Richard Norton-Taylor, November 2, 2006
The government is undermining the ban on torture enshrined in domestic and international law in a mistaken belief that it would help counter terrorism, a human rights group warns today.
The warning, by Human Rights Watch, comes as Whitehall is believed to be drawing up a law allowing the government and the courts to balance the risk of torture against national security.
The Home Office last night dismissed speculation that the Queen's speech on November 15 would include legislation whereby courts could balance the risk of an individual being tortured if he was deported, against the threat to national security if he was allowed to remain in Britain.
The government is trying to overturn a ruling by the European court of human rights which prevented it from deporting Karamijit Chahal, a Sikh activist suspected of terrorist involvement, to India on the grounds that he risked being tortured.
The ruling reflected the absolute ban enshrined in the UN convention on torture.
The home secretary, John Reid, has described the decision as "outrageously imbalanced".
In a letter to the European court, the government said the Chahal ruling created a "real difficulty" in that it prevented governments from "expelling … foreign nationals on their territories who are judged to be a threat to national security". Britain, it added, "would wish to suggest a number of alternative legal routes by which this difficulty could more appropriately be dealt with".
Human Rights Watch accuses the government of trying to rewrite European human rights law.
Diluting the ban on torture, it says in its report, would be "morally bankrupt, illegal under international law and ultimately counter-productive".
It notes that the government has already said that torture evidence could be used in court proceedings, refused to condemn CIA "torture flights", negotiated "memoranda of understanding" over deportations with Jordan, Lebanon, and Libya, and plans more such deals.
Louise Arbour, UN high commissioner for human rights, has described the practice of seeking diplomatic assurances about torture as "dubious".
Manfred Nowak, the UN's special rapporteur on torture, has expressed concern "that the plan of the United Kingdom to request diplomatic assurances for the purpose of expelling persons in spite of a risk of torture reflects a tendency in Europe to circumvent" international obligations.
Benjamin Ward, a director of Human Rights Watch for Europe, said last night: "The most effective response to terrorism is good police and intelligence work, not setting aside core values."