Kate Allen: How Labour has betrayed the promises it made in 1997


In 1997, the Labour government published a White Paper entitled Bringing Rights Home, ahead of the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998. Amnesty International commended the Government for taking a first step towards a human rights culture in the UK.

How times change. Eight years later we found ourselves in the highest court in the land, with the same government arguing that torture evidence should be admitted in UK courts.

Earlier that year, Amnesty took the rare step of intervening in another successful court challenge, this time against the Government's policy of detaining without charge or trial foreign nationals under the sweeping powers of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act.

And where UK diplomats had previously taken an active role in programmes to combat torture, we now see the same diplomats striking deals with countries that are known to abuse detainees. The UK has already signed such a "memoranda of understanding" with Libya, Jordan and Lebanon, well-known to Amnesty for their poor human rights records. Algeria is reportedly to follow.

When I stood before the Foreign Affairs Committee this year to give evidence, for the first time I found myself unable to commend the UK for its stance against torture. This string of broken promises has brought the UK to the attention of the global Amnesty movement. Such is the extent of our disquiet with the UK that, for the first time in nearly 30 years, our secretary general has met with ministers to express our concerns. The report, Human Rights: A Broken Promise, comes out of those meetings.

Tony Blair has argued that, in the intervening eight years, "the rules of the game have changed". It is of course true the threat of terrorist attack is far greater and the Government has a responsibility to protect citizens. But some rules must not be changed - the right to a fair trial, the independence of the judiciary and the global ban on torture.

Last year, Amnesty held the biggest ever gathering of former "war on terror" detainees in London. I heard the testimony of people who had been sent to third countries for torture. I heard from a man who was picked up in a US airport and held in a Syrian cell for over 16 months, so small he could not lie down. We can't just ignore this - and we certainly shouldn't be taking an "out of sight, out of mind" approach and shipping people off to be tortured.

Amnesty is stepping up its focus on the UK and the human rights impact of its policies. Britain must stand firm and oppose all torture, in all countries, at all times.

The author is the director of Amnesty International UK

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