The Guardian looks forward to future Parliamentary action to hold ministers to account on rendition flights and comments on the current state of inactivity.
“In Britain, there is nothing, despite an absolute duty imposed on the government by its domestic and international legal obligations to investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment. Ministers appear to have something to hide and the issue will not go away.”
By Richard Norton-Taylor in The Guardian
As they contemplate the future leadership of their respective parties, MPs returning to Westminster from their holidays insist there is another issue that they will not be distracted from. That is the government’s attitude, still to be satisfactorily explained, towards America’s practice of “extraordinary rendition” – flying Islamist suspects to secret camps where they are likely to be subjected to torture.
An all-party parliamentary group set up to probe the issue is preparing a number of moves this month to get to the truth. The group is chaired by Andrew Tyrie, Conservative MP for Chichester, who has two deputies – Chris Mullin, the former Labour Foreign Office minister, and Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman and candidate for his party’s leadership. They are determined to get answers to questions that ministers and officials have been so reluctant to provide. The Council of Europe is also on the warpath.
Intriguing new insights were revealed recently by a very senior figure in the intelligence world. He said that British ministers found it hard to believe “rendition” was legal. One of the problems of being “closely allied with the US”, he added, was the whole issue of “what constitutes illegality internationally”.
Differences between Britain and the US over what was and what was not lawful even extended to what would happen if British, rather than American, forces captured Osama bin Laden, he said. There was a real debate within government when Robin Cook was a member of the cabinet. The unstated question was, should Britain hand Bin Laden over to the US where he would almost certainly be executed?
The senior intelligence figure said that because the British government believed rendition was illegal, Britain played no part in such activities. The trouble with jumping to such a conclusion is that, as the intelligence source himself acknowledged, the whole issue is protected by Chinese walls.
Since the US knows it would seriously embarrass ministers if it told them about any CIA rendition flights landing at British airports or passing through British air space – activities that could lead to ministers being hauled before the courts – Washington keeps mum. In turn, ministers do not ask questions. They truly turn a blind eye, as officials privately admit.
It is against this background that one should judge comments by intelligence sources, statements by ministers and the plethora of evasive answers given to MPs over the past few weeks. As Tony Blair told journalists last month: “It’s like all the stuff about camps in Europe. I don’t know. I have never heard of such a thing. I can’t tell you whether such a thing exists because I don’t know … I don’t know anything about it …”
Defence, transport, Home Office and Foreign Office ministers have all, over the past weeks, avoided answering questions about detailed evidence, first provided by the Guardian, that more than 200 CIA flights have landed in Britain since the September 11 2001 attacks on the US. They say that they do not need to have any record of passengers on the flights unless they get off or on the plane on British soil, or that any records they might have had of the aircraft themselves have been destroyed. Or if records do exist, they could only be provided at “disproportionate” cost.
In answer to questions on whether the intelligence agencies knew about the flights, MPs are told that “it is not the government’s policy to comment on intelligence matters”. Anxious ministers, meanwhile, are blocking an attempt by Baroness d’Souza to attach an amendment to an aviation bill going through the Lords that would oblige them to investigate suspect rendition flights.
There are three judicial inquiries into US “extraordinary rendition” or “torture flights” – in Spain, Italy, and Germany. A public inquiry is under way in Canada, a parliamentary inquiry has begun in Switzerland and a government inquiry into allegations of secret US detention camps has been set up in Poland.
The Irish government is under pressure over the use of Shannon airport.
In Britain, there is nothing, despite an absolute duty imposed on the government by its domestic and international legal obligations to investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment. Ministers appear to have something to hide and the issue will not go away.