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UN calls on UK to investigate torture after Iraq and Afghanistan wars

The call comes as UK defence secretary pushes for an amnesty for troops who committed crimes more than 10 years earlier
British soldiers take part in war games in Kenya in 2018 (AFP)
By Ian Cobain in London

The United Nations Committee Against Torture called on Friday for the UK government to establish an inquiry into its own involvement in torture following its military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a statement issued in Geneva, the committee also said that the UK should not enact legislation that would grant an amnesty for any of its forces or intelligence agents who had been involved in torture.

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On Tuesday, the UK's Ministry of Defence briefed journalists that the country's new defence secretary, Penny Mordaunt, would be pushing for an amnesty for British troops who committed crimes more than 10 years earlier.

She will also attempt to opt out of Europe-wide human rights legislation, specifically the European Convention on Human Rights, whenever the UK again goes to war.

The UN committee said that it regretted the UK government's failure to establish a judge-led inquiry into its involvement in torture, despite its previous assurances to the UN that it would do so, and urged it to establish an inquiry "without further delay".

The committee also expressed concern at the way in which an inquiry by the British parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) was shut down prematurely "due to lack of access to evidence".

Before it was closed down, the ISC's inquiry established that:

  • On 232 occasions UK intelligence officers supplied questions to other country's agencies between 2001 and 2010 despite knowing or suspecting a prisoner was being tortured.

  • Received information on 198 occasions from a prisoner whom they knew was being tortured.

  • MI5 or MI6 (the UK's domestic- and foreign-intelligence arms) financed three rendition operations.

  • They planned or agree to a further 28 rendition operations.

The UN committee is the body that monitors states' implementation of the UN Convention Against Torture.

In Friday's statement it also called for the prosecution of those who were to blame for the UK's human rights abuses.

"The Committee urges the State party to take all necessary measures to establish responsibility and ensure accountability for any torture and ill-treatment committed by UK personnel in Iraq from 2003 to 2009, specifically by establishing a single, independent, public inquiry to investigate allegations of such conduct," it said in its statement.

In response, seven human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, Redress and Freedom from Torture, warned in a joint statement that the findings of the ISC "may only be the tip of the iceberg". 

"The Committee's strong words are shaming for the UK, and cannot be ignored," the statement said. "The time has come for the [UK] government to finally do what is right, and what its international obligations require.  

"Instead of facing up to the need for transparency and accountability, the UK Government has repeatedly broken its own deadlines for making an announcement on a torture inquiry.

"Despite promising Parliament on 2 July 2018 that it would 'update the House within 60 days' on whether or not it would call such an inquiry, these 60 days came and went, and we are now at 320 days and counting."

There was no immediate response from the UK government.

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