The UK’s highest court will begin hearing two important test cases related to human rights and the UK government's counter-terrorism policies on Thursday. The decisions in these cases may have a profound impact on the UK's attempts to deport people to countries where they will be at real risk of grave human rights violations, including torture or other ill-treatment.
The UK has been seeking for some years to deport a number of individuals whom it alleges pose a threat to national security. It has acknowledged that these individuals could not ordinarily be deported, because of the real risk of grave human rights violations that they would face in the countries to which they are to be returned.
The UK government has therefore sought, in each of these cases, so-called "diplomatic assurances" from the countries to which these individuals are to be returned. These are promises, unenforceable in any court of law, that the individual will be treated in accordance with international human rights standards. To date, the UK has secured assurances in one form or another from Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon and Libya.
The cases to be heard by the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords (the UK’s highest court) concern attempts to deport two individuals, referred to in legal proceedings in the UK as ‘RB’ and ‘U’, to Algeria, and a third individual, Omar Othman (also known as Abu Qatada), to Jordan.
The court will be asked to consider what weight should be given to assurances given to the UK by the governments of Algeria and Jordan as to how the men will be treated if they are returned to those countries.
Amnesty International, along with many others, is opposed to the idea that these promises between governments can be relied on to send someone to a country where they will face a real risk of grave human rights violations.
"These promises are only sought from countries where international legal obligations to prevent torture and other grave human rights violations have not been respected," said Nicola Duckworth, director of the Europe and Central Asia programme at Amnesty International. "If those countries do not respect those obligations, which are binding as a matter of international law, there are absolutely no grounds for confidence that they will respect promises given at a bilateral diplomatic level.
"The obligation which all states are under is clear and unequivocal: not to send anyone to any country where there is a real risk that they will be subjected to grave human rights violations, including torture or other ill-treatment. This basic principle applies no matter what that individual is alleged to have done, or – as in these cases – what threat that individual is alleged to pose to national security."
As well as the question of the reliability of diplomatic assurances, the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords will be asked to consider the fairness of hearings before the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC). The SIAC is the court established to hear appeals from people whose deportation has been ordered on the grounds that they pose a threat to national security.
Among the issues which the court will be considering in these cases are the question of how far the Court of Appeal should be able to review the decisions of the SIAC; and the fairness of the SIAC’s use of secret material and closed hearings.
"Appeals before the SIAC are very unfair," said Nicola Duckworth, "because of their heavy reliance on closed hearings in which secret information, including intelligence material, is considered in the absence of the individuals concerned and their lawyers of choice”.
These cases are expected to be heard over five days; the judgment will not be given until some weeks after the hearing. Amnesty International delegates will observe the hearings.