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Professor Ruth Blakeley: Torture & Rendition

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Ruth Blakeley is Professor of Politics and International Relations, and Director of the White Rose Doctoral Training Partnership for the Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield. She joined us at Festival of Debate in May for her event Torture: Why Britain Must Clean Up Its Act but we were keen to know more about the work she has done around torture and rendition so we asked her some more questions...

Firstly, can you tell us about The Rendition Project and its aims.

The Rendition Project is an academic collaboration between Professor Ruth Blakeley, University of Sheffield, and Dr Sam Raphael, University of Westminster. Working closely with a range of human rights NGOs, human rights litigators and investigative journalists, and with funding from the UK's Economic and Social Research Council, the project was aimed at mapping and analysis of the CIA's secret programme for the Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) of terror suspects between 2001 and 2010.

During that period, at least 119 people were held in secret CIA prisons around the world, in some case for years on end, and subjected to sustained torture and extremely cruel and brutal treatment. Our research is aimed at providing a strong evidence base to demonstrate the workings of the CIA's network of secret prisons, the operation and development of the programme over the years that it ran, the extent of the use of torture, and the role played by key allies in the programme, especially the UK.

The UK had planned, paid for or in other ways been party to at least 70 rendition operations

Are you worried, now that you've revealed your methodology in recording where torture black sites are by requesting air traffic control logs, that American and British authorities will find new ways to hide their activities?

The RDI programme was closed down by 2010. It is possible that the US and UK have learned some lessons about the dangers of exposure when they develop secretive, illegal operations for torture and prisoner abuse. Gathering evidence to demonstrate the role of states in human rights abuses has always been challenging. Human rights advocacy, litigation on behalf of victims, and research requires innovative approaches to try to uncover the facts, and it is critical to holding states to account when they try and hide their activities.

Do you think high-ranking government ministers had full knowledge of Britain's complicity in the use of torture during counter-terrorism operations as part of the US-led 'War on Terror', and that they wilfully and knowingly broke the law?

We have not been able to uncover evidence that high ranking government officials were aware of the collusion in torture by UK intelligence agencies and military personnel, especially not in the initial years following 9/11. When accusations were first made in 2005, then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw denied that the UK had played any role and suggested that those who accused the UK of engaging in torture are conspiracy theorists. However, given that in 2018 the UK Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee published a report of its investigation into UK collusion in prisoner abuse, and found that the UK had planned, paid for or in other ways been party to at least 70 rendition operations, there is a strong argument that Ministers ought to have known and ought to have prevented this from happening, since those rendition operations, involving torture, were in breach of UK legal obligations to prevent torture.

In your research you refer to the European Convention Against Torture, to which the UK is a signatory. If Britain repeals the European Convention on Human Rights, is there current UK legislation that outlaws complicity in torture, or would this need to be outlawed in a new UK bill of rights?

In my research I refer to the UN Convention Against Torture. This is a UN Treaty, which the UK signed in 1985 and ratified in 1988. This binds the UK to prohibit torture and cruel treatment and to prevent its security and intelligence personnel from colluding in it. If the UK repeals the European Convention on Human Rights, this will have no bearing on the fact that the UK has ratified the UN Convention Against Torture and must therefore comply with its obligations under that Treaty.

What can Now Then readers do on a personal level to help campaign to end British complicity in torture?

Now Then readers can lend their support to ongoing advocacy campaigns calling for an independent judge-led inquiry into UK collusion in torture. They can write to the members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Rendition and to their MPs to lend their support. They can call on government to thoroughly review and reform guidance it gives to UK intelligence and military personnel so that they are properly equipped to prevent rather than collude in torture. Template letters and other advice on campaigning can be found on the Take Action page of the Rendition Project website.

Find out more about the Rendition Project here.

Flick Jackson

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