Background Briefing


We cannot win this militarily or by policing or intelligence alone. We will need to engage people so that we can win the battle of hearts and minds.

—Gordon Brown, speaking at a Labour Party meeting on June 3, 20071   

The United Kingdom has long been a champion of human rights around the world. It played a leading role in the development of international human rights law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Britain actively supported the adoption of the 1984 Convention against Torture and was one of the first countries to ratify that convention’s Optional Protocol, adopted in 2003. It has since actively lobbied other governments to do the same.

Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, however, the UK has introduced a series of counterterrorism measures that flout international human rights norms. These include: indefinite detention without charge of foreign nationals suspected of involvement in terrorism; control orders that impose what amount to criminal sanctions without trial; and efforts to circumvent, indeed loosen, the global ban on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. All are concrete illustrations of the UK’s 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.

Since the July 2005 attacks, preventing radicalization and recruitment (the “prevent” strand) has been at the heart of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy.2  The strategy states that one of the key elements of prevention is:

Engaging in the battle of ideas – challenging the ideologies that extremists believe can justify the use of violence, primarily by helping Muslims who wish to dispute these ideas to do so.3

Counterterrorism measures that violate human rights may deliver short term benefits in disrupting terrorist networks but they 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.4

The “Preventing Extremism Together” working groups, composed of prominent British Muslims, and established by the British government following the July 7, 2005 attacks, expressed concern that UK counterterrorism measures have eroded the nation’s international standing. They recommended that the UK “must lead on and not unilaterally derogate from international principles and standards of human rights.”5

Measures that undermine human rights and depart from the UK’s core values, especially those that are seen as targeting particular communities, also carry an immediate practical cost. Successful policing, and preventing and prosecuting terrorism, require public cooperation, and in particular tip-offs about suspicious activity. Abusive measures erode public trust in law enforcement and security services, and alienate communities whose cooperation is critical in the fight against terrorism.

In December 2006, the think-tank Demos published a major study on the link between community relations and terrorism in the UK, based on 200 interviews, most of them with British Muslims. The report concluded:

“[T]he UK government’s response to terrorism is alienating the very communities it needs to engage, and that their growing sense of grievance, anger and injustice inadvertently legitimises the terrorists’ aims…”6

Another major study on the same subject, carried out by the Essex University Human Rights Centre for the Joseph Rowntree Trust, and published in November 2006, reached a similar conclusion:

“[UK counterterrorism policies] are having a disproportionate effect on the Muslim communities in the UK and so are prejudicing the ability of the government and security forces to gain the very trust and cooperation from individuals in those communities that they require to combat terrorism.”7

The July 2005 attacks in London underscored the home-grown threat of terrorism in the UK. The success of the government’s “prevent” agenda is critically important to its ability to tackle that threat. But that depends in turn on a new approach that upholds rather than undermines core human rights standards.

The government signaled on June 7, 2007, with the publication of a “discussion document,” that it intends to introduce further counterterrorism legislation later in the year. The proposals in the document include a renewed effort to extend pre-charge detention beyond 28 days, broader police powers to question suspects after they have been charged with a crime, and a review of the ban on the use of intercept evidence in terrorism prosecutions.8 

1 Tania Branigan, “Brown sets out tougher plans in anti-terror battle,” The Guardian, June 4, 2007,,,2094823,00.html (accessed June 8, 2007).

2  The strategy was first developed in 2003. It contains four elements: Prevent (tackling the radicalization of individuals), Pursue (disrupting terrorists and their operations), Protect (reducing the vulnerability of the UK to a terrorist attack) and Prepare (preparedness for the consequences of a terrorist attack). The current iteration of the strategy dates from July 2006.

3 Countering International Terrorism: The United Kingdom’s Strategy, July 2006, (accessed May 18, 2007).

4 Government authorities have indicated publicly and privately that measures such as deportation, indefinite detention, and extended pre-charge detention have been useful in disrupting terrorist networks.  Home Secretary John Reid has said, for example, that the full 28-day pre-charge detention period had been necessary in the investigation of the plot to bomb airplanes in the summer of 2006. See “Reid to revisit terror detentions,” BBC, February 1, 2007.

5 Home Office, “Preventing Extremism Together Working Groups, August-October 2005,” November 10, 2005, (accessed May 18, 2007). The Home Office unit responsible for follow-up and implementation of the Working Groups’ recommendations was transferred to the Department for Communities and Local Government in May 2006.

6  Demos, “Bringing it Home: Community-based approaches to counter-terrorism,” December 2006, (accessed May 18, 2007).

7  Joseph Rowntree Trust, “The Rules of the Game: Terrorism, Community and Human Rights,” (accessed May 18, 2007).

8 Home Office, “Government Discussion Document Ahead of Proposed Counter Terror Bill 2007,” June 7, 2007, (accessed June 8, 2007).