It looks as though the new government is belatedly prepared to grasp the nettle of Labour’s alleged acceptance of torture. The promised commission will investigate what exactly was tolerated under Blair’s government. If America won’t, then Britain will—even though in both cases the culprits are the elected leaders of the previous administration, and the secret services who did their dirty work.
The wheels of justice in Britain can grind exceedingly slowly, but in the end they usually grind small. Thirty-eight years after Bloody Sunday, when it was alleged that British soldiers killed 16 peaceful demonstrators in Londonderry in Northern Ireland, the official inquiry (lasting 12 years—a ridiculous amount of time) announced that it found the soldiers guilty of lying about the demonstrators’ use of guns.
From the 15th century onwards the common law of England (which is also the original common law of America) adamantly set its face against torture and the admission of evidence procured by torture. The judges who presided over these decisions pointed to the inherent unreliability of evidence procured that way, since a person subjected to unbearable pain will say anything to stop it. Voltaire, who lived in London for three years, wrote of how he admired the English attitude. Nevertheless, the special court of the star chamber could issue torture orders, but one of the very first acts of the long parliament in 1640 was to abolish this court, and since then no torture warrant has been issued in England.
Torture was abolished in Prussia in 1740, in France in 1789 and in Russia in 1847. In 1791 the US constitution in its eighth amendment forbade cruel and unusual punishment, echoing word-for-word the British bill of rights of 1689.
All these countries are parties to the Geneva convention, to the international convention on civil and political rights and, most importantly, the UN convention against torture, which allows no exceptions even in a time of warfare or emergency. The very conservative administrations of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were founding signatories.
The UK is not accused of torture on its own soil, unlike the US, but of sending those who it wanted to be…