Taking a stand against human rights abuses

For two years, Craig Murray served as Britain’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, the highest point of a career in the diplomatic service that spanned twenty years. Mr. Murray describes himself as having been a “model civil servant”. His dispatch to a country of such geopolitical importance – lying as it does at the heart of central Asia, with a militarily significant border with Afghanistan – suggested that his superiors at the Foreign Office recognised his calibre.

His career was ended abruptly last October, when the government withdrew him as ambassador and suspended him for “gross misconduct”. An internal investigation accused him of drunkenness and sexual misconduct. The Foreign Office subsequently dropped all the charges, which Mr. Murray has always maintained were groundless.

Many, including Mr. Murray himself, have instead attributed the termination of the former ambassador’s diplomatic career to his outspoken comments on the Uzbek regime. Uzbekistan’s political leaders have been repeatedly condemned by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for suppressing opposition and torturing political prisoners.

Upon becoming ambassador, Mr. Murray commented, “Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy”. It was to be the first of many occasions upon which he unsettled his superiors by criticising the authoritarian government of President Islom Karimov. Mr. Karimov had previously led the Communist party before Uzbekistan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

For all the controversy that has surrounded Mr. Murray’s recent career, in person he is extraordireserved, although – as might be expected – not wholly diplomatic. Giving a talk at the University of York last month, at the invitation of the U.N. Society, Mr. Murray’s reputation as a thorn in the side of the Foreign Office and, it has been suggested, that of the Bush administration, was evident. His sentiment was borne out by the quiet ferocity with which he criticised both.

His principle claim is that the Karimov regime has consistently used the ‘war on terror’ as a cover for the suppression of political opposition within Uzbekistan, and that the Americans and British have been complicit with this in their use of intelligence obtained by the Uzbek government using torture. According to Mr. Murray, dissidents are tried on spurious allegations linking them to Al Queda, and are forced to confess under torture.

He recalls a man he met at a political trial, who claimed to have been forced to admit cooperating with Osama bin Laden as his children were tortured in front of him. Sitting two feet away from the man as he explained what had happened, Mr. Murray explains simply that he “felt it was true”.

Increasingly concerned that intelligence crossing his desk from the Uzbek services (which passed through the C.I.A. and then M.I.6. to reach him) had been gathered by inhumane means, Mr. Murray dispatched his deputy to see the American Head of Intelligence in Tashkent. He reports the reply she returned with, summarising the C.I.A. position: “It probably is obtained by torture. We don’t consider it a problem.”

Returning to Whitehall, he spoke to Sir Michael Wood, legal adviser to the Foreign Office. Seeking an assurance that no intelligence known to have been obtained under torture was being used by the British government. Mr. Murray was instead told that “it would be irresponsible to ignore information relevant to the war on terror”. His public reluctance to accept this state of affairs, which resulted in his being told he was “considered to be unpatriotic” by his line manager at the Foreign Office, was, he claims, the reason for his eventual removal as ambassador.
Mr. Murray feels that there is an unavoidable contradiction in the willingness on the part of the U.S. and U.K. to tacitly accept the torture of political prisoners in exchange for intelligence. Referring to the Bush administration’s professed aim of spreading democracy and freedom in Iraq and elsewhere, he asks, “How can we do that there when we are backing one of the world’s most vicious dictators in Uzbekistan?” Recalling his first conversation with Mr. Karimov, whom he characterises as both well informed and highly intelligent, Mr. Murray describes how the President pre-empted any criticism of his own regime’s human rights record by pointing out to the ambassador that Britain itself had opted out of the E.U. Convention on Human Rights. Such a parallel being drawn by the head of a near-totalitarian state with the U.K., is not a comforting idea.

Asked whether he sees any connection between the creeping acceptance of torture in intelligence gathering, and the abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere in Iraq, Mr. Murray agrees. He explained that “shocking events do for a while blur sensibility”. “I think it is a cultural shift”, he adds, and compares the aftermath of the September 11th attacks with that of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, identifying a “temporary brutalisation of society” that can make what was previously distasteful – in the case of the Indian Mutiny, barbaric and repressive – acceptable.

A desensitisation towards torture on the part of the U.S. government is becoming apparent. In a recent report by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker on the covert practice of “extraordireserved, nary rendition” allegedly carried out by the C.I.A., Mr. Murray is quoted as having reason to believe that on “at least three” occasions suspected militants had been transported from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan by the Americans in order that they might be interrogated in ways that were outside the usual boundaries of human rights law.

From a British perspective, Mr. Murray observes that a “terrible thing happened in the Civil Service” following the September 11th attacks. Criticism of the new ‘war on terror’, he argues, is increasingly unacceptable within a Civil Service that is no longer impartial. He ascribes this particularly to the close cooperation between the Blair government and the Bush administration.

His criticism of Labour also extends to issues of civil liberties within the U.K. Discussing the new anti-terror legislation proposed by the Home Secretary Charles Clarke, he asks: “who’s seen the emergency?” Adding that “nobody in the U.K. has ever been killed by an Islamic terrorist”, he likens the situation to a “case of the emperor’s new clothes”. His suspicion at the justification offered for abuses of human rights both abroad and at home is all too evident. We have, he argues, “lost all perspective of legality in international relations”. This is a grim assessment to be made by a man who until last year was responsible for high-level diplomacy.

For this reason, stated Mr. Murray, he plans to step into the political arena at the forthcoming general election by standing as an independent candidate against the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in his Blackburn constituency. Commenting on this new directon, Mr. Murray agrees that it represents a radical change from the aloof impartiality of the diplomatic service, but claims that it is “nice to be able to go out and tell people what I actually think”. His conviction that the Labour government is now entirely subservient to America in foreign policy, is hardly a new analysis in recent left-wing discourse. Craig Murray, however, may well be better placed and better informed than most to make the case for it, and moreover for the primacy of respect for human rights.