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Frontiers In International Relations

ISRU Annual Frontiers In International Relations Lecture with Professor Ruth Blakeley

5 December 2018

On the 21stof November 2018 the ISRU welcomed Professor Ruth Blakeley to host our annual ‘Frontiers In International Relations’ lecture entitled ‘Human Rights Under Threat: Lessons learned from the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation Programme’.


Professor Blakeley is a Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield and Director of the White Rose Doctoral Training Centre. She completed her Msc and PhD at the University of Bristol. Professor Blakeley’s research interests include international security, political violence, terrorism and human rights. Professor Blakeley has recently published an article entitled ‘Drone, State, Terrorism and International Law’ in the journal of ‘Critical Studies on Terrorism’. For Professor Blakeley researching the War on Terror and human rights abuses it has involved is more than just an academic pursuit, her research is underpinned by an ethical rejection of the use of political violence and is aimed at holding governments accountable for their actions.

This lecture discussed Professor Blakeley’s collaborative research project; the Rendition Project. The Rendition Project, a collaboration between Professor Blakeley, Dr Sam Raphael of the University of Westminister and a number of other organisations such as the legal action charity Reprieve and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. This project used analysis of prisoner testimonies, flight records, air-traffic control data, company invoices and court documents to build an unparalleled picture of the CIA’s torture programme. The Guardian Newspaper has described this as a ‘groundbreaking research project which sheds unprecedented light on one of the most controversial secret operations of recent years’.


Professor Blakeley argues that the CIA’s rendition programme poses an unprecedented threat to human rights. Their analysis of various sources of primary data proves that the CIA had a secret programme of rendition, detention and torture as part of the ‘global war on terror’ following 9/11. This program very clearly violated the human rights of at least 119 individuals held and tortured in CIA prisons between 2001-2010. Not only did these practices violate these individual’s human rights but also international law and constitutional principles which further undermines democracy and rule of law.


However, for Professor Blakeley, one of the most worrying aspects of the CIA’s program was the levels of complicity of certain other national governments. Blakeley and Raphael’s analysis of air traffic control data proves that some of these prisons were housed in Eastern Europe (Romania, Lithuania, Poland). They also show that despite no CIA prisoner ever setting foot on British soil, private-jets chartered by the CIA to make these journeys were permitted to refuel on British soil on many occasions. Indeed, Professor Blakeley suggested that research suggests that in terms of the CIA’s programme of torture, rendition and detention the UK was by far the most implicated partner.


Professor Blakeley claimed that their research and other published, yet heavily redacted reports, suggest that Jack Straw, the Former Foreign Secretary, was actively misleading the public when he claimed only ‘conspiracy theorists’ would believe that they UK played a role in the torture and rendition of these individuals and that the government was attempting to cover it up.


Indeed it is the US and UK government’s attempt to destroy information and cover up these practices that Professor Blakely highlighted as particularly concerning during her lecture. Congressional and parliamentary reports on this issue have been heavily redacted, have faced many obstacles and have been blocked. In 2015 Richard Burr, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, demanded the White House return its copies of the full 6,900 page US Senate investigation into CIA prisoner abuse in what was seen as an attempt to ensure the report never saw the light of day. The Trump administration has started returning its copies.


The second half of the lecture was a question and answer session with the audience.


Professor Campbell Craig thanked Professor Blakeley for her important research and asked how she defined torture in her work. Professor Blakeley replied that there are several different definitions of torture, which all focus on the suffering inflicted on victims deliberately, whether physical or psychological. For example, President Bush attempted to suggest that torture was pain that amounted to that of organ failure. For Professor Blakeley when defining torture we should try not to look at the act in itself in isolation but rather we must look at the context.


Professor Sergey Radchenko asked Professor Blakeley how she would respond to those that suggest that torture is justified when it’s for ‘a good cause’. For Professor Blakeley when you are using the same practices you are claiming to want to eradicate you are undermining your cause. Equally, she claims that the cases of torture by the CIA were exploited in the following years by extremists such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS for propaganda and recruitment purposes.


Professor Blakeley was then asked how, given light of the way in which a lot ligitigation is used to shield those responsible from prosecution, her research makes her feel about the law. She replied that there is clearly a systematic tendency of ‘lawfare’, the increasing use of lawyers in warfare, to shield people from prosecution. For example, UK Security Personnel were briefed to ensure that they were never actually present when some one was being tortured. However she wishes to highlight the way in which she has come away from this project with massive respect for human rights lawyers. She spoke of the way in which the civil and military lawyers representing Guantanamo prisoners in closed military courts take on huge responsibilities and potentially face enormous consequences if they breach the conditions established by the US government to maintain secrecy around the trials. Yet, they continue to defend the Guantanamo prisoners and are particularly focused on demonstrating how the military trials fall far short of international legal standards, particularly in relation to evidence obtained through torture.


Another member of the audience asked – Why is torture used if we know it is ineffective?

Evidence suggests that torture leads to useless and false information because people say anything to make the torture stop. For Professor Blakeley these practices are often used, however, to de-humanise and humiliate or to send a message. Also, psychologists employed by the CIA suggested that they had developed forms of torture that could get accurate information. One of the ways in which they feigned the success of their torture techniques was that the FBI had actually already interrogated these individuals before they were handed over the CIA and so they had often already given any useful information through legitimate questioning without coercion.


How do you feel now, after such a collaborative project, about working with non-academics?


Professor Blakeley said she said she finds working with non-academics really interesting. She is particularly impressed by the rigour of human rights lawyers representing torture victims, and the discipline that goes into mounting a court case on their behalf. Blakeley highlights the massive role that Reprieve played in supplying the original set of air traffic data and other primary sources that underpinned her research. Equally, the Guardian Newspaper was also a key collaborator, helping Blakeley and Raphael develop a data visualization tool and publishing a series of articles which publicized the findings of the project. She believes working with non-academics has made her a better scholar as she has had to develop skills to work with others beyond academia and to produce work in line with rigorous standards required for human rights litigation.


Following the lecture I was lucky enough to ask Professor Blakeley a couple of questions myself. I asked Professor Blakeley where she saw her research going from this point forward.


Professor Blakeley replied that she has recently submitted a response to a UK government consultation on the Consolidated Guidance issued to UK intelligence services and military personnel, on activities in partnership with other countries, where there is a risk that torture or cruel treatment may occur. She has argued that the Consolidated Guidance falls far short of international standards and needs to be reformed to prevent UK personnel from colluding in torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment again. Professor Blakeley is now exploring the implications of the CIA’s torture programme for the global governance of human rights.

I then asked Professor Blakeley whether she felt that the US or UK or other implicated states learnt any lessons or is whether she felt there was a threat of this occurring again. Professor Blakeley is concerned that the failures of the US and UK governments to properly account for collusion in torture and cruel treatment, their unwillingness to prosecute perpetrators, and the inadequacy of the training and guidance they offer to their intelligence and military personnel all indicate that the risks are high that torture will continue. For these reasons, Professor Blakeley continues to work with a number of human rights organisations to analyse government policy and practice, and to highlight where the weaknesses are.


Over 50 people attended this lecture, including members of staff from various departments, post-graduate researchers and undergraduate students. The ISRU would like to thank all those that attended, and particularly, Professor Blakeley for her engaging presentation and her important and impactful research.


For more information on the Rendition Project please visit