Complicity with torture

Alan Johnson

The ongoing difficulty the British political establishment is having with allegations of torture reveals some important truths about the world. In essence, the situation seems to be that, while British agents have not actively engaged in torture themselves, they have certainly used information that has come from torture and they can’t be sure that they have never made it possible or more likely to come about.

“Operations have been halted where the risk of mistreatment was too high. But it is not possible to eradicate all risk. Judgments need to be made,” wrote foreign secretary David Miliband and home secretary Alan Johnson in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday.

What this accepts is that the UK is acting in concert with countries that do not share our values. There may be some overlap, but there are also major areas of difference, too. It is in stark contrast to the picture of the world painted by Tony Blair when he was prime minister, in which the forces of good had to come together to tackle the renegades. His speech to the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles on 1 August 2006 (which this blog reported on here) included the call that:

“We need to make clear to Syria and Iran that there is a choice: come in to the international community and play by the same rules as the rest of us; or be confronted.”

Messrs Miliband and Johnson have accepted that the world is not so neatly divided into good and bad. It is becoming clear that Syria and Iran were playing by the same rules as us, or rather, that we were playing by the same rules as them all along.

I don’t write this with any pleasure – quite the contrary, in fact – but it is time that foreign policy became a bit more nuanced and a bit less starry-eyed.

But the second truth is that, even though there are some countries we would normally count as friends who behave in ways that we would not, we can still defend our values. Being conscious of the slippery slope as we must, how do we make sure that we do not step on to it?

David Miliband and Alan Johnson observe that “When detainees are held by our police or Armed Forces we can be sure how they are treated. By definition, we cannot have that same level of assurance when they are held by foreign governments, whose obligations may differ from our own.”

I think this is false. We can have that level of assurance. Their definition is wrong.

The way we do this is to accept, along with those other countries who want to share our values, that there should be common standards of behaviour for the security services and a common method of ensuring that they do so. The universalist notion of human rights requires a common standard for the actions of governments, and the statement by Messrs Miliband and Johnson, carefully worded so as to be precise and accurate, shows in its lack of clarity that the word of the government alone does not reassure.

An aim of policy then becomes to enlarge the number of countries that subscribes to this system. We have to recognise that there will be times when we have to cooperate with countries that do not share this system, but a conscious and deliberate effort to establish and adhere to our own rules will reduce the risk that we slip into a world where we do not wish to belong.

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