Guantanamo Bay: ‘battered moral authority’

The UK government’s offer of £10million to Guantanamo Bay detainees speaks to the elite’s disarray post-9/11.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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From enemies to frenemies of the state – it’s been quite a turnaround for 16 Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Considered to be serious enough security threats by British intelligence agencies to be ‘rendered’ up to the US authorities for internment and torture-laden interrogation at Guantanamo Bay several years ago, this week they found themselves recipients of a gift reportedly somewhere in the region of £10million from their one-time persecutors. And all they have to do now is drop the interminable court proceedings and, well, just let it lie.

The reasoning of the British government seems straightforwardly pragmatic. As it stood before this week’s settlement, the 15 former inmates and one current inmate were intent on pursuing claims against the British state. Although the specifics of the accusations vary, the substance is that British intelligence officials were complicit in the abduction and transfer of the detainees to Guantanamo Bay and, in some cases, were present during their often brutal interrogations.

However, to take the various cases through the courts the claimants’ lawyers were in the process of extracting so-called torture papers from the government which document British involvement in the rendition and interrogation of suspects at Guantanamo Bay – 900 of around 250,000 documents had until this point been retrieved. This meant that lots of embarrassing details – the involvement, for instance, of ex-prime minister Tony Blair and ex-foreign secretary Jack Straw – were being made public. And it’s this that seems to have prompted the Lib-Con government to offer the premature settlement.

Rather unconvincingly, justice secretary Kenneth Clarke claimed that the various payouts were not ‘admissions of culpability’. It would just have taken too long and cost too much, he said, to fight the litigation in an ‘uncertain legal environment’ in which a little too much of the secret stuff the security services do would be exposed to public view and potential criticism. Beyond that, Clarke’s lips remained sealed in the name of confidentiality. In fact, so keen is Clarke to ensure that the activities of the secret services remain just that – secret – that he has promised a set of proposals for next summer that would result in any intelligence material relevant to a court case being heard at secret hearings.

But this ‘hush’ money, as some are wont to call it, is unlikely to do much in the way of hushing. Since the ‘war on terror’ was launched in the aftermath of 9/11, there has been frequent talk of its dark underside: detention without trial, detention with torture, and the catch-all phrase, human rights abuses. And Britain has been anything but a silent partner in the allegations.

For instance, as far back as 2002, the Guardian was reporting that British security services had given the names and location of London-based businessmen Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil al-Banna to the CIA who promptly seized the pair while they were in Gambia, before flying them to Guantanamo Bay via Afghanistan. (These two, incidentally, now number among the recipients of Clarke’s largesse.) Since then, allegations of torture, not to mention the iniquity of holding people at Guantanamo Bay indefinitely without letting them stand trial, have been a constant source of anti-government and anti-war sentiment in both the US and UK.

But the thorny significance of Guantanamo Bay, its provision of orange jump-suited grist to the anti-war mill, has little to do with the Coalition of the Willing’s ineptitude. That is, it’s not because security services and intelligence agencies have proved rubbish at keeping things hidden that the treatment of so-called enemy combatants has become such an issue. Nor is it a product of the often-repeated cross-government mantra of openness, transparency and so on. Rather, the unrelenting focus on Guantanamo Bay, with its steady stream of detainees-cum-plaintiffs, testifies to something else: the West’s inability to execute the ‘war on terror’.

Again, this is not due to incompetence. It is to do with the incoherence of a war that many, certainly in liberal elite circles, have come to see as insupportable. It is just not seen as legitimate. As Brendan O’Neill pointed out on spiked earlier this year, the contrast between the political and media elite’s attitude to the torturous activity of the British state during the war in Northern Ireland and its attitude to the state’s behaviour during the ‘war on terror’, and by association the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is telling. While the British security services used a variety of torture methods on those deemed enemy combatants in Northern Ireland – from throwing blindfolded prisoners out of helicopters that were actually only hovering a few feet above a building’s roof, to chronic sleep deprivation – any liberal discomfort was confined to exceptional events like the death of 10 hunger strikers in 1981. Beyond such events, the brutal treatment of Irish republicans received relatively little attention because the war that it was part of was seen to be legitimate.

The ‘war on terror’, however, has proved an angst-ridden, mission-doubting affair. And, as a result, the treatment of those detained in its name has lacked anything resembling justification. This is why rather than appearing as enemies, as terrorists intent on destroying Western civilisation – despite the best efforts of TV series 24 – the detainees have come to appear as victims of US-led, UK-backed barbarism.

The elite’s profound discomfort with the ‘war on terror’ also explains why the reaction to Clarke’s settlement has been so introspective. There’s a constant sense that the treatment of the detainees says rather too much about us. The Times‘ editorial struck a suitably navel-gazing tone: ‘Should [the torture] accusations have a merit they stand as a stain upon Britain’s reputation which the Ministry of Defence must address… In conflict of any sort, democratic societies have tougher decisions to make than those which often hold themselves to lower standards.’ Even the Daily Mail, after taking the side of the Great British Taxpayer, admitted that the British state was right to make amends to the Guantanamo 16: ‘Yesterday may have been unpalatable. But it was a necessary evil if Britain is to rebuild its battered moral authority.’

In this bout of national narcissism, where what matters is the moral reputation of the British state, we have a strange echo of the legalistic criticisms of the Iraq War. That is, the problem was never that the Western allies were intervening in the affairs of another people, treating them like unthinking objects of a purely Western will to the detriment of all concerned; it was simply that the West’s actions never received the legal stamp of approval from the UN, the imprimatur, or so it was presented, of a just and legitimate war. If it had, well, all would have been fine. Likewise, it seems, the problem that the elite has with Guantanamo Bay is that it is a reminder that the West failed to do things by the law book.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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