Britain’s “Abu Ghraib.” Lessons of internment ignored

I’m not usually in favour of projecting the past onto the present but in this case the usual mantra,”  lessons have been learned”  has been totally ignored.  First came the relatively mild strictures of the Compton Report 
 
 

We consider that the following actions constitute physical ill-treatment; posture on the wall, hooding, noise, deprivation of sleep, diet of bread and water.

 

On 8 February 1977, in proceedings before the ECHR, and in line with the findings of the Parker report and United Kingdom Government policy, the Attorney-General of the United Kingdom stated that

“The Government of the United Kingdom have considered the question of the use of the ‘five techniques’ with very great care and with particular regard to Article 3 (art. 3) of the Convention. They now give this unqualified undertaking, that the ‘five techniques’ will not in any circumstances be reintroduced as an aid to interrogation

 

 In 1972, the Prime Minister Edward Heath had said in the House of Commons

“[The] Government, having reviewed the whole matter with great care and with reference to any future operations, have decided that the techniques … will not be used in future as an aid to interrogation… The statement that I have made covers all future circumstances”.

 

Finally came the highly embarrassing ruling of the European Court of Human Rights

These methods, sometimes termed “disorientation” or “sensory deprivation” techniques, were not used in any cases other than the fourteen so indicated above. It emerges from the Commission’s establishment of the facts that the techniques consisted of:
  • (a) wall-standing: forcing the detainees to remain for periods of some hours in a “stress position”, described by those who underwent it as being “spreadeagled against the wall, with their fingers put high above the head against the wall, the legs spread apart and the feet back, causing them to stand on their toes with the weight of the body mainly on the fingers”;
  • (b) hooding: putting a black or navy coloured bag over the detainees’ heads and, at least initially, keeping it there all the time except during interrogation;
  • (c) subjection to noise: pending their interrogations, holding the detainees in a room where there was a continuous loud and hissing noise;
  • (d) deprivation of sleep: pending their interrogations, depriving the detainees of sleep;
  • (e) deprivation of food and drink: subjecting the detainees to a reduced diet during their stay at the centre and pending interrogations.

 

These were referred to by the court as the five techniques. The court ruled:

 
 
 The Court concludes that recourse to the five techniques amounted to a practice of inhuman and degrading treatment, which practice was in breach of [the European Convention on Human Rights] Article 3

 

On 8 February 1977, in proceedings before the ECHR, and in line with the findings of the Parker report and United Kingdom Government policy, the Attorney-General of the United Kingdom stated that

“The Government of the United Kingdom have considered the question of the use of the ‘five techniques’ with very great care and with particular regard to Article 3 (art. 3) of the Convention. They now give this unqualified undertaking, that the ‘five techniques’ will not in any circumstances be reintroduced as an aid to interrogation.”

 

Oh really? From today’s Guardian story: ” Britain’s Abu Ghraib

The court was informed that there is evidence detainees were starved, deprived of sleep, subjected to sensory deprivation and threatened with execution at the shadowy facilities near Basra operated by the Joint Forces Interrogation Team (JFIT)

 

The issue here is not that so much that soldiers under pressure may misbehave and sometimes misbehave badly but that the ” lessons were not learned ” from 1971 after all – by the army as an institution. This time if  the case is proven are they not even more culpable than in 1971 – and at a senior level? These techniques are not  adopted spontaneously.

And where have we heard this before? Do they have no institutional memory?

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is resisting an inquiry, however. In a statement to the Commons on Monday, Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat armed forces minister, said the MoD should be allowed to investigate the matter itself, adding: “A costly public inquiry would be unable to investigate individual criminal behaviour or impose punishments. Any such inquiry would arguably therefore not be in the best interests of the individual complainants who have raised these allegations.”

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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