Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Freedom from torture isn't in Britain's foreign policy

Backed by Punch against Tsar in Crimean War (1855).

Lord Palmerston, who secretly and from motives unknown to the people at large, to Parliament and even to his own colleagues, managed the Foreign affairs of the British Empire... (K.Marx, in New York Tribune, 1861)


REMEMBER Lord Palmerston? The pub named after him in the Kilburn High Road has changed its name, I think, and the one in Penge has lost its licence and become a pizza joint, but I still remember learning at school about this old 19th century Tory, always ready to send a gunboat to avenge infringements of a Brit's right and privileges abroad, a believer in freedom so long as it advanced the British Empire.

Having bought his seat in parliament he was firmly against extending the franchise to the majority of Brits at home, of course. Nor did he care that his tenants in Ireland starved in the Famine. He might have sided with the slavery South in the American civil war, had opinion in Britain not been otherwise, and besides, the United States won. But he saw advantage in supporting freedom struggles in Greece and Italy, to a point.

I've sometimes wondered how Tony Blair and co. might compare with Palmerston. Since they got in, a day has not passed without British forces being in action somewhere around the globe, not to mention those whom Britain trains and arms, and it's all in the name of freedom, isn't it? Poor old Robin Cook wanted to give foreign policy an "ethical dimension", which his civil servants at the FCO thought was "bollocks" (comment scrawled on the Secretary's memo), and he has been misquoted ever since. Some lackey shifted Cook by phoning the press about his romantic indiscretion, and he has since moved on to Another Place, but how fare the ethics?

Four British men who claim they were tortured in Saudi Arabia have vowed to take their claims for compensation to the European human rights court after the House of Lords ruled that foreign states and their officials enjoyed immunity from civil actions.

The unanimous judgment, supported by UK government lawyers, was received with bitter disappointment by the men and condemned as "a sad day for British justice" by human rights groups. One of the men, Bill Sampson, who has joint Canadian citizenship, said: "This gives the lie to Britain's ethical foreign policy. [The government is] more concerned with having cocktail parties for torturers than doing justice for their own citizens."

Cocktails for the Saudis? Soft drinks only, surely. Les Walker said he was disgusted. "It's all down to money and oil and planes. Don't upset the Saudis. That's the British government's view."

Asked in the Commons what redress there was for UK citizens when tortured abroad, Tony Blair said the government had only intervened in the case "to ensure that rules of international law and state immunity are fully and accurately presented and upheld. We utterly condemn [torture] in every set of circumstances."

Sampson, Walker and an anaesthetist Sandy Mitchell were arrested five years ago after a series of bomb attacks. Ron Jones, a tax accountant, was injured in one of the attacks but held for 67 days and tortured before his release. The Saudi authorities claimed the bombings were part of an alcohol turf war between expatriates. The regime was trying to cover up the rise of political terror in Saudi Arabia by groups frustrated with the monarchy's monopoly of power.

Sampson and Walker, who say they were sentenced to death by partial beheading and crucifixion, and Mitchell made televised confessions which they say were beaten out of them. All three were freed in 2003 without explanation. The case was the first time that the Lords had looked at the issue of whether a foreign country could claim state immunity over civil proceedings brought against its officials for torture.

The judgment followed an appeal by the Saudi government against a court of appeal decision in October 2004 allowing the men to sue officials for damages. Five law lords agreed that the officials were protected by the 1978 State Immunity Act from proceedings brought in this country. Lord Bingham said in his lead judgment that the issue at the heart of the case was the relationship between two principles of international law. One was that a sovereign state will not assert its judicial authority over another.

The second, and more recent, principle was one that condemned and criminalised the official practice of torture. He concluded: "A state is either immune from the jurisdiction of a foreign court or it is not. There is no halfway house and no scope for the exercise of discretion." Lord Hoffmann said: "It is not for a national court to develop international law by unilaterally adopting a version of that law which, however desirable, forward-looking and reflective of values it may be, is simply not accepted by other states."

Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf al-Saud, the Saudi ambassador in Britain, added: "The principles are well entrenched in UK law and as such the judgment does not come as a surprise in a country known for its fair legal system and respect for the rule of law."

Maybe people intending to work in Saudi will think twice about going for the big money promised if they ask what protection they can expect from the British government, should things go wrong with that marvellous Saudi law and order we used to hear about from expats. Not that we've anything to feel superior about in this country. The Saudi police are often British-trained, and British companies have supplied them with torture equipment. As the directors of British Aerospace can tell you, relations with the Saudi monarchy are very profitable, and worth every bit of the bungs subsidised by the British taxpayer.

Trouble brewing in the Borough

I don't suppose Lord Palmerston would have done any better than Blair and co. in those circumstances. Mind you, he was prepared to stand up to dictatorial foreign regimes occasionally, and even backed the right of working class citizens to do so.

Among various VIPS and celebs invited to look over the Barclay and Perkins' Brewery in Southwark as part of a visit to London in the 19th century was the Austrian General Haynau, notorious for the brutality with which he put down insurrections in Hungary and Italy, even flogging women. The workers at the brewery had heard about Haynau from an Austrian refugee. The ink had scarcely dried on the General's signature in the visitors' book in 1850 when word spread that the 'Hyena' was in the brewery.

Easily recognisable by his moustache, Haynau was crossing the yard with his companions when he was attacked by draymen and brewery workers with brooms and stones. 'Down with the Austrian butcher', they shouted, "down with the hyena!" Haynau fled along Bankside pursued by the angry workers and took refuge in the George pub , from which he was rescued by the police with difficulty, and spirited away by boat across the river. The Austrian ambassador demanded an apology, but the Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston said the brewery workers were just 'expressing their feelings at what they considered inhuman conduct' by a man who 'was looked upon as a great moral criminal'.

Only after the intervention of a furious Queen Victoria and the threatened resignation of Palmerston was a more conciliatory letter sent to Vienna. Public feeling in England was completely on the side of the draymen, who became the heroes of many a street ballad. When the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi visited England in 1864, he insisted on visiting the brewery to thank 'the men who flogged Haynau'.

Following a succession of mergers, the brewery became a bottle store, then closed in 1981. When I was sent there to do some work a couple of years later most of the buildings had been demolished, and replaced by a car park. There went a proud bit of history. Nowadays the papers would denounce that refugee -if he had been allowed in. Their idea of opposing foreign tyrrany is to denounce the European Human Rights Court to which four British citizens are appealing. And no British government would allow you to say boo to a visiting reactionary like Haynau, there'd be armed police out.

We've got the aggressive imperial foreign policy beloved by Palmeston, but in tandem with Bush, and without any amusing fringe benefits like being rude to torturers and dictatorships.

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