Diplomacy, Dictatorship and the Uses of Torture 126

There is a major profile of me in the latest Der Spiegel.


It is slightly overdrawn in its desire to paint a contrast between Ambassador Neuen and I, but is not unfair. Where it is wrong is its easy acceptance of the false dichotomy: is it better to suck up to a dictator and gain quiet influence over him, or to take a moral high stand but have no influence?

The mistake is in believing that crawling to a dictatorial regime makes them respect you. In fact the diplomatic cringe posture only enhances the super bloated ego and confidence of power of Karimov and his minions. They perceive diplomatic circumspection as weakness, and they despise the weak.

Remember, the senior officials of the Karimov regime have not encountered a single person — except Karimov himself – who dared to speak to them roughly, for decades. Almost everyone they meet, they have the power to have killed. Let me say that again so it sinks in. Almost everyone they meet, they have the power to have killed. They do have people killed, not infrequently.

The example given in the Der Spiegel article of forcing diplomats to wait for three hours in baking 105 degree heat – quite deliberately – for a ceremony to start, is not a major thing in itself, but is a demonstration of contempt.

By taking a different, robust and forceful approach, I shocked the Karimov regime and I simultaneously gave them world exposure they really didn’t like. In consequence I had far more influence with them – they hated me, but could not ignore me. When the British government moved to remove me, every single British company in Uzbekistan wrote to Jack Straw to protest, stating in terms that I was the most effective Ambassador for British interests. You will find the letters in Murder in Samarkand.

British influence evaporated when the British government made plain to Karimov I did not have their support for a strong line. Britain has had no influence ever since. On your knees is not a position of influence.

Diplomacy is also on my mind with relation to torture. Two former British Ambassadors, Brian Barder and Charles Crawford, have both attacked my analysis of the recent speech of John Sawers, head of MI6. Sawers’ speech was a defence of torture thinly disguised as a condemnation of torture.


I will not waste much time on Charles Crawford, whose efforts are less of a blog and more a public exhibition of Attention Deficit Disorder. But Brian Barder is in an altogether different class, and his views merit further consideration.


Brian makes an argument that I have juxtaposed quotes from Sawers’ speech which were not actually next to each other. He claims that Sawers does not say that we receive intelligence from torture, or that Ministers have approved it.

Brian is talking total rubbish, To quash these accusations of misrepresentation, this is an unedited extract from Sawers’ speech:

“We also have a duty to do what we can to ensure that a partner service will respect human rights. That is not always straightforward.

Yet if we hold back, and don’t pass that intelligence, out of concern that a suspect terrorist may be badly treated, innocent lives may be lost that we could have saved.

These are not abstract questions for philosophy courses or searching editorials. They are real, constant, operational dilemmas.

Sometimes there is no clear way forward. The more finely-balanced judgments have to be made by Ministers themselves.”

There is no doubt that this means that we receive intelligence from torture by other security services, and that this is decided by Ministers. It can mean nothing else. Especially if you consider the background given here.


Of course, Sawers carefully does not use the “T” word here and only uses it in a passage condemning torture, passed to and swallowed by our complacent media. That is precisely the dishonesty which so annoys me.

The curious thing is that both Brian and Charles, like Sawers, are enthusiastic supporters of the argument that we ought to get intelligence from torture by others. As Brian says:

“For the record, there is no legal, moral, ethical or practical ban on scrutinising information, and where appropriate acting on it, regardless of the way it has originally been obtained or is suspected to have been obtained.”

Let us state the points where I agree with Brian. I accept that MI6 does not torture people. I accept that MI6 does not specifically hand over people to be tortured, request that detainees are tortured, or observe torture.

