One of the less worthy reasons cited for going to war in Iraq is that it would increase Britain’s influence in the White House. If this was on the Prime Minister’s mind when he ordered British troops into combat, he has proved pathetic at exercising his advantage. Earlier this week the Foreign Secretary announced that the remaining four Britons held at Guantanamo Bay, the US military base in Cuba in which prisoners from the Afghan war of 2001 have been detained, are finally to be returned to Britain. Five other Britons were released last March. The legal basis on which these men, along with 680 other Muslims, have been held is dubious to say the least. The US declines to treat them as prisoners of war or as civilian prisoners, either of which classification would compel their captors to behave in accordance with certain standards of behaviour. Rather, America asserts the right to detain them without trial until such time as the war on terror is concluded. Given the logistical difficulties of declaring an end to hostilities with an abstract noun, this could be a very long time indeed.
It is inconceivable that Tony Blair, who made great play of incorporating the EU Charter of Human Rights into British law, considers the treatment of the British prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to have been satisfactory. Indeed, in July 2003 he told an angry House of Commons that ‘any commission or tribunal that tries these men must be conducted in accordance with proper canons of law so that a fair trial is both taking place and seen to take place’. He dispatched the Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith to Washington to raise his concerns. Yet when Mr Blair turned up in Washington himself with the promise of raising the issue with President Bush directly, his resolve seemed to melt. He won a minor concession: the halting of a military commission before which two of the British men were then appearing. But it has taken many more months for the Americans to agree to return the British prisoners to Britain, and even then it seems that the US President may have been less influenced by a few squeaks from his British sidekick than by a ruling from the US Supreme Court that Guantanamo prisoners must not be held in ‘legal limbo’ for ever. By contrast, Pakistan early on won the release of 30 of its citizens from Guantanamo Bay by making a diplomatic protest.
Even if he couldn’t have secured the proper trial of all 680 detainees at Guantanamo, one might have expected Mr Blair at the very least to demand that British prisoners be treated in the same manner as a Californian, John Walker Lindh, caught fighting with the Taleban: he was sent home to be tried in a civilian court, where he pleaded guilty. Instead, Tony Blair stood passively by George W. Bush’s side as the President said of the Britons at Guantanamo: ‘These were illegal combatants. They were picked out off the battlefield, aliens aiding and abetting the Taleban.’
As Mr Blair must have known, this was false. None of the nine Britons was picked up on the battlefield and only one was arrested in Afghanistan. Several were handed over to the Americans in Pakistan and one was arrested as far away as Zambia. This is not, of course, to declare the men innocent. A proper trial may one day establish that they were al-Qa’eda terrorists, or that they were innocents trapped by bounty-hunters who had been promised a $5,000 reward for every al-Qa’eda suspect they handed to the Americans. Either way, what did Mr Blair have to lose by pushing much harder for the due process of the law? He had a lot more to lose by not doing so: inciting a sense of injustice among British Muslims that they do not enjoy the same level of human rights as do other Britons accused of crimes abroad.
Far from mounting an effective protest against the Americans for their cavalier treatment of foreign-born prisoners, the government has sought to emulate them. It should not be forgotten that Britain is running a mini-Guantanamo of its own. In spite of a ruling by the House of Lords in December that their detention is illegal, nine foreign nationals remain incarcerated in Belmarsh prison under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. With the exception of two of the men, we are not even allowed to know their names, let alone what they are accused of. They have been set no trial, nor been given any indication of when the supposed emergency which justifies their incarceration will end: only that they may be detained under the Act ‘indefinitely’. The government insists the men are dangerous. Perhaps they are, but then so too were Harold Shipman and the Kray twins, yet they were granted a trial. Indeed, the public nature of their convictions served as a warning to citizens to be on their guard against other scoundrels.
What is so different about those accused of terrorist acts? Answer from the government comes there none. The sad truth is that a government which proudly signed up to the European Charter has the worst human rights record of any British administration in the past 30 years.