Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


16 NOVEMBER 2005

Witnesses: Ms Kate Allen, Director, and Mr Tim Hancock, Head of Policy, Amnesty International UK, and Mr Steve Crawshaw, London Director, Human Rights Watch, examined.

  Q1 Chairman: Good afternoon. Can I begin by apologising to our witnesses. We had a very large amount of business that we had to conclude, and, rather than call the Committee back at five o'clock, we decided to plough on for 10 minutes. I am sorry for keeping you. Welcome to Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. Perhaps I can begin by saying that we always greatly appreciate the memoranda, the submissions and the annual report we receive from Amnesty and, similarly, the information we get from Human Rights Watch which is always of great benefit to us as a committee and we are very glad you are here today to give us evidence in person. We have a huge number of areas that we want to cover. We will try, as far as possible, to have short questions, and I would be grateful if, as much as possible, we can have short answers and then we will get through it all, but I understand that these are very big areas. Can I begin by asking you whether you would like to comment on the decision of the United Nations General Assembly to establish a Human Rights Council, and do you think getting rid of the UN Commission on Human Rights and having the Human Rights Council will make any difference to the effectiveness of international human rights, and what can be done to make it more efficient and effective?

  Ms Allen: Thank you very much, Chairman. Can I thank you and thank the Committee, on behalf of Amnesty International, for inviting us to give evidence. Moving to the Human Rights Council, we at Amnesty International are hugely supportive of this move and we have great hopes that the Human Rights Council will become a part of the UN where human rights get greater attention, more focus and more prominence. We have very much supported this. We hope that the Human Rights Council becomes a principal organ of the UN. We hope that it is at the same level as the Economic and Social Council and that it has that kind of authority within the UN. We think that there are some key elements that need to be part of that equation. We think that it needs to meet regularly, we think it needs to examine all countries, and we think it needs to have the ability to deal with urgent situations. We hope it retains some of the very few strengths of the Commission, including NGO participation and the independent rapporteurs, and we also hope that there are some effective rules for electing the members of it, providing really effective membership of the Council. We are also concerned that the budget is fully reflective of the role that the Human Rights Council will have; we think that it should at least be double the current budget and we hope very much that Security Council members will not exercise their veto when addressing situations of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. If all of that could happen, if we could have a council set up with those kinds of features, then we think we have the ability to get away from the weaknesses of the Commission and that, by examining human rights of all countries on a rotational basis and, as I say, having a mechanism to deal with large scale abuses, we should be able to see a position where the Human Rights Council is something to which we can all look to protect and promote the situation of human rights and move us on from the inadequacies of the Commission.

  Mr Crawshaw: Can I echo Kate Allen's words of thanks to the Committee for inviting us here today, and that is much more than just a courtesy. As we know from past experience, the Committee's interest is enormously important and clearly has considerable impact. Taking note of your words earlier—and I promise not to repeat—I can also echo pretty much everything that Kate Allen has just said. Indeed, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch work together strongly. The importance of the Human Rights Council is very great. We have seen the problems with the Commission for Human Rights repeatedly in the past. I would pick a couple of elements out from what Kate has said just to particularly emphasise perhaps if only for the reason that they are ones which we are worried about at the moment that might slip away without attention to them. One is the idea of it being a standing body, in other words of it being able to meet constantly, and there are discussions going on. Understandably, people are saying, "Well, yes, but it does involve resources", and so on and so forth. To be honest, if we end up with something that only meets say a couple of times a year, then in effect you have got some of the problems that were already there with the Commission. It needs to have the feel of constantly being there, and calling it back, especially, is perhaps also problematic because of lots of procedural stuff that that would involve. Again, as mentioned by Kate Allen in the sense of openness to NGOs again being discussed, and I suppose from their point of view they see it as slimmer or easier to work, or whatever, if it is not quite so open as the Commission was. If we were to exchange the rather problematic commission but which did at least have open access for NGOs for a body that did not allow the same access, then we would think that would be a step backwards. I would hope that will not just sound like specialty. I would hope that you on the Committee would also feel that the input of organisations like ours and others like them would be useful. It would be a pity for that to fall away. On the question of the composition of the body, it is very difficult to make up exact rules at this stage for further discussion, but we feel that some kind of a sense of a commitment to human rights in the broader sense and how that would be worked out would be for further discussion.

  Chairman: We will watch the progress closely. Can I ask Fabian Hamilton to come in with some questions about the International Criminal Court?

  Q2 Mr Hamilton: Thank you, Chairman. As you know, the UK has been a longstanding supporter of the International Criminal Court. We were one of the first to sign the treaty that set up the court. The annual report describes the first referral to the International Criminal Court by the UN Security Council in March 2005 on Darfur. It also points out the investigations into the abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo and, of course, the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda and mentions the total budget of £46.4 million for 2005 of which the UK pays 5.9 million, or 12.8%. The question I wanted to ask you was around the essential membership of the United States. Not only is the US not a member of the ICC but, it seems, has tried to undermine it. Do you think the United Kingdom has done enough to persuade, cajole, argue that the United States should be brought into the process, and if we have not done enough, what more can we do?

