Writing about torture in the Guardian, Philip Zimbardo emphasises systemic issues in explaining how "ordinary people could be led to behave in ways that qualify as evil." His context is images, many previously unseen, of "documented depravity and dehumanisation" taken by US soldiers of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib.
He is absolutely right to emphasise systemic issues, and it is important for the British public in that context to understand two points about the UK's detention policy in Iraq. The first is the massive similarities between the insights these images give into human rights violations in US detention facilities and the publicly available evidence as to violations of Iraqis' most fundamental human rights in UK detention facilities. The second is to understand the source and nature of the systemic failings within the UK's policy.
The Abu Ghraib images depict [disturbing content] male Iraqis forced into sexual positions with one another, into simulated oral sex, being threatened by soldiers' punches or of US soldiers alongside what are either badly abused or dead Iraqis. Most UK citizens seem to believe that we would never do such things. Nothing could be further from the truth. The photographs from the Camp Breadbasket court martial show male Iraqis forced by UK soldiers to simulate anal and oral sex with one another.
In the incident that led to the death of Baha Mousa, UK soldiers flushed dirty toilet water over male Iraqis. Later, at the military facility, they photographed each other punching hooded detainees, some of whom were threatened with execution. One was offered release in exchange for sex with his sister.
The litany of sexual and religious humiliation is endless. There appears to be no material difference between the two forces, US and UK, when it came to degrading treatment. Worse still, there are now witness statements prepared for UK High Court proceedings by Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day, which suggest that, in May 2004, UK soldiers in Abu Naji facility may have executed up to 20 Iraqis, tortured another nine, and subjected some of the 20 dead to unspeakable atrocities before final dispatch.
The systemic failings that underpin these violations go to the top of government, the civil service and the military. We had a written policy allowing stressing and hooding, and our interrogators were trained to do so. Scores of Iraqis now complain of torture, abuse, and killings in UK detention facilities.
When the Head of Army Legal, Nicholas Mercer, blew the whistle on hooding, stressing and the use of noise in March 2003 - and, in May, complained of a "number" of Iraqi deaths in custody with "various units in theatre" - he was rebuked, ridiculed and overruled. The civil servants at Permanent Joint HQ knew but did nothing, telling themselves, for example, that the ban on the five techniques from Northern Ireland in 1972 (hooding, stressing, sleep deprivation, food and water deprivation and noise) only applied to the UK and Northern Ireland. Nobody seemed to have recognised that what was happening breached every possible humanitarian and human rights provision, including the European Convention on Human Rights (which was held by the House of Lords in June 2007 to apply).
The next time you see these images, just remember what UK forces did in our name. We must face up to this national disgrace.