Background Briefing

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Human Rights Watch condemns all acts of terrorism as a direct assault on the fundamental values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.2 However it is precisely in the aftermath of atrocities such as the London bombings in July that the strength of these values is most keenly tested, and the greatest vigilance is required. If those values are to be preserved, it is vital that any new measures proposed in the legitimate fight against terrorism fully respect international human rights standards.

This briefing concerns problematic new measures on speech and detention contained in the draft terrorism legislation—the fifth major piece of counter-terrorism legislation in as many years—currently being debated in the British parliament. It concentrates on two key matters: a potentially sweeping new offence of “encouragement of terrorism,” and an increased detention period to twenty-eight days in terrorism cases for those who have yet to be charged with a crime, seven times longer than that allowed for any other crime.

These measures are by no means the only area of human rights concern raised by current U.K. counter-terrorism policies. Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about efforts by the U.K. government to erode the absolute prohibition against torture, including through the assertion of the right to rely on evidence obtained under torture, and the transfer of suspects to governments with poor records of torture based on undependable, unenforceable promises (“diplomatic assurances”) of humane treatment from officials of the country.3 But Human Rights Watch considers it important to comment specifically on human rights concerns arising from the proposed legislation, in the hope that policy-makers and the public will reflect upon on them as they scrutinize the bill.

The proposed new offence of “encouraging terrorism” at best duplicates existing criminal offences that prohibit incitement of terrorism or other acts of violence. But its scope is both ill-defined, particularly in relation to “glorification,” and overly broad—it uses a definition of terrorism that extends well beyond the conventional understanding of the term. As a result, it is likely to prove inconsistent with international standards guaranteeing free expression. Despite assurances from the government, it also remains unclear whether people who are unaware that their words are likely to incite violence can be held criminally liable. The new offence is likely to have a chilling effect on free expression in the classroom, the newsroom, and the mosque.

The case for extending to twenty-eight days the time that terrorism suspects can be detained without charge has simply not been made. Britain already has the longest period of such detention in Europe. The present fourteen-day maximum—seven times longer than is permitted for other crimes, including similarly complex offences involving fraud, drugs and organized crime—came into force less than two years ago. Equally importantly, an extension is likely to be counterproductive. Many of those detained on suspicion of terrorism in the United Kingdom are eventually released without charge. The House of Lords should think very hard before approving a measure that will lead to innocent people—some of them young men from Muslim communities—serving the equivalent of an average two-month prison sentence without the state ever producing evidence sufficient even to merit a criminal charge.

Human Rights Watch takes the view that the full integration of all citizens and residents into society is an important long-term prophylactic against radicalization. That depends upon an open debate, tolerance and full respect for universal human rights and the rule of law. Measures that breach human rights norms may deliver the illusion of short-term security, but in the medium and long-term they are likely to erode confidence among minority communities, undermining their willingness to cooperate with the authorities and security services, and creating a fertile ground for messages of hate.


[2] See, for example, Human Rights Watch, “U.K.: Nothing Can Justify London Bombings,” July 7, 2005 [online],

[3] See, for example, Human Rights Watch, “Still at Risk, Diplomatic Assurances No Safeguard Against Torture,” April 2005 [online],; Human Rights Watch,  “U.K.: Highest Court to Rule on Torture Evidence,” October 14, 2005 [online],

index  |  next>>November 2005