  Mr Crawshaw: Given I think some of the themes about which we will be hearing later, you will be hearing lots of criticism. I am glad to say at least partially my response would be that the UK has played a positive role. Some Members of the Committee may remember that in past years we were very worried, we were very unhappy, frankly, that the UK seemed to be, if you like, giving the US a soft ride on various of the underminings that the US wanted to introduce for the court and different kinds of impunity and the UK was not really standing up to that. It was our impression—I would say more than an impression—that that was happening at some stage when the campaign started for an ICC referral on Darfur, but there was a happy ending in two senses, that by the end of that process—in other words in the spring of this year—the UK did actually play an important role in persuading the United States that there really was not something that could logically be resisted—it did not make sense—this was the most appropriate thing, and, therefore, we had the following happy end; and not only the UK, but the UK did play, by the end if not at the beginning, a positive role in saying there is no alternative, to use an old political phrase, and we therefore had the United States withholding its veto and allowing that referral to take place, which, although it did not get an enormous amount of newspaper coverage, is absolutely a moment of history, it seems to us, because it makes it very much more difficult for the United States to attempt to sabotage and undermine in the future. To go to your question directly of the United States signing up for it, I would love the United States to sign up for it. I hope that one day it will do. Again, living in the real world which we are forced to, there are other things, which we will no doubt come to later, of the United States' behaviour. We regret that they are not part of the Court, but there are some things that they could do right now which would make the world a safer place, and I would like to think that in due course they will understand the positive role the court can play and join, but I think what really needs to be confronted, which I hope we will discuss, is some of the behaviour of the country itself.

  Ms Allen: Also, Amnesty very much welcomed the Security Council referral of Sudan. I think was a very key moment for the future of the International Criminal Court. We also have continued our work on countries signing up to the court, and in October this year Mexico became the one hundredth state to ratify the Rome Statute, so the US is increasingly a different voice on this issue, and we will continue our work to get countries to sign up.

  Q3 Mr Hamilton: Mr Crawshaw mentioned Darfur. There are, of course, a number of cases pending. Do any of you think that the Court is functioning effectively so far and that it was right to choose the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Lord's Resistance Army situation in Uganda as appropriate cases for the ICC, or are there more pressing cases?

  Mr Crawshaw: Darfur was very pressing and it was quite right that that happened. We felt those were appropriate cases, both the Congo, where, as you will remember, it was the government itself which referred, and it was true that in eastern Congo, in Ituri, the government's writ simply did not run there and it became entirely appropriate to have the force and the power of an international body to come in and do work on that. On northern Uganda we also felt it was entirely appropriate, broadly, in the sense that justice brings long-term stability, which I can say is a thread of all of our work, and that simply putting things to one side is not seen to be helpful in the longer term. If there is a concern which we have had with northern Uganda—and I hope the lessons have been learnt—it is that the presentation of that referral was done at a press conference by the Ugandan president, and it almost appeared to be a government initiative all about the Lord's Resistance Army, whose crimes are, of course, well documented, but it is also true that there have been serious abuses by the Ugandan Army as well, and I think that it was very unfortunate for the prosecutor to be standing there publicly side by side with the   president—it gave the wrong signal of independence—and, beyond, that there was a reluctance to engage with civil society, which I hope, again, the lessons have been learnt. There were a lot of misunderstandings in Uganda itself about what was happening, and I would hope that the lessons that have been learnt from the Hague Tribunal, for example, on Yugoslavia where that sense of outreach to the society affected is very important. As I say, I hope that is a lesson which has been learnt for the future.

  Q4 Chairman: You have mentioned the Hague Tribunal and the former Yugoslavia. There has been a rather strange timing of the statement by Carla del Ponte with regard to Croatia which seemed to be rather convenient in terms of the opening of the negotiations on Turkey's accession to the EU. It has been denied that there is any connection, but nevertheless the statements made on 4 October were rather helpful to getting a resolution of the impasse in the EU. Can I ask you whether you believe that that decision to reactivate Croatia's candidacy from the EU on the basis of reported progress with regard to the case of Ante Gotovina undermines the credibility of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia or do you think the two are not connected?

  Mr Crawshaw: As you say, there has been a lot of discussion on this issue. Let me put it this way. We would regret very deeply if political deals were done which meant that justice was put to one side. I think that you do have to stand up for justice, and you are not doing yourself any favours if political deals are done. I would leave it at that. Clearly we want to see him brought to justice, and, as you say, there was a fairly marked turn around in the statements that we had from the prosecutor on that issue. It is certainly very regrettable if politics has entered into that matter. Justice should not be influenced by politics, clearly.

