Brian Barder has rounded up his views on the whole Craig Murray / Uzbekistan torture affair. Unfortunately, he’s mis-read the problem. (Please note – despite appearances this is not intended as a flaming…)
I’ve always found Barder Snr fairly good but rather long-winded, and this proves to be no exception (in the latter sense, at least). Typical civil servant tactics dressed up in normal language – make it so convoluted and lengthy that any attempt to point out problems with his arguments can be dismissed with a simple “ah, but seven paragraphs on that was qualified with the following,” while ensuring that the gist of the argument sounds compelling and indisputable.
As such, I shall deliberately talk in general terms about the overall tone of his counter to Murray, fully aware that with selective quotation from Barder’s posts it will likely be possible to dispute specifics of what I’m saying about his approach.
What Barder seems unwilling to concede is that people who aren’t trained lawyers / civil servants are capable of reading between the lines and dismissing legal speak (like Straw’s carefully-worded “Nor would we instigate others to commit torture”) as obfuscating, misleading nonsense when there is supplementary evidence, albeit largely circumstantial, to justify not taking it literally.
It’s easy to forget that Straw’s a very clever man and a fairly good lawyer, but he is – and he’s very unlikely to have been stupid enough to go on the record condoning torture. Taking what he (or any other politician, for that matter) says literally – especially on sensitive issues such as this – would be a tad naive. Reading too much into his precise wording and omissions would likewise be silly – that way lies conspiracy theories and tinfoil hats. Sometimes it is hard to know precisely where the division between justified scepticism and unjustified cynicism precisely lies, but so far I’ve seen few overly bad examples of the latter over this Murray/Uzbekistan affair.
Barder, however, is merely focussing on the letter of what was said and done, not the overall impression. It is a lawyer’s attitude, but this is not about legality per se.
Dismissing the concerns over the UK’s attitude to Uzbekistan’s torturing of its political prisoners because there’s no conclusive proof of any wrongdoing by the British government is pointless – if there was conclusive proof then there would have been no need for any blog-based action. What Barder (or, rather, the government)) needs to do is demonstrate that the concerns raised are unjustified, not that the evidence is inconclusive, as we all (other than the most credulous conspiracy theorists of us) knew that anyway.
For the record: no, I do not believe that the British government has ever explicitly encouraged torture, even off the record, as I don’t think even they would be that stupid. I do, however, believe that there is enough evidence building up to suggest that they may be willing to ignore torture (or maltreatment of suspects, as with the Greek affair) when it suits them, making them at least complicit in the act itself.
If this is the case, it may not have any definite legal implications. It does, however, have moral implications that cannot and should not be ignored by any society proclaiming itself to be civilised – especially considering the fact that the Taleban’s and Saddam Hussein’s torturing of their political prisoners have been used by the government as justification for those regimes’ removals. In this particular conflict, if we fail to maintain the moral high ground at all times, we are lost.