But Brian completely fails to take account of the UK/US intelligence sharing agreement. Under this. MI6 and the CIA share all intelligence. The Americans do all the things in the above list. Waterboarding and other physical tortures are just one part of the American arsenal. Under extraordinary rendition, hundreds were knowingly delivered up to torture. I have received direct eye witness evidence of CIA staff physically present at torture sessions in Uzbekistan. As Brian knows, MI6 will have received every US intelligence report received from all this activity. And there are numerous examples of MI6 staff assisting the CIA in getting suspects into the extraordinary rendition system. As Brian knows, the human intelligence reports circulating Whitehall are perhaps three to one CIA not MI6 sourced – but the CIA reports in London have been processed and issued through MI6. How does this affect the “Clean Hands” claims Brian accepts from Sawers.

But the fatal flaw in Brian’s – and Sawers’ argument is the frankly pathetic notion that, by regularly and gratefully receiving intelligence from dictatorships which they obtained by torture, we do not condone or encourage torture. Brian hides behind the “ticking bomb” argument that falsely posits that intelligence from torture is rare and relates to an instant and preventable threat. Brian has simply not answered this entire section of my article:

“It is the old man I met who had his children tortured before his eyes until he admitted false family ties with al-Qaida. It is the woman raped with the broken bottle, It is the lady who lived opposite me whose father was blinded as a political prisoner, and who was held down while a truck was run over her legs. All of that and thousands more did not stop the government, despite my profound objections as Ambassador, from accepting intelligence from the Uzbek torture chambers via the CIA.

John Sawers relies on the “ticking bomb” fallacy – the idea that torture happens to real terrorists and they give precise timely information to avert an imminent threat. That is a Hollywood scenario. There has never ever been a real life example that meets the ticking bomb cliche.

We encourage torture, we create a market for it, by accepting its fruits. The regimes who pass us this intelligence know we accept it, and they feel supported and reinforced in their abuse of human rights. Why would they take Western rhetoric seriously on human rights when they know we lap up the products of their torture chamber?

Remember the torturers are not altruists but agents of very nasty regimes. The information passed to us by those regimes is not for our good, but for the good of those regimes – and normally to convince us that the opponents of those regimes are all terrorists, whether true or not. In Uzbekistan, every bit of intelligence we could verify from the Embassy, eg on terrorist training camps in named locations in the hills, turned out to be untrue. Yet the intelligence services lapped up the Uzbek information because it greatly exaggerated the strength of al-Qaida in Central Asia, thus providing a spurious justification for our support of Central Asian dictators, whose help we wanted for our Afghan policy and for access to their hydrocarbons.

Torture does not get you the truth. It gets you what the torturer wants to hear. People will say anything, as their arm is held in boiling liquid, to make the pain stop. The regimes who do this do not hold truth as a high priority.

The torture material regularly received by the UK government is from countries where the vast, overwhelming majority of the people tortured are not terrorists at all but merely dissidents from abhorrent regimes. I speak from first hand knowledge.”

PerhapsBrian would like to answer it now.

Lastly, I am genuinely very saddened to see Brian joining in the smears against me with this:

The author of this scurrilous piece is in some danger of being taken seriously, being (as he constantly reminds us all) a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who has achieved a certain fame through having insisted, I believe wrongly, that he was sacked from the Diplomatic Service for criticising the practice of torture by the Uzbek authorities and for having repeatedly denounced his own government for receiving, and sometimes acting on, information from the Americans but originating with the Uzbeks, some of which may well have been obtained by torture. He certainly did both these things, with characteristic gusto, but he was eased out of the Diplomatic Service ?” to put it politely ?” for other reasons.

Forget politeness Brian. I have no doubt you have been fed poison from some FCO related source. The best thing with poison is to spew it up.

A final point. The main object of my original post was to start some debate within the Lib Dem blogosphere. Yet no Lib Dem blogger has come forward to defend our ministers. I am not sure many activists currently see some of them as worth defending.

If after reading Brian’s harrumphing you need an antidote, there is an excellent article on Sawers’ pro-torture diatribe here:


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126 thoughts on “Diplomacy, Dictatorship and the Uses of Torture

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  • Suhayl Saadi

    Crab, can you summon forth a Biblical plague of… crabs to rise up from the tidal bore of Old Mother Thames and swarm all over the Terry Farrel building? A crustacean cover-up, what!

