The recent release of the US Senate CIA interrogation report underscored concerns I have long held about the use of torture as a tool by western governments.
And despite CIA Director, John Brennan defending the agencies post 9/11 interrogation methods, they clearly fell far below standards any government purporting to stand for the rule of law principles and basic human rights should ever engage in. It included forcing detainees to stand on broken feet, administering water boarding so severe that in some cases it almost culminated in death, keeping detainees awake for as long as 180 hours, torturing detainees before they had even been asked to cooperate and even putting hummus in a detainees rectum. At least one prisoner died of hypothermia caused in part by being sat on a concrete floor without trousers. What's more perturbing is that senior officials at the CIA Headquarters insisted on the continued use of such methods even after reservations were expressed by interrogators.
But the release of this report also teaches us an important lesson; that it is easy for the rule of law and our own civility to be lost in a climate of fear, where pressing concerns are focused on finding ways to protect ourselves from dangerous and evil forces like Al Qaeda or ISIS. Behaviour that compromises such principles, however, will invariably fail to keep us safe. Instead it fails to offer any demonstrable link to extracting useful intelligence, increases the threat of retaliation and creates a backlash of negative sentiment that is exploited by those seeking to radicalise the disaffected. The loss of confidence such actions create are a major bulwark to winning the battle for hearts and minds in a struggle that is as much about countering extremist ideology as it is about airstrikes, arming our allies and boots on the ground.
Though many of these interrogation methods were implemented in the aftermath of 9/11, they will, it seems, have unfortunate repercussions today and far into the future.
But we also lose out by compromising on the very ideals we purport to be defending. It is unfortunately a problem that permeates our own shores here in the UK. The CIA rendition scandal laid bare the British government's failure to live up to its international obligations and protect the basic rights of its citizens. I was the first to raise the issue of the CIA rendition scandal in Europe and sought greater clarity about the exact nature of the role European countries were playing in this process, but the issue was dismissed by Douglas Alexander in 2005, the then Minister of State for Europe. The rendition scandal turned out to be true and was a damning indictment of the UK globally.
Do we trust our governments, irrespective of which administration is in power, to respect the rule of law and protect the interest of its citizens? The story of Tony Blair's 'sexed up' dossier calling for war is a reminder of how wary citizens should be of putting their complete trust in Government. Not to mention the string of human rights violations the UK government has been involved in in recent years.
We do not necessarily need citizens to trust the government of the day. But we do need a stronger system of accountability and oversight to ensure such horrendous actions are not systemically implemented and sanctioned by our governments again. We must respect the need for a stronger separation of powers, which, after all, is there to protect us from the excesses of government and the fallibility of politicians and government officials that might allow policy to become subservient to a climate of fear or paranoia.
This also all the more reason for why the UK must not withdraw from the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights), an institutional structure formulated by Conservative party jurists to protect human rights and civil liberties against a powerful state. Allowing Government to be their own arbitrators rather than having a collective arena such as the ECHR can, and has, undermined basic human rights.
Above all, without us viewing our unconditional respect for human rights as a strength and a part of the solution to how we will defeat extremist ideology; and without committing to the support blocks of greater accountability, transparency and oversight, I fear we will not just fail to demonstrate to those must susceptible to extremist ideologies how we stand for something greater, but will also lose our own moral identity and compass in the process.