A new report from Amnesty International explains why diplomatic assurances against torture are worthless.
When, in December 2001, parliament approved the indefinite detention of ‘suspected international terrorists’ in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, it was persuaded by the then home secretary’s argument that the men could not be deported since the regimes from which the men came – Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Egypt – would subject them to torture. But within months of the December 2004 condemnation (read an IRR News story: ‘Law Lords rule ‘terror detentions’ discriminatory and disproportionate’) of the internment provisions by the House of Lords as discriminatory and disproportionate, the government was arranging the deportation of the men. How was this possible? The regimes from which the men had fled had not changed, and their use of torture against dissidents and suspected terrorists was just as entrenched. What had changed was the British government’s determination to get rid of the men – if they could not be interned, they would be deported, come what may. The decision led to a frantic round of diplomacy with torturing states, resulting in a series of unsavoury deals which were put up to counter the men’s appeals against deportation. Foreign office witnesses testified to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC, which hears national security deportation appeals), straight-faced, that Jordan, Algeria, Libya would comply with the no-torture deals despite regularly breaching their international obligations against torture, because it was in their interests to do so. The officials accepted that the men would certainly be tortured without the assurances, and that arrangements for monitoring were inadequate, but insisted that nevertheless, they would comply, having given gentlemen’s agreements. On this flimsy foundation, SIAC ruled that the men could be returned to Algeria and Jordan (though not Libya), and the higher courts upheld their ruling – but the European Court of Human Rights stepped in to order a stay on the men’s removal pending its examination of their claims.
The new report, Dangerous deals: Europe’s reliance on ‘diplomatic assurances’ against torture, from Amnesty International confirms the cynicism and dishonesty behind the ‘no-torture’ deals which guarantee nothing of the sort. It is the latest of a number of critical reports from international human rights bodies on diplomatic assurances, and describes recent developments at the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Committee Against Torture, as well as legal and political developments in European countries. The UK is revealed in the report as the most aggressive promoter of diplomatic assurances in the EU, and together with Italy, Russia, Sweden, Azerbaijan and the USA, has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights or the UN Torture Committee for the use of these assurances to return people to torturing states. There are further cases involving proposed expulsions from the UK, Germany and Austria in the pipeline at the European Court of Human Rights.
Austria has recently ruled out their use, but Denmark and Sweden have refused to do so; the French position remains unclear, while in addition to the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain have all relied on them to deport suspected terrorists. The influence of the US government is revealed, in putting pressure on the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina to strip citizenship from Arabs whom it considers terrorists and to expel them to their home countries of Syria and Tunisia.
The report explains AI’s two-fold opposition to diplomatic assurances against torture – the argument, based on principle, that bilateral agreements against the torture of specific individuals (and only those individuals) undermine respect for the international obligations contained in the United Nations and European Conventions Against Torture; and the pragmatic argument that no-torture agreements are unreliable and do not work, since it is not in the sending state or the receiving state’s interest to investigate or disclose breaches, and frequently those at the receiving end are forced to deny or stay silent about their ill-treatment for fear of reprisals. The section on ‘post-return monitoring’ makes brutally clear the practical difficulties that exist in enforcing assurances.
In the wake of the revelations about British complicity with torture in Pakistan, Tunisia and elsewhere, where prisoners were ‘softened up’ through torture by local intelligence services for questioning by MI5, the AI report serves to remind us how degraded British – and European – practices in the ‘war on terror’ have become, and how shameless the example set by the self-proclaimed champions of fair play and human rights is.
Download a copy of Dangerous deals: Europe’s reliance on ‘diplomatic assurances’ against torture here (pdf file, 624kb)