Background Briefing

Executive Summary

The coming into office of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister is a natural moment to assess Britain’s approach to counterterrorism. From 2001, the United Kingdom (UK) government pursued a series of counterterrorism policies that violated human rights. Whatever their short-term security benefits might be, these policies have come at a very high price. In addition to their harmful impact on human rights, they have undermined the rule of law, damaged community relations and trust among British Muslims, and squandered the UK’s international reputation as a champion of human rights. It is time for a new approach.

Following the September 2001 attacks in the United States, the UK government introduced a series of counterterrorism measures that flout international human rights norms. The indefinite detention without charge of foreign nationals suspected of involvement in terrorism, the reliance on control orders in lieu of pursuing prosecution, and efforts to weaken the global ban on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, are concrete illustrations of the government’s willingness to abandon well-established principles in UK and international law in the name of the fight against terrorism.

Human Rights Watch believes that such an approach is deeply misguided. Counterterrorism measures that violate human rights are not only illegal under international law but are also counterproductive. They run counter to the government’s efforts to prevent radicalization and recruitment, a central strand of the government’s counterterrorism strategy since the July 2005 attacks in London.

Counterterrorism measures that violate human rights undermine the UK’s moral legitimacy at home and abroad, damaging its ability to win the battle of ideas that is central to long-term success in countering terrorism. They erode public trust in law enforcement and security services, and alienate communities whose cooperation is critical in the fight against terrorism.

The UK government has a duty to protect the population against terrorist attacks, and an obligation to respect human rights. In recent years, British officials have argued that human rights are an impediment to national security. In fact, upholding human rights and the rule of law is essential if the terrorism is to be effectively addressed in the long-term. The success of the government’s “prevent” agenda in particular depends on an approach to counterterrorism that upholds rather than undermines core human rights standards.

Prime Minister Brown should set the UK on a new course. New terrorism legislation is expected later in 2007. Bringing the nation’s counterterrorism law and policy back into line with European and international standards and long-standing British values will help ensure that its approach supports rather than undermines its efforts to prevent radicalization and recruitment. It will bring the UK back towards the path of providing leadership on human rights.