  Q5 Chairman: Do you think that this sends unfortunate signals to other states in the region, like Serbia, who also have indictees to be dealt with at some point?

  Ms Allen: I think that the real emphasis now must be on Croatia to ensure that General Gotovina is produced for the tribunal. I think that that is Amnesty's concern now, that we do see that action by the Croatian Government.

  Q6 Mr Pope: Could I ask you to say a word about Guanta«namo and the nature of the human rights abuses at Guanta«namo, and perhaps you could also say a word about the British response, because it seemed, certainly to me, that the British response seemed to be centered on British nationals who had been held there. Now that those British nationals are back in the UK—they not have been charged incidentally—the UK Government seems to have been quite silent since the beginning of this year when the UK nationals came back. Can you say something about the nature of the abuses and the British response to it?

  Ms Allen: I think we are now about to see the fourth anniversary of Guanta«namo Bay's existence and in fact there are over 500 men still held there from many different nationalities. I think Amnesty's concern and our comment on the FCO's Human Rights Report this year would be that I think we have moved from commenting in that report on Guanta«namo to an attempt to offer an explanation as to why Guanta«namo might be necessary. I think we, at Amnesty, view the UK Government's record on this as lamentable and not improving. We are obviously very pleased that the UK citizens have been returned to the UK. There are UK residents in Guanta«namo and they are UK residents whose families are in many cases UK citizens and can only look to the UK Government for support here; so we are very concerned that we are not getting the response that we would like to see from the United Kingdom Government about taking up those cases of residence and the wider general point of the existence of Guanta«namo and the damage it does. We are seriously concerned at the moment about the fact that 210, we understand, men in Guanta«namo are on hunger strike. We understand that six of those are UK residents and we have reports that people are critically ill, and we are not getting the response from the UK Government that we would like to see to taking an active interest and concern in the situation of those people. Therefore, we are incredibly concerned and disappointed by the UK Government's current role in terms of Guanta«namo.

  Q7 Mr Pope: What sort of practical things could the UK Government do? Would we be best raising this diplomatically as part of the special relationship or should we take a more public stance in being critical? What is the most effective way forward?

  Ms Allen: I think four years into Guanta«namo, if the diplomatic routes have been used and they are not working, I think there really ought to be a much more public voice by the UK Government. We increasingly hear from people who have come back from Guanta«namo stories of abuse, of cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment of people, we increasingly hear stories from people of the way in which they have been dehumanised in their time at Guanta«namo and I think it is time the UK Government used its influence with its major ally about the UK residents and the whole wider issue of Guanta«namo.

  Q8 Mr Purchase: Continuing on the theme of America and camps of one kind or another, there have been a number of reports, I think, by Human Rights Watch on a possible string of camps across Europe and Asia set up by the Americans through the CIA where very similar matters are being pursued such as those at Guanta«namo—people being tortured and so on and so forth. Is there any real evidence to support that claim that has appeared in the press as well as from Human Rights Watch?

  Mr Crawshaw: There is absolutely definitive evidence of the fact that people are being "disappeared", and I use that word carefully. We remember it from Latin America, and they are perhaps not being killed, but the fact is that people are being taken out of circulation. The United States has, indeed, admitted that they are taking people out of circulation. They are being held somewhere in secret prisons. It is an extraordinary underlying fact of the whole way that the US has conducted what it calls its war on terror that it seems not to believe that the rules apply. Many of the people who they have taken out of circulation in this way may indeed have committed terrible crimes—some on that list are known to be strong al-Qaeda suspects—but the idea that that means that therefore you should not say where they are being held and how they are being held is extraordinary. As regards the latest ones which you mention, which again is partly to do with the flight logs and where people have landed and the pattern, we have said—it has sometimes got down to a kind of shorthand—that there are strong indications from what we are seeing—in other words, the pattern of the logs, direct flights from Afghanistan to Romania, to Poland and the pattern of what we are seeing, strongly suggests that there are camps being held there—and, frankly, even if they are not there, there are others elsewhere, it is our strong feeling. The available evidence points only in that direction.

  Q9 Mr Purchase: Has anybody emerged to say, "I have been stuck in this camp" anywhere?

  Mr Crawshaw: No, all of those people are still there.

  Q10 Mr Purchase: It must be very difficult for organisations such as yourselves to get real, hard information. How unhelpful are the Americans? Do they completely clam up, do they give you a clue or any information at all?

  Ms Allen: Can I just quote for the Committee. You will remember the Taguba Report by Major General Taguba into the scandal at Abu Graib. His report was leaked and in it he referred to "ghost detainees" and he referred to these as detainees who were held in secret and moved around prisons to hide them from visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross. He described in his report, "This is deceptive, contrary to army doctrine and in violation of international law." We do have reports from the US's own internal inquiries, which, we would hold, are not adequate enough by any means, but even in those terms we have clear documentation that these are the practices that the US administration is using.

