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U.K.: New Anti-Terror Law Rolls Back Rights

New anti-terrorism legislation adopted yesterday in the U.K. marks another step in the U.K.'s retreat from human rights and refugee protection obligations, Human Rights Watch said today.

"The September 11 attacks in the U.S. raised serious security concerns," said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. "But this legislation is unfortunately a frontal assault on fundamental rights."

In a critique issued on November 16, in advance of the bill's parliamentary readings, Human Rights Watch urged parliamentarians to reject provisions that would define terrorism so broadly that individuals could be found "guilty by association." Human Rights Watch was also critical of provisions that would permit prolonged indefinite detention of terrorist suspects without charge, would allow the U.K. to derogate from certain obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, and would severely undermine the right to seek asylum in the U.K.

Although the definition of a terrorist in the new law has been refined to include those who "support or assist" terrorists, these terms remain vague and undefined. The status of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) is also enhanced, but suspects' access to judicial review before a court remains restricted to questions of law. Moreover, the provision for secret proceedings before the SIAC remains intact. None of the amendments to the bill effectively responded to Human Rights Watch's concerns.

The group also expressed a broader concern that the U.K.'s derogation from certain provisions of the European Convention sends a signal to other Council of Europe member states that obligations under the convention can be disregarded with ease.

"The passage of the Human Rights Act in 2000 was a milestone, " said Andersen. "But now the U.K. is departing from the European Convention and adopting a law that permits indefinite detention without trial and a denial in some cases of the right to seek asylum."

Human Rights Watch criticized Home Secretary David Blunkett for equating critics of the bill with supporters of terrorism. Among those critics were a number of members of the House of Lords who complained in debate that certain provisions could lead to human rights abuses, without significantly improving U.K. security. Many human rights and civil liberties organizations with large U.K.-based memberships also opposed the bill.

"By impugning opponents to this bill, the U.K. is trying to silence anyone with a genuine concern for the effect these new measures will have on their rights," said Andersen. "Immigrant and refugee communities in particular will feel the full force of a new law that implicitly makes them suspect."

Human Rights Watch expressed concern for the law's impact on the right to seek asylum in the U.K. and the obligation not to return a refugee to a country where his or her life or freedom could be threatened. This week the U.K. stated at a high-level ministerial meeting on the Refugee Convention that the anti-terrorism law "will in no way undermine the UK's obligations under the Convention. Indeed, it is not designed to do so."

"In fact, the new law explicitly undermines the Refugee Convention at the expense of those the convention was designed to help," said Andersen. "The long rights tradition in Britain is not well served by this law."

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