  • crab

    Sadly, the crab nation is transfixed scrying into the cosmic background spam. It will take more than the tact of Nextus, art of Saadi, an analytic Alfred and the staunch Barder to stir them from the deep.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Very well, put, crab.

    What occurs to me re. the torture matter is this. Although it is a central importance for vigorous and penetrative discourse to occur in relation to the them of receiving information through torture undertaken by other countries, what we must not miss is the fact that our own countries – USA, UK, etc. – are outsourcing torture to private armies who are even less accountable than state armies and state intelligence services.

    There are hundreds of thousands so them out there, undertaking ‘work’ that can ‘plausibly’ be denied by any state bodies/inquiries, etc. and they are subject to no trammels, no rules. Hit squads, torture chambers, everything one might imagine, and worse. It is the re-privatisation of colonialism. In some ways, then, we are returning to the days of the East India Company, except even more vicious and instrumentalised.

    And the militarised corporations, closely linked to banking cartels, who are undertaking this ‘work’ are bloated, corrupt and inefficient – but deadly. They act on behalf of themselves. As we lose our jobs and homes, we the taxpayers simultaneously are paying them billions. We are being robbed on a daily basis.

    So, just as the various full and part-time troll-teams and spambot generators we witness constantly on this blog are likely to be outsourced operations, so too is imperial war. They are simply two ends of the same wedge.

    The elephant in the sitting-room.

  • Jessiedog

    Thank you for the interesting and enlightening dialogue, good peeps.

    Blessings, all.



  • ingo

    Uzbek, Europe has all the resolve and clout to give birth to its own peace and defensae force, the crux is in the name.

    The use of military power in an increasingly entwined world of commerce, overlapping ownerships of assets and land, as well as international inter dependecy on each, all opens up new avenues of controling each other, destructive unsustainable military engagements will be fought over resources and control over strategic energy supplies, but not for ideological reasoning.

    Just look at ouir discourse with China, our dependencies are already becoming apparent, rare earth elements hold the key to low energy futures around the world and China holds all the trumps.

    Nato, after the Afghan debacle, must disband, it has lost its aim and objectives a long time ago and is now being used as a show boat for new arms.

    I went to school with a mikolai Scvhevschenko and he had a heart as big as a barn door. bringing Russia into the EU would allow the ‘normal’Russian to come out, democratic values to thrive. It would aslo present Russia with a massive open market, not just for their energy resources, but also for other commodities. Such a move would establish Europe’s independence between two blocks, a balancing weight.

    I’d rather see Russia in Europe, applying its normsa and values and slowly changing its autocratic and oligarch classes, than letting these people get too big for their boots and kick off.

    Hyperthetically speaking. Imagine Britain ablolishes Trident, unilaterally, setting an example, European countries withdraw their resources from NATO and establish their own European peace and defense force, at the same time as to open the gates for Russia to join into the EU, gradually, step by step.

    Not only would this be the most influential and resource rich block in the world, it would change Russian society. Russias nationalism is being furthered by Putin and his strong man agenda, he is mobilising the young, but they are also interested in the rest of the world, as are the young chinese, wittling away at the communist hardliners and control freaks, eventually yearning for change, we in Europe should channel these urges, enable multilateral connective tissues, and eventually break the unhealthy tiesd with torturewrs like Karimov, it will not be acceptable to be in lieu with torturers and murder.

    Wed are being told at every possible occaision that arms wars and bigger boys toys are still making us survive the fears in this world, when reality shows us that global warming is far more important than terrorism and that we should stop kncoking down and re building, a huge environbmental effort every time a war is on.

    If stock exchanges can bankrupt countries overnight sending its citizens on to the street demanding change, then our our cudgels become increasingly useless, except for bashing our own population.

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