The damaging legacy of our silence over this offshore haven for torturers

The extent to which the British have lost their moral authority by condoning lawless warfare is only now beginning to sink in

The Independent

Anthony Sampson

19 June 2004

"Ought the British Government to make plain publicly and unambiguously its condemnation of the utter lawlessness at Guantanamo Bay?" The question was asked six months ago, not by a left-wing politician, but by the most thoughtful and respected of the Law Lords, Lord Johan Steyn, in an outspoken speech which described the treatment of prisoners as "a monstrous failure of justice". And his own answer was clearly yes.

But there was no answer from the British Government. And now the full extent of that failure has become clearer, while the lawlessness has spread to Iraq and Saudi Arabia, to be confronted by still more lawless enemies, in escalating reprisals.

From the beginning, when the first prisoners in Afghanistan were publicly photographed, heavily shackled and humiliated, being flown to a prison deliberately chosen to be exempt from international law, it was quite clear that the Americans were determined to interrogate them without regard for the Geneva Conventions; and that terrorism was provoking more ruthless counter-terrorism.

But in the past few weeks in Washington the fuller implications have been revealed by investigations and hearings, showing a systematic pattern of torture deliberately designed to degrade and dehumanise, following techniques already developed elsewhere. We now know that the interrogation methods at Guantanamo Bay were extended last autumn to the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, to provide "actionable intelligence", with still less justification; and that the decision was taken at the very top.

It is now clear, too, that the use of cameras was seen as part of the process of degradation, to ensure that the victims were publicly deprived of all the dignity and self-respect accorded by their Islamic religion. But no one in authority appears to have foreseen the inevitable consequence of introducing the camera, particularly digital technology which could instantly send images across the world. The camera would become the plaything for the more sadistic soldiers, and the pictures would become public property.

They would not only provide undeniable proof of illegal torture: they would also provide images of such crude and primitive power that they would become key weapons in a war that was being increasingly waged by imagery, by cameras as much as guns.

The images which multiplied across the world immediately acquired a significance and life of their own, quite separate from the actual warfare on the ground. The hooded victims stretched out by manacles, the grinning torturers and women accomplices, the leashes and angry dogs, all appeared like visions of hell - like medieval carvings, or paintings by Hieronymus Bosch. In a war which was already looking more like a religious crusade they provided Islamic fundamentalists with propaganda which must have appeared heaven sent: the clear proof, to the most illiterate followers, that they were fighting the forces of evil.

As this propaganda spread to other Islamic countries, and particularly to Saudi Arabia, the heartland of the fundamentalist fanatics, it provided the provocation and justification for reprisals, to take hostages and undertake still worse atrocities - in the tradition of the medieval crusades - as we have seen in the kidnapping of Paul Johnson, the American helicopter engineer captured in Saudi Arabia. The war which began ostensibly as a war against terrorism has degenerated into a war between rival terrorisms, in which the Americans were rapidly losing the high moral ground.

All this began with the first defiant American decision to establish Guantanamo Bay, contrary to international law, as an offshore haven for torturers, and was escalated by the subsequent decision to extend the same methods and immunity to American prisons in Iraq.

The British were the junior partners in the coalition, who did not take part in these crucial decisions; but the British Government refused to dissociate itself from this policy, and the British Army was inevitably and inescapably associated by the enemy with this lawlessness. Whatever the private misgivings by British generals and diplomats - and there were many - the Blair Government maintained its total public loyalty to the Bush policy. When the photographic evidence emerged, they confined themselves to condemning the "bad apples", and insisting that such behaviour was "unacceptable", while ignoring the clear evidence that it had been accepted at the very top.

The grotesque episode of the torture pictures in the Daily Mirror only served to muddy the waters, by weakening the British objections to American methods; while the discovery that the photographs were fraudulent distracted the public from the fact that US methods of torture had infected some British soldiers too - as evidenced by the charges made against them last week.

The extent to which the British have lost their moral authority by condoning lawless warfare is only gradually beginning to sink in. It is already becoming evident now, with the diminishing British prestige throughout the Middle East.

But in the longer term it may have more serious consequences by undermining effective protests against torture and abuses of prisoners throughout the developing world. No condemnation of the treatment of prisoners, from Zimbabwe to China, will carry the same weight if the British are seen to have colluded with the methods in Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib.

The corruptions and miscalculations in the campaign in Iraq have already weakened the British Army's prestige, as many military leaders are aware, and have seriously diminished the prospects of British forces intervening in foreign countries in the future, when the need is more obviously justified. And no British soldier embarking on a foreign campaign can have the same confidence that if he is captured he will be protected by the Geneva Conventions, and by the inspections and influence of the Red Cross.

Yet the British Government has remained silent on the crucial questions of responsibility for torture, which have been resounding through Washington over the past weeks. And the question posed six months ago by Lord Steyn is now more relevant than ever.

The British Government should have condemned from the start the lawlessness of Guantanamo Bay, and the "monstrous failure of justice". By not doing so, they have been seen as conniving in a system which has led to the acceptance and escalation of torture - which has spread to Iraq, and now threatens to provoke counter-atrocities through the Middle East, in an increasingly religious war.

Only by now making clear their own concerns and values as the leaders of an independent nation can they prevent the damage to British interests, diplomacy and national self-respect which can otherwise take decades to rectify.

The author's 'Who Runs This Place' is published by John Murray