British governments like to pose as the defenders of freedom. Last year’s celebration by the British system of the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta sought to reinforce a political and historical narrative in which it is a beacon of light and justice for the oppressed of the world.
The truth is much different and last week’s Tory party conference exposed once again the British establishment’s largely xenophobic view of the world outside of England.
Theresa May described Britain’s armed forces as the “finest armed forces known to man.” In full Thatcherite mode she attacked “those left wing human rights lawyers” who she claimed “harangue and harass” those forces. The applause was loud and sustained. The British Prime Minister and her Ministers plan to protect their soldiers from the legal consequences of any criminal actions they might be responsible for by making them exempt from European human rights laws during any future conflicts.
This is not the first time they have tried to do this. It also ignores the reality that British soldiers have always been largely immune from prosecution for murders and torture carried out on behalf of the British state.
Examine the record. For centuries successive British government’s ruthlessly exploited a colonial Empire it established by force and held by force. Its historical record of abuse and corruption is often ignored, especially in Britain itself. The stealing of land, the exploitation of the natural resources of other places, and the military domination of a quarter of the Earth’s landmass and peoples is brushed aside as if it is of no consequence.
The horrifying experiences of scores of indigenous peoples, who in the last hundred years have had to fight the “finest armed forces known to man” in order to achieve their freedom is also ignored.
Whether in Ireland a century ago; or in south East Asia, in the African continent, or the Middle East, scores of wars have been fought by the British, up to and including Iraq and Afghanistan, to protect their economic and trading interests. Human rights violations are an intrinsic part of this. Torture. Beheadings. Summary executions. Famine. Concentration camps. Internment. Censorship. They have all been consistently used. Millions died. All of these policies were part and parcel of an overarching political strategy which used repressive laws and technologies to control and oppress national movements and to deny hundreds of millions of people their freedom.
In 1969 British troops arrived on our streets in the North and immediately began to apply so-called counter-insurgency strategies used extensively in previous wars. During the 70s, 80’s and 90’s Britain derogated from the European Convention on Human Rights many times. It did so because of its reliance on repressive laws and the illegal actions of its state forces. It was able to do so because under the rules of the Council of Europe, which oversees the Strasbourg-based institution, states can derogate from the Convention.
Directly through shoot-to-kill operations and through state collusion with unionist death squads British forces killed hundreds. British soldiers were largely immune from prosecution as is evidenced in an Amnesty International report in 1991: 'There have been 21 prosecutions since 1969 of the security forces for using firearms while on duty in Northern Ireland (not including sectarian killings). Nineteen of these were found not guilty. One was convicted of manslaughter and given a suspended sentence. Just one - a soldier - was convicted of murder and released after serving two years and three months of his sentence and had been reinstated in the army A total of 339 people have been killed by the security forces during the same period. Most of those killed were from the Catholic population and many were unarmed; many were killed in disputed circumstances.'
This outcome is also true for British military operations in Kenya and Aden and Cyprus and in countless other wars. In the 21st century this modus operandi was used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2004 the British state has paid out more than £100 million in litigation to victims. In Iraq twenty million pounds in compensation has been paid out in 326 cases.
And like the ‘hooded men’ who were victim of torture by the British Army and RUC after internment in 1971, the methodology used – the five techniques – have remained largely unchanged. The Iraq claims of torture, no less than the torture inflicted in the North, were not “vexatious”. As Britain’s politics lurch further to the right the attacks, on what one former British soldier called the ‘parasitic lawyers,’ has intensified. This narrative promotes a dishonest and deceitful view of British soldiers as innocents in wars with ‘terrorists’ and ‘insurgents’ and the lawyers as “activist left wing human rights lawyers.”
One former Lieutenant colonel, the Rev Nicholas Mercer, writing in the London Guardian last week accused the British government of inventing “an orchestrated narrative”. He wrote: “The idea that the claims are largely spurious is nonsense.”
It is successive British governments that have lied about using torture. On March 2nd 1972 the then Tory Prime Minister said: “The techniques which the committee examined will not be used in future as an aid to interrogation. The statement that I have made covers all future circumstances.” But even as he said this Heath knew it was a lie. And almost 40 years later the five techniques, involving sleep deprivation, the use of noise, hooding, and stress positions, and the deprivation of food and drink were still being extensively used in Iraq.
Like lawyers in the North who stood up against state injustice, human rights lawyers in Britain have sought to expose torture and to secure compensation for its victims. If Theresa May wants to end litigation against British troops during conflicts then she needs to end the violations of human rights by those troops.
And for those others who are horrified by the vitriolic attacks on human rights lawyers they should remember the fate of Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson. These were two brave human rights lawyers who dared to challenge the British state’s use of repressive laws in the North. Both were vilified by the British state. Both were victim of a campaign of hate from within the RUC and British intelligence agencies. Both were murdered.