrative proceedings over attempts to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt in a criminal trial”.

It adds: “Seen in the light of the inherent limitations of intelligence information, preventive measures that deprive a person of his or her liberty must not be based solely on intelligence.”

Clive Stafford Smith, director of Reprieve, the human rights group that represents Mohamed and other priosners, said last night: “The government must take this international criticism to heart and, instead of merely repeating platitudes about being opposed to torture, must show that when a British agent discovers some victim in some foreign torture chamber, Britain will take action to stop the abuse.”

Edward Davey, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: “It is shameful that we now seem to be reliant on outside organisations to uphold the rule of law in our own country. The attorney general’s continuing delay in a decision on a police investigation into Binyam Mohamed’s allegations of torture is totally unacceptable.”

He added: “It is a dark day for the reputation of Britain’s secret services when a UN special rapporteur lumps them alongside those of Pakistan and Indonesia for co-operating with illegal activities linked to abduction and torture.”

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