Background Briefing

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The U.K. government introduced emergency legislation in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the U.S. The resulting Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act became law on December 14, 2001.4

Human Rights Watch expressed grave reservations about the powers of indefinite detention contained in part 4 of ATCSA while the legislation was being debated by Parliament, arguing it was incompatible with the U.K.’s human rights obligations, and that the government had failed to provide evidence of a state of emergency upon which the derogation from its human rights obligations was justified.5 The implementation of the act has given Human Rights Watch no reason to alter its position.

Concern about Part 4 of ATCSA is widely shared. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Council of Europe’s Commissioner on Human Rights, and its Committee on the Prevention of Torture (CPT), have all expressed reservations about Part 4, while other leading human rights and civil liberties organizations have called for its urgent repeal.6 These organizations have questioned whether the suspension of fundamental human rights obligations is warranted by the threat to the U.K. from terrorism, and have condemned the differential treatment of foreign nationals compared to U.K. citizens as discriminatory.

Significantly, the Privy Counsellor Review Committee (known as the “Newton Committee”),7 a group of senior U.K. parliamentarians convened by the U.K. Home Secretary to review the ATCSA, called for the urgent repeal of Part 4 in December 2003. The Newton Committee recommended that the powers under Part 4 be replaced with measures that address the terrorist threat from U.K. nationals as well as non-nationals through the criminal justice system, and that do not require derogation from human rights obligations. The Committee has recommended alternative methods to fight terrorism that do not involve indefinite detention without trial.8 Its findings are echoed in a February 2004 report by the Joint Human Rights Committee, a parliamentary committee which reviews the compatibility of U.K. law with its human rights obligations.

Human Rights Watch shares the view of the Newton Committee that Part 4 of the ATCSA should be urgently repealed and replaced with counter-terrorism measures that operate within the framework of the criminal justice system and that do not require the suspension of fundamental human rights guarantees.

The response of the U.K. government to the carefully crafted and concrete recommendations offered by the Newton Committee and the Joint Human Rights Committee has been little more than a defense of the status quo. 9 The government’s response fails to take into account the very high costs of indefinite detention under part 4—to respect for human rights, to overall counter-terrorism strategy and not least to the detainees themselves.

[4] The Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 (ATCSA) received Royal Assent on December 14, 2001.

[5] Human Rights Watch, “UK Background Briefing: Commentary on the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill 2001,” November 16, 2001 [online], (retrieved June 4, 2004); Human Rights Watch, “Press Release: New Anti-Terror Law Rolls Back Rights,” December 14, 2001.

[6] See for example: U.N. Human Rights Committee, “Concluding Observations: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” December 6, 2001 [CCPR/CO/73/UK]; U.N. CERD, “Concluding Observations: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” December 10, 2003 [CERD/C/63/CO/11]; Council of Europe, “Opinion 1/2002 of the Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Alvaro Gil-Robles on certain aspects of the United Kingdom derogation from Article 5 par. 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights [Commdh (2002)7],” August 28, 2002; European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), “Report to the Government of the United Kingdom on the visit to the United Kingdom carried out by CPT from 17 to 21 February 2002,” February 12, 2003; CPT, “News Flash: Suspected international terrorists detained in the United Kingdom, new visit by Council of Europe’s Anti-Torture Committee,” March 24, 2004; Amnesty International, “Justice perverted under the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001,” December 11, 2003; Liberty, “Urgent Briefing: Anti-Terrorism Debates, House of Commons, House of Lords,” February 2004; Justice, “Briefing on the Report of the Newton Committee on the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act for debate in the House of Commons,” February 2004.

[7] After its chair, Lord Newton of Braintree.

[8] U.K. Parliament, Privy Counsellor Review Committee, “Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 Review: Report,” December 18, 2003 [online], (retrieved April 22, 2004).

[9] Secretary of State for the Home Department, “Counter-Terrorism Powers, Reconciling Security and Liberty in an Open Society: A Discussion Paper,” February 2004.

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