A Judicious Inquiry

July 6, 2010

This morning the new Conservative government in Great Britain announced that it will hold a “judge-led” inquiry into the role played by British officials in human rights abuses committed as part of the Global War on Terror.

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, pledged that the inquiry would also have the power to direct the payment of financial compensation to the victims of proven abuses – as required by the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights.

The inquiry will go forward once pre-existing criminal investigations into the alleged actions of at least two British intelligence officers have been completed.

Particular attention will be paid to the provenance of secret legal advice given to British intelligence officers working in the field in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that while they must not “be seen to condone” torture they were also not under obligation to prevent the mistreatment of detainees:

“Given that they are not within our custody or control, the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this.”

Already speculation is mounting that former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown will be called to testify before the inquiry, as well as a host of former Labour ministers and senior intelligence and military officials.

Support for the inquiry has come from a surprising range of public figures including a former Director of Public Prosecutions, a former Chief of the UK Defence Staff, a former British Foreign Secretary, and the current leader of the Liberal Democrats who is now deputy leader of the new coalition government.

The British government’s decision also represents an important win for the Amnesty movement with the UK section calling in March for the institution of just such a judicial inquiry.

How very different to the home life of our own dear Republic. US politicians from across the political spectrum – with a few honorable exceptions – have steadfastly opposed undertaking any inquiry into America’s use of torture and other practices banned under international law.

President Obama has repeatedly expressed his preference for looking forwards not backwards and his Department of Justice resolutely continues the work of the Bush administration in resisting any attempt by the victims of US torture – even those cases of mistaken identity like Maher Arar and Khaled el Masri– to gain redress.

The British decision shows just how fallacious some of the arguments for turning a blind eye are. Britain has frontline forces very much in harm’s way on the ground in Afghanistan. Britain is also no stranger to terrorist violence and is all too aware of the threat Al Qaeda poses to its population.

The British government’s announcement came on the same day that Queen Elizabeth II was visiting lower Manhattan to formally open a memorial garden dedicated to the 67 British victims of the World Trade Center attack.

The implicit message was clear: one can honor the fallen and do the right thing.

This morning Prime Minster David Cameron told reporters that unless the inquiry went ahead:

“Our reputation as country that believes in human rights, fairness and the rule of law – indeed for much of what the [intelligence] services exist to protect – risks being tarnished.”

In other words, it is not enough for a nation’s government to seek just to protect its people – it must take steps to safeguard its values too. And if Britain can do it, there is no good reason why America cannot do the same.