The Human Rights Act is one of the Labour Government’s most enlightened achievements. Its purpose, according to Tony Blair, was to “bring rights home,” allowing people to assert their rights in the UK rather than taking the arduous path to European Court in Strasbourg. The adoption of the Act reflected Britain’s long-standing British commitment to promoting human rights around the world, and the leading role that the UK played in establishing the international human rights system.
But when it comes to combating terrorism, Blair’s government has repeatedly undermined the rights that the Act was intended to bring home, as a new briefing paper from Human Rights Watch shows. Since the September 11 attacks, the government has adopted counterterrorism polices that have undermined human rights, alienated communities whose cooperation is vital to combating terrorism, and sent a dangerous signal to other countries that torture is sometimes acceptable.
Little more than a month after 9/11, the government pushed a new law through parliament allowing foreign terrorism suspects to be detained indefinitely without charge. After the Law Lords ruled in December 2004 that the policy was unlawful, the government brought in control orders, restricting the liberty, movement and association of British and foreign suspects, based on evidence well below what is required to convict someone of a crime. The courts have found almost half the orders in breach of human rights.
The government also ramped up its efforts to circumvent the global ban on torture and deport foreign suspects to places where they face the risk of mistreatment. It has done this by seeking promises from Jordan, Libya, and other countries with terrible records of torture that the suspects would be humanely treated on return. But overwhelming evidence, including from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, indicates that such assurances are utterly worthless. Why on earth should a government which routinely flouts its obligations under international law bother to honour a non-binding bilateral agreement with the UK?
The government is seeking to persuade the European Court of Human Rights to overturn long-standing case law by allowing an exception to the total ban on returns to ill-treatment. And until the Law Lords ruled otherwise in December 2005, it asserted that it had the legal right to use evidence obtained under torture, as long as the UK was not involved.
Following the July 2005 attacks, the government tried to extend the time suspects can be detained before they are charged with a crime from 14 to 90 days. Parliament eventually accepted a 28 day period, the longest in the EU. In a discussion paper published last week, the government signalled it intends to try again to get 90 days, which is equivalent to the average time served in a six-month prison sentence, despite the absence of any evidence that this is needed to investigate crimes.
These measures not only violate human rights law. They are also counterproductive. The July 2005 attacks underscored that Britain faces a home-grown terrorist threat. That is why preventing radicalization and recruitment has rightly become a central plank of the government’s security strategy. But winking at torture in the Middle East and North Africa, and locking up suspects (almost of all them Muslim men) without charge have damaged Britain’s image at home and abroad. The measures have also undermined confidence in the police and security services, jeopardizing the tip-offs and other cooperation that are crucial to successfully policing terrorism.
Gordon Brown recently acknowledged that the government needs to “win the battle of hearts and minds” if it is to prevail against terrorism. Winning that battle depends on the new Prime Minister adopting a new approach to countering terrorism, based on policing and the criminal justice system. This approach should uphold rather than undermine human rights, and thus reaffirm that our fundamental values are stronger than those who wish to harm us.