  Q11 Mr Purchase: Do you think the British intelligence services are in the loop on this one?

  Ms Allen: We have no evidence of that.

  Mr Crawshaw: Could I say as a postscript to that, I think merely to say, "Oh we did not know", is a most inappropriate response, which we are hearing to some extent from the British Government. If they did not know, why are they not asking the questions? You have available the pattern of behaviour which, as Kate Allen has said, as I was laying out, we have done entire reports on the subject. The evidence there is available that there is a problem that exists, and it does it seem to us that the British Government should absolutely be challenging that, including the intelligence services.

  Q12 Mr Purchase: You say there is evidence that it exists. I am perfectly prepared to believe you. On the other hand, with such a lack of hard information and evidence, it is difficult to make all this stick, is it not? Particularly I ask you: is Britain in the loop? You think not, but may be they are.

  Mr Crawshaw: To clarify, it is not a fact that we have a US government denying these things and therefore one is left slightly baffled, saying, "We do not say it is happening." Other people say, "Well, we think it is." You are then, I think you will probably accept, left slightly with a stalemate. The reality is that you have got a pattern which the US has never denied. As Kate Allen mentioned, there was one US official who gave the very clear rationale for the process of extraordinary renditions, as it called them. We do not kick the expletives out of them, we send them back to other countries so they can kick them out of them. Precisely what has been happening is, "Oh, we better not do it on US soil, but somewhere else it really does not matter." That has been more or less public—we have not heard it quite from the mouth of the president, but it has not seriously been denied that is what is happening. Given that it has not been denied, indeed could not be denied given the extraordinary pattern of clear evidence of what has happening, it is surprising—I would put it at its very mildest—that the British Government does not raise the issues. Just as a postscript to what Kate Allen was saying on Guanta«namo, there again it is extraordinary that it is treated as British—you know, the focus on the Brits—as though somehow if we deal with our citizens, which is perfectly logical for diplomats to do in a narrower context—you focus on your own people—but not to see the message that is being sent by the trampling of international law, in the broadest sense, I think is really remarkable.

  Q13 Mr Purchase: On the question of finding hard evidence, does Human Rights Watch or, indeed, Amnesty International have resources that you could devote to discovering at least a tiny little the gap anywhere?

  Ms Allen: We do have hard evidence. In our report "The USA Torture and Secret Detention Testimony of the Disappeared in the War on Terror" we have documented the cases of people. We have the cases of two men, Muhammad Bashmilah and Salah Salim Ali, who were from Yemen, who were arrested, detained and tortured for seven days in Jordan, they were held incommunicado for more than a year. They were transported between detention facilities, held, and interrogated by guards that they say came from the US and they were subsequently detained without charge in Yemen where we visited them in June this year. We do have documented cases of people who have told us about being moved.

  Q14 Mr Purchase: You have presented this to the British Government?

  Ms Allen: This is a public report which has certainly been presented to the British Government this year.

  Q15 Mr Maples: I just want to take you back to Guanta«namo along the same lines really. I forget the exact words you used, but in your written statement you talked about evidence of torture and widespread cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and this was in relation to Guanta«namo. I am interested in a similar question, what hard evidence there is of that, because, interestingly, when the second batch of British detainees came back they did not actually seem me to make any serious allegations, and they certainly were not taken up by any sections of the British press where you might have expected them to be taken up. I wonder what hard evidence there is particularly of torture. I suppose they are all the same thing: cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment probably amount to torture.

  Ms Allen: I think we have very strong accounts, particularly from young men from Tipton, who documented on their return to the UK what had happened to them, of being kept awake, of loud music, of threats being made to them, of being held and interrogated endlessly day after day. We had a lot of accounts from—

  Q16 Mr Maples: Would you call that torture?

  Ms Allen: I think that amounts to torture.

  Q17 Mr Maples: We are talking about people who have been responsible for killing 3,000 American citizens. Where does the distinction between a tough interrogation technique and torture begin? That sounds to me like a tough interrogation technique.

  Ms Allen: We are talking about young men who were selling electrical goods in Tipton at the time of September 11.

  Q18 Mr Maples: They were arrested in Afghanistan?

  Ms Allen: They were not people that were responsible. They have never been charged. They are back in this country.

  Q19 Mr Maples: No, but it is the torture aspect. If the Americans are torturing people at Guanta«namo I think we would all be very worried about that.

  Ms Allen: I think if you hold people incommunicado and you interrogate them endlessly day upon day, that you have extremes of temperature that are used, that you do not allow them any contact with their families, that you have loud noise playing continuously, that you threaten people in terms of their lives and their well-being, I think that adds up to torture.

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