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Time for the UK to Show It Takes Torture Seriously

06/05/2013 15:49 BST | Updated 06/07/2013 10:12 BST

The United Nations Committee Against Torture will look at the United Kingdom's record on May 7 for the first time since 2004. What a difference eight years make!

Looking back at its last review, the concerns seem almost quaint. The experts who make up the committee reminded the British government that the prohibition on torture applied to its forces in Iraq and overseas interrogations. But it knew, and nongovernmental organizations concerned with the subject knew, little or nothing of the scale of abuse that British agents and soldiers were already involved in.

We now know that UK officials were complicit in torture abroad and in renditions of people to countries where they were at risk of ill-treatment, including Pakistan and Libya. UK officials were involved in the rendition of Sami al-Saadi and Abdul Hakim Belhaj, two opponents of the Gaddafi regime, to Libya, where they were detained for years and tortured. It is also now clear that the UK was aware that Binyam Mohamed was being tortured in United States custody and nonetheless agreed to his transfer to Guantanamo Bay.

We know the name of Baha Mousa, the 26-year-old receptionist and father of two who died in British custody in 2003 after suffering 93 injuries. Hundreds more allegations of abuse by UK forces in Iraq have also come to light.

In 2004 the Committee Against Torture called on the UK to promptly investigate allegations of torture involving British officials.

But time and again the UK has failed to fulfill its duty under the Convention against Torture to carry out effective investigations and bring all those responsible to justice.

In 2010, amid mounting allegations that the UK was involved in the abuse of detainees overseas, Prime Minister David Cameron announced an inquiry into UK complicity in rendition and torture. Cameron told Parliament, "The longer these questions remain unanswered, the bigger the stain on our reputation as a country that believes in freedom and fairness and human rights."

That inquiry was shelved after nongovernmental groups and victims' lawyers decided not to participate because of its lack of independence and transparency. The government promised to release "as much of [its] interim report as possible," but almost 10 months later, it has yet to do so. And no apparent steps have been taken to start a new inquiry or even begin to consult civil society. In the meantime, the stain on the UK's reputation keeps growing.

This lack of adequate investigations and accountability leaves the feeling that the UK, which presents itself as a leader in combatting torture worldwide, does not practice what it preaches abroad.

It is worrying that the recently adopted and highly controversial Justice and Security Act will make it more difficult to uncover evidence of UK responsibility for or complicity in torture overseas. The Act extends the use of "closed material procedures," effectively secret hearings, to civil cases. A provision that would prevent disclosing material showing the UK's involvement in wrongdoing by third parties when that would undermine national security or the international relations of the UK has drawn criticism from the UN's independent expert on torture, Juan Mendez.

It is also disturbing that the UK continues to take an ambiguous position about whether the Convention against Torture applies abroad, despite the recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. The court ruled that the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes the prohibition on torture, applies to actions of the UK armed forces in Iraq.

The government's engagement with the committee and with nongovernmental groups ahead of the session suggests it is serious about this process. Its responses in Geneva and the steps it will take to carry out the committee's recommendations will be a measure of how serious it really is about ending, prosecuting, and preventing torture.

When the report of the inquiry into the death of Baha Mousa was published in September 2011, Prime Minister Cameron described it as "a truly shocking and appalling incident." He said that "Britain does not cover these things up, we do not sweep them under the carpet," and, "We deal with it."

Here is another opportunity for the government to demonstrate that these words were not just a reaction to a case of an indeed shocking - but unfortunately not isolated - case of abuse.