On 2 May 1997, Tony Blair promised the British people "a government that seeks to restore trust in politics in this country". He has failed. Last week's revelations of political manoeuvring on "extraordinary rendition" are symptomatic of a government which evades and spins its way out of problems, instead of dealing with them. The echoes of Iraq, and the absent weapons of mass destruction, are chilling.
In December, the Prime Minister told the Commons he "fully endorsed" the statement of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on rendition. Yet the Foreign Office was clear: her statement may have deliberately focused on torture because the prohibition on transfers in the Convention Against Torture does not apply to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. But such treatment, which the courts define as intense suffering, is prohibited absolutely under international law. It is hard to believe Mr Blair could endorse a position which he was told may have been deliberately framed in such a way as to allow for such abuse.
Mr Blair dismissed calls for an inquiry into rendition as "absurd". Yet he was advised that where there are allegations "we ought to make reasonable enquiries". Foreign Office ministers denied receiving requests for the use of UK territory or airspace for "extraordinary rendition", yet the memo expressly says "we cannot now say this".
How did this unsightly imbroglio come about? The answer lies in the response of the Bush administration to 9/11. The Washington Post says that only six days after 9/11, President George Bush signed a "presidential finding" giving the CIA broad "covert action" powers to kill, capture and detain suspected members of al-Qa'ida, anywhere in the world.
More than 200 CIA flights are known to have transited through UK airports. The Government has identified at least two cases of rendition through the UK and, as the memo says, "there could be more such cases". Rendition is state-sponsored abduction. If it is not used to avoid the law and procure information by ill-treatment, what else is its purpose? Why else is it covert? Why else is it conducted outside accepted legal process?
We need total transparency on rendition. The Prime Minister should come to Parliament to explain what exactly UK ministers and their officials knew - and when they knew it. What did British security services, close partners of the CIA, know about rendition and what did they tell ministers? Judicial, parliamentary or other inquiries have started in several countries, including Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Canada. Full disclosure in Britain is imperative.
Torture is the crime of dictators, not democrats. If we are committed to human dignity, the Government must take concerted action to ensure UK airports can never be used in the name of torture or any form of inhumane treatment.
Sir Menzies Campbell is deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats and a contender for the leadershipReuse content