Cruel Britannia: A secret history of torture

November 16, 2012

By Emily Wight

Less than two months after the Mau Maus won a legal victory over the British government for torture they suffered during the 1950s, Ian Cobain has published Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, a book which explores the narrative of Britain’s complicity in torture around the world from the Second World War to the present day.

On Thursday 15 November,  Cobain spoke about his book at the Frontline Club and was joined by Human Rights Watch’s Clive Baldwin, Rt Hon David Davis MP, and professor Dr Ruth Blakeley in a discussion that was chaired by BBC foreign correspondent Humphrey Hawksley.

Cobain began by telling the story that sparked his intrigue in the topic. It began, he said, when he was reporting on a terrorism trial at the Old Bailey. All seven accused were British Muslims, but one in particular had been arrested in Pakistan:

“He was repeatedly tortured and asked about his associates and when the torture stopped two British men called Matt and Richard would turn up and ask him the same questions with a glass of water whilst his main torturer would sit in a room behind them.”

The conversation then focused on the UN’s definition of torture, Clive Baldwin described it as:

“Essentially serious physical or psychological harm visibly inflicted on a person for a particular purpose, such as questioning them or obtaining evidence or even punishment.”

He then added that the opportunity for loopholes within this definition has historically enabled governments and secret services to manipulate the meaning of the word:

“What’s now being called water-boarding, The New York Times for a century would call it torture and it was well known and documented even in the American war in the Philippines a hundred years ago. When it became a controversial issue about 10 years ago then it became waterboarding.”

Dr Blakeley, a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Kent, spoke of the types of questions she is asked by her students. She blamed the glorification of torture in mainstream media for many unconcerned attitudes she experiences in her lectures:

“10 years ago, very few of my students would accept the possibility of torturing someone – now the majority think it’s ok. What they are subjected to is a diet of total nonsense, things like 24, these are really strong cultural imperatives that drive an agenda and that’s quite dangerous.”

The Conservative MP and former shadow home secretary David Davis pointed the finger at politicians and law makers rather than the people actually doing the torturing:

“The people who wrote the guidelines were the guilty party. It was 2002-2004, immediately after 9/11, you’re a young MI5 or MI6 officer, your task is preventing the people of this country from another 9/11, that’s how you see your task, and you’re given guidelines on how to do it and the people who should be held to account in all this are the people who wrote these guidelines because they’re the people who really have to think this through.”

Cobain finished by saying, perhaps rather forlornly, that he thinks it will take another generation before we can have an inquiry into the British government’s hand in torture in the post-9/11 wars.

Watch the full discussion here: