British Torture in the War on Terror – Blakeley and Raphael

Today, we discuss British torture in the ‘war on terror’  by Ruth Blakeley and Sam Raphael, from the European Journal of International Relations 2017, Vol. 23(2) 243–266.

It is available here.

This article describes the way in which British Intelligence has been complicit in US torture of terrorist suspects.

Here’s what we said about the article at our reading group:


  • This gives flesh to the bones of something that everybody really knew was happening behind their beliefs in liberal values, and provides it in fascinating detail.
  • Is it worse to be doing something repugnant, or allow it to happen when you have to power to stop at least part of it? It is essentially the same thing?
  • The US, which directly performed torture at least tred to justify their actions, whereas allies who profited from the intelligence gathered often just pretend it never happened whilst they collude and benefit. This is pure freeriding in the international relations sense. It does however show that the countries do care about the rule of law. The US at least creates a legal justification, even if it is an invention, and their allies hide involvement to avoid difficult questions. However, this could be reversed to see human rights as a façade.


  • Informed citizens are as complicit as those who profit from torture intelligence if they do not challenge bad activities happening. To what extent should the electorate be responsible for the administration they elect and retain in the face of moral wrongs?
  • Should people challenge an administration caught performing bad activities, or wait for democratic accountability at the next election? We see that political challenge can be exceptionally dangerous for many people who are not in free countries, e.g. the Arab Spring


  • Where human rights may be difficult to implement or comply with, is it always worth it?
  • Post 9/11 interventions may not have been worth it to implement human rights in middle-eastern countries. Is the abidance with human rights always worth risking the deaths of others, such as in a ticking-time-bomb scenario? The law would say yes, but morals and ethics are murkier.
  • If Western powers think that the imposition of human rights onto the developing world is a good thing, and deaths are necessary to do this (whether through direct conflict, or causing subsequent conflicts), they are essentially creating a hierarchy of human life, where those who live in countries which respect human rights are ranked higher than those who do not. This is despite those living in countries that do not respect human rights being most in need of them.
  • Although the unintended consequences of imposing human rights are massive, is their imposition always bad? After all, legal equality does not equal social equality. As UK Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins forced through the legalisation of divorce, homosexuality and abortion, in the face of massive opposition because he knew it was the right thing to do. Could the same logic be applied to the risks associated with the imposition of human rights, even if it is seen as a Western imperial project?


  • The article suggests that everyone was complicit in systems such as torture, which contrasts Hannah Arendt who suggests that the bureaucracy involved in the Holocaust retained knowledge of it.
  • Ignorance of the law on torture is not a defence, and does not equate to ignorance of state policy, or actions.
  • UK intelligence officers may have been given specific instructions so they did not become legally complicit, but they can be seen as morally and ethically complicit.
  • State responsibility of the UK for US actions would require a high standard of proof that may be impossible to reach.


  • The use and complicity in torture exposes that the priority of states is not human rights, despite often promulgating them. This exposes the necessary hypocrisy of being a liberal state in that public liberal politics gives a humane face to policy, whereas the realpolitk behind closed doors is far more concerned with practical realities, whether morally good or not. States are almost required to be hypocritical to get on as a big player in the international system.
  • This links with the Crandall article we discussed. Is it better to kill one terrorists to prevent an attack, or torture five to prevent the same attack? Killing is morally ‘cleaner’, but is it better to be tortured than to die? However, torture and killing have different purposes – one is to prevent future activities by adversaries from happening, the other is to gain intelligence in order to launch operations to stop those activities. But, if torture worked, we would still see it being used.


Here’s what we thought individually:

While this paper is very well written in the descriptive, it lacks somewhat in the analytical, and is laden with left-wing politics presented as non-political fact. The use of sources – Butler in particular – is problematic, for the single Butler work they cite is itself polemical in its nature and is used as a platform for Butler to express her own (arguably excessive) liberal ideals.

Away from the issues of bias and politicisation, my other major problem with this paper, linked to my opening statement, is that it lacks in depth in its discussion surrounding sovereignty, and uses incredibly loaded terms without ever really interrogating them (excuse the pun) to any reasonable extent. ‘Petty sovereigns’ for example is a phrase loaded with meaning, and goes to reflect as much Butler’s own political standpoint as anything else. It is surprising indeed that for a paper so littered with use of the term ‘state of exception’ that the authors don’t ever engage with Giorgio Agamben at all – instead relying on Butler (again) and her own politicised interpretation of Agamben’s work.

There is then, for me, a much wider problem with this paper, and its publication that reflects on academia as a whole. This funded research, published in an esteemed political journal is laden with politics and what I can only refer to as ‘pseudo analysis’ of terms that warrant much greater attention, while also distracting the reader from counter arguments relating to sovereignty and defence. It is no wonder that the field of academia is so often seen as home of the liberal elite.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

This article is both a fascinating and repugnant look at how UK intelligence has structured its policies and the behaviour of its officers to avoid a concrete link with US and allied torture, whilst enabling and profiting from it’s occurrence. The prohibition of torture is a jus cogens norm, and cannot be breached for any reason. This does, of course, raise a question as to whether there is a jus cogens prohibition on assisting torture – I should think with the mass of human rights requirements around preventing torture, assisting I  it would be completely unlawful whether or not it is explicitly prohibited as a jus cogens norm.

I certainly do not condone torture, but it is interesting that the discourse on whether torture is effective is essentially closed. The assumption is that torture/enhance interrogation/harsh interrogation does not work as those subject to it will say anything for the pain to stop. Yet, this assumption seems to come from those with no experience in torture. The CIA, their supporters, and their then political masters, maintain that ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ worked (despite a Senate report offering an opposite view), and Paul Aussaresses who was in charge of the French torture programme during the battle for Algiers remained steadfast in the opinion that although regrettable, it worked (“The best way to make a terrorist talk when he refused to say what he knew was to torture him… The majority of people crack and talk.”). So we clearly have an odd situation where the efficacy of torture is evaluated by people with no experience in it.

I definitely do not mean to suggest torture is a good thing. I find it reprehensible when other more conventional interview techniques apparently work just as well without subjecting anybody to harm. But, the debate should be grounded in real facts about the efficacy of torture. However, to get at them, we have to appreciate those who have performed these horrors as real people and not sadistic psychopaths – perhaps that is beyond comprehension. Still, nobody wants to risk legitimising torture. Perhaps the debate is better left closed, with torture completely off limits.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

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