UK Prime Minister David Cameron is moving quickly to put the latest embarrassment over Libya behind him. He seems to acknowledge that Abdel Hakim Belhdji was indeed handed over to Gaddafi to be “interrogated” ie tortured, presumably because of his potential links to al Qaeda, and because Britain of the day could not be seen as having direct involvement with torture. Unfortunately now that it has become apparent that this was part of the extraordinary rendition programme for shifting potential enemies of the West to countries where there were far fewer controls on interrogation procedures, it looks for all the world that Britain was not so much against the use of torture, but simply against being seen to be directly involved.
Prime Minister Cameron can indeed argue that it did not happen on his watch, that it was a small price to pay for Britain’s contribution to the war against terror and even use the tenuous argument that it gave Britain a point at which it might be able to exert diplomatic influence on controlling Libya’s potential danger as a highly armed unstable power in North Africa. This would have been rather more plausible if he had not mentioned weapons of mass destruction because this assumes a short memory of what happened in Iraq.
However the key issue is really why the UK Government should be trusted any longer to tell us why they are entitled to be involved in Libya. Many cynics have assumed the real issue is control of oil. The NATO exercise was sold to the public as protection of the civilian population and as the removal of a regime involved in nasty treatment of its own people. When Britain is seen as not only collaborating with the Gaddafi past practices it now wishes to condemn, and has further now actually been caught using the Gaddafi regime for its own dodgy practices against the very people Britain now wants to support in Government, there is a serious moral issue.
The fact that Abdel Hakim Belhdji is a very high profile embarrassment is only part of the problem. In 2008 UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband claimed that the UK was unintentionally involved in extraordinary rendition by allowing its airports to be used by flights that subsequently turned out to have suspects destined for the so called “black sites”. However his statement at the time on February 21, 2008, then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband admitted (despite previous government denials) that two U.S. extraordinary rendition flights had stopped on Diego Garcia in 2002, a U.K. territory. When questioned as to whether the government had deliberately misled the public over rendition, the Foreign Secretary apologised and stated that the government had simply “made a mistake”. His statement also laid out the current UK Government view on Extraordinary rendition;
“Our counter-terrorism relationship with the United States is vital to UK security. I am absolutely clear that there must and will continue to be the strongest possible intelligence and counter-terrorism relationship with the US, consistent with UK law and our international obligations.
As part of our close co-operation, there has long been a regular exchange with the US authorities, in which we have set out: that we expect them to seek permission to render detainees via UK territory and airspace, including Overseas Territories; that we will grant that permission only if we are satisfied that the rendition would accord with UK law and our international obligations; and how we understand our obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture”
As it turned out the claimed 100 or so who were treated this way bu the US and UK turned out to be closer to 3000 and the black sites identified did not include Libya at all. Both the US and UK governments turned out to have lied about the practice. For example in a 2006 radio interview Condoleeza Rice, then US Secretary of State stated that the US does not transfer people to places where it is known that they will be tortured. The subsequent media exposure of suspects who testified to their torture (including entirely innocent people who had been arrested by mistake) showed this clearly was not the case. Even although the current US administration has now banned the practice, not all those taken have been released and it turns out that the Obama administration have allowed the process to continue for specific circumstances.
The problem is that sooner or later successive governments lying to their people, being caught in their lies, will have their assertions made so suspect that the people will not continue to trust them.