Thursday, February 24, 2011

UK torture whitewash fails

When they were elected, the UK government promised a formal judicial inquiry into the UK intelligence services' collusion in torture. When the inquiry was formally launched six months ago, it looked like a whitewash - headed by the spies' tame watchdog and hearing evidence in secret, a perfect combination to ensure that any unpleasant allegations are quietly swept under the rug. And now the UK's human rights NGOs are threatening to boycott it, alleging that it fails to meet basic standards of fairness and transparency demanded by international law:

a series of meetings between Gibson, a retired judge, and representatives of nine rights groups including Liberty, Amnesty International and Reprieve has resulted in the NGOs expressing concern that the credibility of the inquiry risks being undermined by the high level of secrecy it appears will surround the hearings – at the insistence of the very agencies whose activities are being scrutinised.

Specifically, the NGOs say they are concerned that Gibson's inquiry will fail to meet the UK's obligations under the European convention on human rights, which they say establishes standards that must be met by official investigations into torture.

They say these standards include the need for a mechanism independent of government to decide what evidence should be made public, and powers to compel evidence. In a joint letter to Gibson the nine groups have warned that a higher level of public scrutiny is needed "to prevent any appearance of [the government's] ongoing collusion in or tolerance of unlawful acts".

The problem is that transparency and public scrutiny would result in exactly what the government doesn't want: exposure. But not having it turns the inquiry into a farce which will lack any credibility with the public - or with international courts who may be called upon to investigate these crimes. Because that's what we're talking about here: criminal acts, which need to be punished by a court of law, not covered up by the usual whitewash.