Ministers' discomfort has been palpable. Chris Mullin newly returned to government, the usually imperturbable Baroness Symons and the Prime Minister have all in the past few days stood embarrassed at the dispatch box unable to defend the indefensible. What is proposed for British citizens incarcerated without charge at Guantanamo Bay - a special US military commission that could ultimately lead to their execution - cannot be defended. Even those accused of the most heinous crimes are entitled to due process. A secret military tribunal without choice of counsel and no right to cross-examine witnesses is not due process. John Walker Lindh, the only American citizen detained in Afghanistan, was never sent to Guantanamo and faced legal proceedings in the US system with all the protections and privileges which that entails. Why should British citizens be in any worse position?
When the Prime Minister sees President Bush next week he should ask him how he would feel if the boot were on the other foot. What would he and Congress be saying if the British were holding US citizens on the Isle of Wight and proposing to put them on trial in the same way as is proposed at Guantanamo?
The British embassy would be under siege, our ambassador declared persona non grata and British products banned from the Senate dining room. And that would be just for starters. There would be outrage, and justifiably so.
Here in the UK, 200 signatures on an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons may seem a mild protest, but a head of steam is building up. If Tony Blair cannot achieve the repatriation of British citizens and any are forced into a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty or even face that penalty, outrage here may not be far away. A direct appeal to President Bush would make sense. The proposed tribunals are military in all respects, and under the control of the Pentagon. But the president is the commander in chief. He is the head of the military system of which the tribunals form part. All he has to do is to issue a command.
If he cannot be persuaded to do so, there could be real trouble for Mr Blair and the Government. You don't have to use words like "poodle" to know that there is sufficient apprehension already, both in Parliament and in the country, about British dependence on the US. If British citizens, however serious the charges against them, are seen to be denied civil rights, opinion could well harden against the Prime Minister.
And on to the fire could be heaped the fuel of the extradition treaty with the US recently entered into by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, on behalf of the British Government. Ministers here welcomed the treaty as reflecting best modern practice, as has the Foreign Office website.
But what no one in the Government has been at pains to point out is that this treaty does not adhere to the principles of reciprocity. It is true that it provides for each country to seek the extradition of alleged criminals from the other, but not on the same basis.
It is enough, under the treaty, for a successful application from the US to provide evidence only of the identity of the person who is the subject of the application. But if the British Government makes a similar application it must establish to the satisfaction of the American courts not only identity but also prima facie evidence that a crime has been committed. American prosecutors, on the other hand, will no longer have to show that there are reasonable grounds to believe someone committed an offence to extradite them. A statement of the facts of the offence will be sufficient.
American citizens will have better protection under this treaty than UK citizens. Why? Because the Americans enjoy a constitutional protection against extradition on the word of an overseas government alone. It is hard to see why the UK Government feels compelled to enter these one-sided agreements. When added to the controversy over the position of British citizens at Guantanamo, it inevitably creates an impression that in significant areas involving the rights of our citizens we have to accept second best to the US.
This is surely wrong, either as high principle or low politics.
Why should the rights of British citizens be less then those of their US equivalents? Is not the value of British citizenship, as a matter of principle, equivalent to that of the US?
But the politics is just as compelling. In the continuing controversy about weapons of mass destruction, the relationship between the UK and the US is under increasing scrutiny. Disagreement with the policies of the Bush administration can too easily convert into anti-Americanism. Being too deferential can weaken the relationship that deference is designed to foster. A British government that seems in thrall to the US will find it more difficult to persuade its citizens of the value of the alliance.
Civil rights issues are conventionally thought of as the enthusiasm of the chattering classes. At the outset of the Blair Government civil rights were on the agenda, most notably freedom of information and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law. But civil rights are no longer a serious issue for Labour.
The military action against Iraq was said by the Labour Government to be morally justifiable because it was about improving the human rights of Saddam Hussein's people.
Strange now that Mr Blair's Government should be embarrassed by an apparent failure to secure the human rights of its own citizens.
Menzies Campbell is spokesman on foreign affairs for the Liberal DemocratsReuse content