Andreas Whittam Smith: There can be no tempering with torture. Either you oppose it or you go along with it

I would rather risk my life than be part of a society that uses torture, or its results, for any reason whatever
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Torture is back. In this country, critical reports have come from a committee of MPs, from the Council of Europe and from Amnesty International. It is the same in the US. Human Rights First has revealed that eight detainees suspected of terrorist activities have been tortured to death in American custody. Only half of these cases resulted in punishment for the perpetrators, with a mere five months in jail being the heaviest sentence.

I also have on my desk the text of a memorandum that the recently retired General Counsel of the US Navy, Alberto Mora, wrote in July 2004 in which he urged his superior officer to consider more carefully the methods employed in the American detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. "In my view", he argued, "some of the interrogation techniques could rise to the level of torture."

Torture starts at the top. When President Bush ordered that "as a matter of policy, the US Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely ... to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity", he opened the door to abuse with his qualification "to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity".

The Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, pushed it further open when he scribbled on a memorandum authorising various interrogation methods, among them subjecting detainees to forced standing for up to four hours - "I stand for eight to 10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?" When Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to the then Secretary of State, Colin Powell, saw the note, he took it as saying "Carte blanche, guys." And as he reflected afterwards: "Once you pull this thread the whole fabric unravels."

Torture begins, therefore, when the signal is given that cruel treatment is understandable or excusable. Mr Blair was doing that at his press conference last Thursday. He was asked about Guantanamo Bay. He replied: "I have said why I think that Guantanamo is an anomaly and should come to an end ... but it is also important that we ... have some understanding ... of the huge amount of anger that there is in America of what happened there [11 September]."

The Prime Minister was also asked about rendition. He said this: "People devote the most extraordinary amount of time in trying to say that the Americans, on rendition, are basically deporting people, or returning people to countries for torture - and people spend very little time in actually looking at what the threat is that we face and America faces, from terrorism and how we have to deal with it."

Mr Blair thus makes the same fatal qualifications as Mr Bush and Mr Rumsfeld, though in different words - angry people can be excused if they resort to torture. The threat from terrorism may justify such measures.

Torture grows unless checked. This is a well-documented phenomenon. It is known as "force drift". This term describes what happens to interrogators who rely on abuse. They come to believe that if some force is good, then the application of more pressure is better. In this way the degree of punishment applied to an uncooperative witness tends to escalate until, if unchecked, it reaches the level of torture.

This applies as much to the single prison guard, as it does to an entire security service, as it does to a government. It happened to the guards at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. It has happened to the CIA, the Pentagon and the White House. Has the same insidious process been at work in the British army, our security services, in Downing Street?

Torture is encouraged when British officials take part in, witness or condone the interrogation under duress of UK suspects and others in US custody and the custody of other countries. Torture is likewise sanctioned when use is made of its results. The former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has alleged that the Government has used information provided by states which practise torture.

And it was reported that Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, director general of MI5, submitted evidence to the House of Lords indicating that her agents are prepared to act on intelligence obtained under torture in the fight against terrorism. However, when the Lords ruled against the admissibility of evidence derived from torture on 8 December 2005, Lord Hoffman stated: "The use of torture is dishonourable. It corrupts and degrades the state which uses it and the legal system which accepts it."

Torture becomes rampant when governments seek to weaken the laws against it. In November 2004, representatives of the UK government expressed their view to the UN Committee against Torture that certain provisions of the UN Convention against Torture could not be applied to British operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In response, the Committee stated that the Convention applied to all areas under the de facto control of the UK authorities.

The British Government is currently seeking to persuade the European Court of Human Rights to reconsider its jurisprudence establishing that the prohibition of torture or other ill-treatment encompasses an absolute prohibition against sending a person to a country where there is a real risk that they would be subjected to such a treatment. The Court has made it clear that there is no balance to be struck between the right of the individual and the security interests of the sending state.

Torture is still torture even when outsourced. Robert Baer, a former CIA agent interviewed by British journalist Stephen Grey, is reported to have said: "If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear - never to see them again - you send them to Egypt."

The Council of Europe's report stated that there is a great deal of coherent, convergent evidence pointing to the existence of a system of "relocation" or "outsourcing" of torture.

Torture doesn't provide a middle way. If you are not against it, you are for it. When the Minister of State, Ian Pearson, told Amnesty on 23 November 2005 that in "the situation where there is evidence that might prevent a future suicide bombing and we have suspicions that that evidence might have been obtained through torture, well, I think we have to use the evidence", he showed that he was for torture.

If I could know that cruel treatment of terrorist suspects would reduce the risk of being blown up on the London Underground which I use every day, would I say "go ahead"? Mr Blair would say "yes" in case he is blamed for my death. I say "no". I would rather risk my life more than I already do than be part of society that uses torture or its results for any reason whatever.