Foreign Affairs Committee
Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism
UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE from Monday 24 October 2005
Q105 Sandra Osborne: I would like to ask you about the issue of extraordinary rendition. In response to this Committee’s report of last year on the war against terrorism, the government said that it was not aware of the use of its territory or air space for the purposes of extraordinary rendition. However, it appears that there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the UK air space is indeed being utilised for this purpose, albeit mainly in the media. Some of the suggestions seem to be extremely detailed. For example, the Guardian has reported that aircraft involved in operations have flown into the UK at least 210 times since 9/11, an average of one flight a week. It appears that the favourite destination is Prestwick Airport, which is next to my constituency, as it happens. Can you comment on that? What role is the UK playing in extraordinary rendition?
Mr Straw: The position in respect of extraordinary rendition was set out in the letter that the head of our parliamentary team wrote to Mr Priestly, your Clerk, on 11 March; and the position has not changed. We are not aware of the use of our territory or air space for the purpose of extraordinary rendition. We have not received any requests or granted any permissions for use of UK territory or air space for such purposes. It is perfectly possible that there have been two hundred movements of United States aircraft in and out of the United Kingdom and I would have thought it was many more; but that is because we have a number of UN air force bases here, which, under the Visiting Forces Act and other arrangements they are entitled to use under certain conditions. I do not see for a second how the conclusion could be drawn from the fact that there have been some scores of movements of US military aircraft – well, so what – that that therefore means they have been used for rendition. That is a very long chain!
Q106 Sandra Osborne: The UN Commission on Human Rights has started an inquiry into the British Government’s role in this. Is the Government co-operating fully with that inquiry? Why would they start an inquiry if there were no reason to believe that this was actually happening?
Mr Straw: People start inquiries for all sorts of reasons. I assume we are co-operating with it. I am not aware of any requests, but we always co-operate with such requests.
Q107 Mr Keetch: They are not flying under US military flags; these are Gulfstream aircraft used by the CIA. They have a 26-strong fleet of Gulfstream aircraft that are used for this purpose. These aircraft are not coming into British spaces; they are coming into airports. Some are into bases like Northolt, and some into bases like Prestwick. Whilst it is always good to have the head of your parliamentary staff respond to our Clerk, Mr Priestley, could you give us an assurance that you will investigate these specific flights; and, if it is the case that these flights are being used for the process of extraordinary rendition, which is contrary to international law and indeed contrary to the stated policy of Her Majesty’s Government, would you attempt to see if they should stop?
Mr Straw: I would like to see what it is that is being talked about here. I am very happy to endorse, as you would expect, and I did endorse, the letter sent by our parliamentary team to your Clerk on 11 March. I am happy, for the avoidance of any doubt, to say that I specifically endorse its contents. If there is evidence, we will look at it, but a suggestion in a newspaper that there have been flights by unspecified foreign aircraft in and out of the United Kingdom cannot possibly add up to evidence that our air space or our facilities have been used for the purpose of unlawful rendition. It just does not.
Q108 Mr Keetch: I accept that, but if there were evidence of that, you would join with us, presumably, in condemning —–
Mr Straw: I am not going to pre-judge an inquiry. If there were evidence, we would look at it. So far there we have not seen any evidence.
Q109 Richard Younger-Ross: Our former Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has stated in a document to us: “I can confirm it is a positive policy decision by the US and UK to use Uzbek torture material.” He states that the evidence is that the aircraft that my colleague referred to earlier, the Gulfstreams, are taking detainees back to Uzbekistan who are then being tortured. Is that not some indication that these detainees are being transferred through the UK?
Mr Straw: It is Mr Murray’s opinion. Mr Murray, as you may know, stood in my constituency. He got fewer votes than the British National Party, and notwithstanding the fact that he assured the widest possible audience within the constituency to his views about use of torture. I set out the British Government’s position on this issue on a number of occasions, including in evidence both here and to the Intelligence and Security Committee. I wrote a pretty detailed letter to a constituent of mine back in June, setting out our position. As I said there, there are no circumstances in which British officials use torture, nor any question of the British Government seeking to justify the use of torture. Again, the British Government, including the terrorist and security agencies, has never used torture for any purpose including for information, nor would we instigate or connive with others in doing so. People have to make their own judgment whether they think I am being accurate or not.
Q110 Mr Illsley: Foreign Secretary, the letter which you supplied to the Committee in March which gave the conclusion that the British Government is not aware of the use of its territory or air space for the purpose of extraordinary rendition was taken at face value by most members of the Committee at that time, before the election. We took that to mean that we were not aware of any extraordinary rendition, and that it was not happening. The press reports were therefore something of a surprise. Would our Government be contacted by any country using our airspace, taking suspects to other countries? Would we be asked for permission or would there be any circumstances where we would be contacted; or is it the case that it could well be happening but that our Government is not aware of it simply because we have not been informed, or our permission is not necessary?
Mr Straw: Mr Illsley, on the precise circumstances in which foreign governments apply for permission to use British air space, I have to write to you, because it is important that I make that accurate. What Mr Stanton on my behalf said in the letter is exactly the same: why would I, for a second, knowingly provide this Committee with false information, if I had had information about rendition? We do not practise rendition, full-stop. I ought to say that whether rendition is contrary to international law depends on the particular circumstances of the case; it depends on each case, but we do not practise it. I would have to come back to you on that question.
Chairman: We will expect a letter. Thank you very much.