07/07/2010 05:35 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why We Need to Look Back in Order to Move Forward

By Melina Milazzo, Law and Security Program

In response to calls for investigations against U.S. officials who committed or authorized torture, President Obama has repeatedly stated that it's important to look forward, not backward. The United Kingdom's new Conservative Prime Minister, however, begs to differ.

On Tuesday, David Cameron announced that an independent inquiry will be held to determine whether British intelligence and security officers were complicit in the torture and mistreatment of British detainees by foreign countries. This inquiry stems in part from serious allegations of torture and abuse committed on British detainees held at Guantanamo, or who claim to have been rendered to prisons in other countries and subsequently tortured.

After reminding the House of Commons of the invaluable services and sacrifices made by UK intelligence and security officers, the Prime Minister laid out why the current situation ultimately does a disservice to them.

Our services are paralysed by paperwork as they try to defend themselves in lengthy court cases with uncertain rules.

Our reputation as a country that believes in human rights, justice, fairness and the rule of law -- indeed for much of what the Services exist to protect -- risks being tarnished.

Public confidence is being eroded with people doubting the ability of our Services to protect us and questioning the rules under which they operate. And terrorists and extremists are able to exploit these allegations for their own propaganda.

He went on to state:

[W]e owe them -- and every intelligence officer in our country -- an enormous debt of gratitude.

And, as Minister for the Intelligence Services, I am determined to do everything possible to help them get on with the job they trained to do -- and we desperately need them to do.

However, to do that, we need to resolve the issues of the past.

While it still remains to be seen whether the inquiry will have the requisite level of independence and transparency, the UK's investigation into torture allegations at a minimum demonstrates that it understands why it is necessary to look back in order to move forward. Accounting for past abuses not only provides justice for the individual, but also strengthens a country's moral leadership.

Indeed, the Prime Minister stated, "The longer these questions remain unanswered, the bigger the stain on our reputation as a country that believes in freedom, fairness and human rights grows."

Moreover, a full accounting of the past -- what happened, why it happened, and how it came to happen -- is the only way a society truly moves forward and ensures past mistakes are not repeated. "[J]ust as we are determined to resolve the problems of the past so are we determined to have greater clarity about what is and what is not acceptable in the future," Mr. Cameron said.

If the inquiry fully accounts for past abuses, it can provide justice for past harms and ensure past mistakes are not repeated. The UK, as a result, will have taken an important step to restoring its moral leadership in the world. The question remains, however, whether the United States would be willing to take a similar step.