As the fall-out from the US Senate Intelligence Committee report into the CIA's torture program continues, what has been the reaction from America's allies?
The CIA torture report, long awaited and much debated, removes all doubt, lest anyone still harboured any, that America tortured detainees in the 'war on terror' in the most horrific of ways.
Australia and the UK, remember, were implicated in America's treatment of detainees and in its undermining of the international-law principle prohibiting torture without exception. Their own citizens were detained in the war on terror and, for many years, their governments publicly supported their detention at Guantánamo Bay (Australia for much longer than the UK) even after claims were made that they were tortured.
Across the Atlantic, where UK intelligence agencies have for years faced accusations of complicity in the torture of detainees after 9/11, the Government has come under renewed pressure over its involvement in the CIA's torture program.
Here, however, there has been next to no interest in pressing current and former political leaders for accountability for Australia's part in this sorry saga. How can we explain this indifference?
Australian intelligence agencies have never faced the same level of allegations of complicity as their UK counterparts. But we do know in the case of Australian citizen, Mamdouh Habib, who was sent to Egypt for interrogation and where, by many accounts, he was brutally tortured, Australian officials were consulted a number of times before his transfer there from Pakistan. In fact, in 2011, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Vivienne Thom, uncovered an ASIO report which noted it had advised a foreign government that, after consultation between the various Australian agencies, 'we could not knowingly agree to Habib being sent to Egypt given that there is no warrant for his arrest and given Egypt's poor human rights record'. Thom thought that was an unfortunate choice of words, and risked 'being misinterpreted as Australia possibly being willing to turn a blind eye to the transfer'.
We might also recall that the Howard Government publicly supported the US treatment of detainees for far longer than the UK did, providing legitimacy for its military commissions, for example, which allowed evidence obtained under coercion. This was after the Blair Government refused to do the same.
Fast forward to 2014 and we have a US Senate Committee report which lays bare the full horrific details of the CIA's detainee program, with its accounts of gruesome, degrading, personality-destroying torture of individuals that are quite sickening to read.
Now consider the following.
In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron's office has in recent days been forced to admit under pressure that, contrary to its initial assertions, the UK Government sought redactions from the Committee's report implicating British intelligence agencies. The UK Prime Minister has issued a statement on the US torture report asserting the 'issue has been dealt with from the British perspective'. This, he maintains, is occurring through the Detainee Inquiry into UK complicity in detainee torture after 9/11 (prematurely-aborted in 2012) and the ongoing UK Intelligence and Security Committee investigation set up to pursue questions raised by Sir Peter Gibson in that first inquiry. Others aren't so sure. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has raised the possibility of the need for another full public inquiry into the UK's role in the US torture program.
In Australia, it's a different story.
Habib and his fellow Australian detained at Guantánamo Bay, David Hicks, have staged one-man protests. Habib said he is thinking about suing the Australian Government (again) over its alleged complicity in his treatment. Hicks heckled the Attorney-General Senator George Brandis at a human rights awards function. 'I was tortured for five-and-a-half years in Guantanamo Bay in the full knowledge of your party! What do you have to say?' he cried out as Brandis walked off the stage.
Brandis later dismissed Hicks as a 'terrorist'. And why not? Deflecting questions about torture by labeling the alleged victims as terrorists and therefore undeserving of any sort of acknowledgement was a tactic that worked extremely effectively for many years for the Howard Government. Brandis is simply continuing this tradition.
To recap, back in 2004, Prime Minister John Howard told Australians to take the claims of mistreatment of Hicks and Habib 'with a grain of salt'. His foreign minister, Alexander Downer, suggested in 2005 that whether one believed allegations of torture made by men allegedly involved with al Qaeda, or the Americans, 'depends where your prejudice lies'.
What this lack of accountability all points to, I argue, is not necessarily a reflection of Australia's political leaders. Governments agree to accountability when citizens demand it, when the political stakes in ignoring voters' wishes become too high to ignore. The fact is the Australian public and civil society have never cared enough about the likelihood that two Australians were tortured in the war on terror to force the government into holding a full, public inquiry into whether and how that occurred.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.