Challenges to the absolute ban on torture in the 21st Century: a brief outline of the UK Government’s use of the ‘Memorandum of Understanding’

The European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) was signed after World War II in 1953. Europe was in ruins, and crimes of humanity had led to calls for a document that set in stone new levels of human rights protection. Article 3 recognises positive and negative duties on states to protect an individual’s fundamental right to be free from “torture, inhuman & degrading treatment.” Its inclusion as a core human right (one that cannot be ignored at any time) was never questioned, and no nation in the world holds a ‘pro-torture’ stance. In this case it must be asked: why are you mentioning such an uncontroversial right? The answer is that in the aftermath of 9/11 there have been attempts to avoid legal duties, in the climate of hysteria created. I am looking to increase awareness of the UK Governments specific attempts to deport terrorists using the ‘memorandum of understanding’ with foreign states lacking effective human rights protection.

The ‘memorandum of understanding’ is essentially a political agreement, without legally binding force. The UK has attempted to create agreements for deportation with countries that previously would have been outlawed from doing so, as they have a poor human rights record, and the suspect may not have a fair trial, or may be tortured further for evidence or confessions when sent there. The courts in legal proceedings have stressed that no suspected terrorist should be deported where they face a ‘real risk’ of torture, yet in 2008 they first accepted that a memorandum of understanding with a foreign country could remove this risk. This leads to the question: why would a piece of paper without legal significance be acceptable? In reality, once the individual is sent from the UK there is little media coverage of what happens to him, and as a result if a country breaks the ‘memorandum’ few will realise.   The High Commissioner for Human Rights takes a similar position, stating the memorandum’s have an “acutely corrosive effect on the global ban on torture”.

These political assurances have come as a result of public pressure and a climate of fear around terror suspects in the UK, however it must be remembered that human rights serves to protect the most vulnerable in society. Torture can reduce a human to a screaming animal, and a government looking to take a hard line on criminals shouldn’t breach the fundamental rights of a human being to satisfy a hysterical media. These memorandums reflect a popular modern view that “if the stakes are high enough then torture is permissible. Nobody that doubts that should be in a position of responsibility”. Often the “ticking bomb scenario” is debated, where if a bomb is hidden somewhere that will potentially kill hundreds, and one person knows where it is, then they should be allowed to torture them to gain the information. I argue that this case is so rare, that a hypothetical scenario should not allow justification for breaching one of the cornerstones of modern society. The fact that despite substantial opposition, the UK government has aggressively pursued memorandums of understanding with states that have dubious human rights records is a regrettable trend that one can only hope will be halted by public protest.

Robert Hart

This video shows US TV host ‘Mancow’ being waterboarded (an interrogation technique used in Guantanamo Bay in the USA) in an attempt to prove that it is not a form of torture. He soon realises how mistaken he has been.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: