Thursday, January 05, 2006

Ex-Ambassador vs. Ex-Ambassador

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.

5 Comments:

Blogger Niks Bijzonders said...

Excellent analysis, Nosemonkey. Barder does seem to have missed the point on this one.

1/05/2006 03:14:00 pm  
Anonymous Brian B. said...

Oh dear, oh dear. One of us has mis-read the problem discussed on my website, but as you'll see if you take the trouble to read what I have written, it's certainly not me. Hardly anything you say about my post, Mr Matthews, accurately represents my views, and in some places you attribute to me opinions which are the direct opposite of what I think and what I have written. Anyone who for any mysterious reason is interested in knowing which problem I have been discussing and what I actually think about it is welcome to read the real thing rather than the unrecognisable version of it presented here for demolition by Mr Matthews. Happy new year!

1/05/2006 10:32:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

If I've misrepresented your opinions, my apologies. I don't, however, think I've actually even made an attempt to represent your opinions in any way - and this post was, after all, explicitly stated to be talking only in general terms. The only point I was trying to make is that the problem discussed on your website is not the problem at hand. I have no real issue with the points you make beyond that.

1/05/2006 11:07:00 pm  
Anonymous The smoking gun said...

Brian Barder says:

"Despite the huge volume of material on numerous blogs purporting to identify the smoking gun in which Jack Straw (or Tony Blair, or any other minister) has spoken about the government’s attitude to torture and information likely to have been got by torture, I have not been able to find any instance of lying or of deliberately misleading."

...but he has not, so far as I can see, given any account of how he squares this with the following couple of quotes, which were on the page from Craig Murray's site which was syndicated across the blogosphere:

Constituent: "This question is for Mr Straw; Have you ever read any
documents where the intelligence has been procured through torturous means?"

Jack Straw: "Not to the best of my knowledge... let me make this clear... the British government does not support torture in any circumstances. Full stop. We do not support the obtaining of intelligence by torture, or its use." - Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, election hustings, Blackburn, April 2005

I was summoned to the UK for a meeting on 8 March 2003. Michael Wood gave his legal opinion that it was not illegal to obtain and to use intelligence acquired by torture... On behalf of the intelligence services, Matthew Kydd said that they found some of the material very useful indeed with a direct bearing on the war on terror. Linda Duffield said that she had been asked to assure me that my qualms of conscience were respected and understood. - Ambassador Craig Murray, memo to the Foreign Office, July 2004"


Straw claimed that he had "not to the best of my knowledge" read any document based on torture-tainted intelligence, yet Craig had sent back memo after memo pointing out that the intel coming into London from Uzbekistan was torture-tainted.

According to Craig Murray, he was told by his FCO superiors that Jack Straw wanted him to know he'd lost sleep over the issue.

It's of course possible that Straw knew of the intel's existence but never actually read any of it, but this seems a little far-fetched, and even so, if this is what he meant by "not to the best of my knowledge" than it certainly seems misleading.

Given that this quote has been so widely distributed in the discussions of this issue, and given that it headed up the item on Craig's site to which Barder was originally responding, it seems odd that he has given no account of why he doesn't think it counts as a "smoking gun". There may, of course, be an argument for dismissing it, but with all due respect Barder's not given us that argument. He appears just to have ignored it completely.

He also takes issue, elsewhere, with claims that the UK government is involved in rendition but so far as I can see he gives no account of how this squares with the allegations made by Binyam Mohammed, and others.

Richard

1/06/2006 02:16:00 pm  
Blogger Dave Heasman said...

" I do not believe that the British government has ever explicitly encouraged torture, even off the record"

"Ever?" There were six (now five) Irishmen from Birmingham who would contest that. And really, if they'll do it once, they'll do it whenever they feel like it.

1/06/2006 03:53:00 pm  

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