14 August 2004

How torture can be eliminated

By Ian Sinclair

The profoundly horrifying images of torture in Abu Ghraib shocked many in the UK - could people from our own nation be involved in similar brutalities?

History actually shows that torture often goes hand in hand with warfare, as does rape and other horrors. These awful acts manifest themselves in most military forces. We know that American forces are culpable in Iraq.

But let's look honestly at our own part of this legacy. The 100 men holding out against 3,000 Zulus at Rorke's Drift in 1879 is portrayed as a glorious military victory, in films such 'Zulu'. However 'Zulu Victory', published last year, written by two retired British officers, shows that after the battle, senior British officers and enlisted men of a force sent to relieve the garrison killed hundreds of wounded Zulu prisoners in revenge. Some were bayoneted, some hanged and others buried alive in mass graves.

Our national conscience has many similar "scars" - in the 1950s Malaya independence struggle, there was vicious conduct by the British forces, who routinely beat up Chinese squatters. There were cases of bodies of dead guerrillas being exhibited in public, and in 1952 a photograph of a Marine Commando holding two guerrillas' heads caused a public outcry.

In Kenya, British forces inflicted brutalities including slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging until death, pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight and burning eardrums with lit cigarettes. Former members of the Mau Mau independence movement are currently trying to sue the British government for these human rights abuses from the 1950s.

Last year, the journalist Natasha Walter, citing medical and police records, reported that 650 Kenyan women say they have been raped by British soldiers on exercise in the region over the past thirty years. Their nature and number suggest these rapes were not simply committed by a few soldiers -one woman said that she was caught up in an attack in which at least twelve soldiers raped six women.

Then Iraq - torture by British soldiers has been extensively documented by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International.

A notorious case occurred in September 2003, when British soldiers arrested seven hotel employees in Basra. Driven to a military base, Kifah Taha said "they started beating us as soon as we arrived." The British soldiers gave the prisoners footballers' names and made them dance. Taha explained, "They said if we didn't remember our names they would increase the beating." One of the prisoners, Baha Mousa, died in British custody, as a result of being "kickboxed". Taha himself was so badly beaten that the British military medical report noted, "it appears he was assaulted… and sustained severe bruising to his upper abdomen, right side of chest, left forearm and left upper inner thigh."

Baha Mousa's family was recently in London, presenting their case to the High Court. His family's lawyer, Phil Shiner, is also helping Iraqis pursue 26 other reports of unlawful killings, eight of torture and two of serious injury. The Ministry of Defence has investigated 93 allegations of abuse by British soldiers in Iraq. Further, the allegations made last week by three Britons held at Guantanamo Bay, suggest that British officials were complicit in human rights abuses including beatings, sexual humiliation and holding a gun to a detainee's head during interrogation.

As lawyer, Mr Shiner says "This case involves issues which are not only important to the victims and their families and their right to redress … but significant in … ensuring that future conflicts, occupation and peacekeeping operations are subject to human rights law."

Given this serious evidence, we must demand that our armed forces put in place a culture which totally and finally eliminates these breaches in international law.

Internal military inquiries will solve little: Amnesty International notes Royal Military Police investigations are "shrouded in secrecy and lack the level of public scrutiny required by international standards."

A systematic ('top-down') review of the military should be undertaken with the objective of developing totally new approaches to their training, command structures and operational procedures so that torture ever being used by British forces again is precluded. Further the armed forces should be under continual external scrutiny, under British law, by external agencies, including human rights and legal experts.

Concerning the events at Rorke's Drift in 1879, the authors of 'Zulu Victory' note "the British government and public thought it was better to sweep it under the carpet." We must not "sweep under the carpet" recent events of brutality by the British soldiers in Iraq.