Torture equals terror

Torture is terror. We must reject it: no ifs, no buts. In the words of General Lord Guthrie, former chief of defence staff and one of the members of Institute for Public Policy Research’s independent commission on national security, “Torture does violence to the defenceless, using their bodies against their souls. It is illegal, unethical, counter-productive and dumb”. We must recognise that its use in the ill-conceived “war on terror” is strategic folly. History reminds us that compromising our values in the hope of quick wins against terrorists is self-defeating. In counter-terrorism, short-cuts lead to long delays.

Our public policy must reflect this stance. We must investigate allegations of torture, as is now happening in the case of Binyam Mohamed. Where they are substantiated, we must prosecute. Information that may have been extracted by torture must not be admitted in legal proceedings. But it must be acted upon by security services when it suggests an immediate threat to life. We must not deport suspect foreign nationals to countries where there is reason to believe they may be tortured. And we must speak out whenever and wherever torture rears its ugly head. In the words of Martin Luther King, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.

The IPPR commission’s report, Shared Responsibilities, published last week, found three principles lie at the heart of its approach to exerting influence over the modern security environment: action must be distributed; co-ordinated; and legitimate. Distributed in the sense that many different actors need to be brought to bear on a problem, at various levels; co-ordinated in that they need to be made to pull in the same direction; and legitimate in that any action needs to be, and be seen to be, both lawful and right. Legitimacy in national security policy, the commission argues, is a strategic necessity, not a liberal nicety.

It is in this context that the IPPR’s commissioners welcome the decisions in the US to close Guantánamo Bay, end the CIA practices of forced disappearances and secret detentions, and forbid torture. By doing so, president Obama is re-establishing American legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the world. But the commission goes on to state that “in the UK, we too must consider what more we can do to be unambiguously on the right side of these issues”.

It recommends that the British government should:

• ensure its own agents are properly trained as interrogators, employ only legal methods, and challenge robustly alleged or suspected torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners, wherever they encounter it.

• sign and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

• use its relationship with the United States to encourage the US to ratify relevant international treaties, conventions and covenants including on forced disappearances; protocol 1 to the Geneva Conventions; and the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court.

• avoid attempting to deport suspect foreign nationals on the basis of memoranda of understanding (MOU) or diplomatic assurances to countries that practise torture, unless such arrangements can include robust independent additional monitoring to ensure the safety of the individuals involved.

If government adopts these recommendations, it will advance the causes of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. If it does not, the world will be neither fairer, nor more secure.