Truth and compensation

The baseness of which humans are capable is demonstrated by the practice of torture. In mistreating others in a manner which denies them their status as a human being, we necessarily diminish the essence of our own humanity. Torture is unreservedly condemned by western civilisation. Indeed, freedom from torture is one of the few unqualified rights recognised in the United Kingdom. This is what makes the allegations against the UK Security Services so shocking.

David Cameron has announced  that there is to be an inquiry into claims that members of the security services were complicit in the torture of terror suspects. The most famous case is that of Binyam Mohamed, who was detained in Pakistan before being tortured in Morocco and then held in Guantanamo Bay. This inquiry is to be led by Sir Peter Gibson, a former Court of Appeal judge. This unprecedented examination of the evidence is likely to be highly controversial, given the sensitive nature of its subject matter and the proposed repercussions.

The idea of complicity to torture is so abhorrent that these claims are highly likely to damage confidence in MI5 and the security services. On the other hand, it may be advantageous to the security services’ reputation in allowing their activities to be scrutinised.

However, whatever de facto detriment may be suffered by the security services, it will not take the form of legal sanctions except in the case of specific allegations of giving false evidence. This unwillingness to prosecute on the inquiry’s focal issue does not suggest that it is being downplayed. After all, the culpability of such complicity provided the impetus for this inquiry.

In his official statement, David Cameron stated that:

“The purpose of this inquiry is to examine whether, and if so to what extent, the UK government and its intelligence agencies were involved in improper treatment of detainees held by other countries in counter-terrorism operations overseas, or were aware of improper treatment of detainees in operations in which the UK was involved.”

The prime minister’s major concern is to establish the truth. Fear of prosecution may act as a deterrent to frank and open analysis of the allegations, which would undermine the aims of the inquiry.

This does not mean, however, that no compensation should be offered to the victims. The possibility of compensation through an out-of-court settlement has been raised by the government. This suggests that the aim of the inquiry is to compensate the alleged victims, rather than to punish the alleged perpetrators. If any claimant is found to have suffered torture or improper treatment at the hands of, or in the knowledge of, the UK government and its intelligence agencies, it is right that they should receive compensation. This provides a mechanism for the UK government to accept fault and confirm its denunciation of torture.

The atrocities suffered by victims of torture must be acknowledged. Although no amount of money can truly rectify what they have experienced, there is no alternative method of compensation. What is done cannot be undone. Nonetheless, any victims of such inhuman treatment should not be made to bear the repercussions alone.

It has been suggested that terror suspects should not receive such compensation. Admittedly, it does seem unappealing to offer compensation to those who represent a potential threat to national security. However, we are discussing terror suspects, rather than terrorists. Those who meet the former description have not been charged with any crime, so the argument against denying them compensation is a strong one. As I have stated, freedom from torture is an unqualified right and one of the few which is enjoyed by convicted prisoners in the United Kingdom. We must adopt a consistent approach and must never excuse torture.

Philosophical and pragmatic questions of open justice and transparency have been raised in relation to this inquiry. The secret nature of much of the security services’ work must be secured to protect national security. Revealing confidential information publicly could leave the country open to an unacceptable security threat.

Shami Chakrabati disagrees, asserting that “any attempt to exempt intelligence from legal scrutiny is an attempt to exempt the security services from the rule of law.” This emotive invocation of the rule of law seems somewhat misguided, since the courts have long recognised the propriety of deferring to the executive on matters of national security. We cannot ignore the importance of ensuring that the country is safe, which may mean restricting public access to these findings. This is an eminently sensible stance.

This is especially true in the light of the concerns of international security agencies such as the CIA. Their fear is that information which their intelligence services have passed to the UK could be revealed, exposing them to the associated risks. The government must recognise the importance of maintaining the confidence of these agencies. International co-operation is vital to protecting national security. If this means that it is necessary to withhold certain details of the inquiry from the public report, then we must respect that decision.

This inquiry is an important step in terms of scrutinising counter-terrorism efforts, and the proposed methods should help reveal the truth, however unpalatable it may turn out to be.