Why refrain from torturing foreigners abroad?: British counterterrorism and the international prohibition of torture. 

Janina Heaphy newJanina Heaphy

My recent article published in Policy & Politics explores why politicians would decide to restrict their own counterterrorism operations, despite a persistently high terrorist threat and little pressure from the public? After years of violating human rights in the name of counterterrorism, the UK, for instance, implemented new policies, which, at least on paper, were supposed to protect foreigners abroad from the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, and its American partners’ coercive interrogation practices. Usually, such changes are attributed to a scandal, to the governing politicians’ ideology, to the public mood, or to a particularly strong lobby group – but what if all these explanations simply do not apply, as was the case for the so-called British “Principles” in 2019? Admittedly, the parliament did publish a report in 2018 condemning the UK’s role in the American Detention and Interrogation Program, but it was met with such little interest by the British public and media that it barely caused any uproar. Nonetheless, the then Prime Minister of Britain Theresa May, promptly pushed for reforming the existing interrogation guidelines, thus exposing one key impetus for policy change that is often neglected in domestic policy-making processes: the politicians’ pursuit for international power.

In most debates surrounding politics, it is taken as given that politicians strive for power, be it via climbing party hierarchies or a high position in the government; but why should these power-seeking traits be limited to the domestic realm? The British Parliament’s report published in 2018, clearly outlined how policy-continuance would damage the UK’s reputation and undermine the state’s self-ascribed role as “beacon of the rule of law”; a loss that would directly translate into a significant decrease of legitimacy and power on the global stage. Hence, without a reform, Theresa May’s credibility and access to international negotiation tables would be directly threatened, a concern that has been more present and dominant in subsequent policy developments than the actual intent of protecting foreigners abroad from torturous interrogation practices. In light of this, as well as the requirement for pending Brexit diplomacy, it is not surprising that May used the “Principles” to present the UK and herself as pioneers of extraterritorial human rights protections, even though the policy itself does, except for some small improvements, still provides the government with significant discretionary power. So why would politicians restrict their own counterterrorism operations for the sake of human rights, even if no one on the domestic stage seems to care? I argue the answer is to maintain and substantiate their power on the international stage so that they can defend their legitimacy in shaping and influencing international decision-making processes.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics

Heaphy, Janina (2022) British counterterrorism, the international prohibition of torture, and the multiple streams framework Policy and Politics DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557321X16375950978608

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Policy & Politics, the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site

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