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UK: New Counterterrorism Bill Curbs Rights

Parliament Should Amend Problematic and Counterproductive Measures

(London) - The new UK Counterterrorism and Security Bill includes far-reaching measures that could curb free movement, family life, free expression, and risks alienating specific communities, Human Rights Watch said today. Parliament will begin fast-tracked deliberations on the draft law on December 2, during its second reading in the House of Commons.

“The UK government is rushing to adopt some of the most problematic changes to counterterrorism policy in years,” said Izza Leghtas, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Parliament should learn the lessons of the past, when it adopted bad counterterrorism laws in haste.”

If adopted, the new bill would:

  • Allow police to confiscate passports for extended periods for British citizens and others suspected of planning to leave the UK to engage in terrorism-related activities abroad;
  • Allow the government to ban British citizens and residents from returning to the UK for two years, rendering them effectively stateless during that period;
  • Reintroduce compulsory, internal relocation in the UK for terrorism suspects not convicted of any crime; and
  • Allow the home secretary to impose restrictions on universities and schools in the name of preventing extremism in ways that could impair free expression.

The bill comes in a context of growing concern over Western citizens traveling to Syria and Iraq to join armed groups such as the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), to which Western governments have responded with problematic and disproportionate counterterrorism laws, with the aim of preventing citizens from joining these groups and blocking their return if they do.

In 2010, Home Secretary Theresa May promised that the new government would strike a better balance between liberty and security. The government has taken steps to revise some problematic counterterrorism measures adopted by the previous government, such as police search powers and control orders.

This new bill flies in the face of that commitment, however.

“Governments around the world often cite UK laws and policies as examples,” said Leghtas. “This bill sends the dangerous message that stripping people of their rights based on mere suspicion is acceptable in the name of security.”

The bill would enable police officers to confiscate the passports of UK citizens and citizens of other countries if the officer suspects they plan to travel abroad to engage in terrorism-related activity. Passports would be confiscated for up to 14 days, and for a maximum period of 30 days if a court agrees it is necessary while the authorities investigate or take other action against the person. After the 30-day period, the passport could be confiscated again if the person sought to travel.

Under article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the UK is a party, everyone has the right to leave any country, including their own. While the ICCPR allows for restrictions to that right on grounds of national security, they must be proportionate to that aim. People whose passports are confiscated should be able to see evidence against them and challenge in court within a reasonable time the evidence used to justify its confiscation as well as the confiscation itself, which may amount to a de facto ban of travel to any other country.

The bill would also allow the government to issue “temporary exclusion orders” banning UK citizens and residents from returning to the UK for up to two years if the government suspects that they are, or have been, involved in terrorism-related activities abroad. For UK citizens, such orders could effectively render them stateless during that period.

A temporary exclusion order would have the effect of invalidating a person’s British passport. The same person could be subject to further temporary exclusion orders. To return to the UK, a person subjected to a temporary exclusion order would have to agree to hand themselves into the UK authorities upon return, although it is not clear whether agreeing to do so would oblige the UK government to allow the person to return.

Article 12 of the ICCPR prohibits arbitrary bans on people from returning to their own country. The right to return to one’s own country of citizenship is also set out in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The UK also has a duty to avoid statelessness under international law.

In addition, the bill would give the home secretary power to give guidance to schools and universities, among other bodies, to take steps to “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” If a body fails to comply with the guidance, a mandatory order could be given.

A speech by Theresa May on November 24 suggests guidance to universities could include whom they can invite to speak publicly. Such a requirement would have a potentially chilling effect on freedom of expression and academic freedom, and could be used as an example by other governments to ban people whose ideas they disagree with.

The bill would also allow the government to require terrorism suspects, subject to restrictions on their movement and association under Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIM), to relocate up to 200 miles from their current home, potentially interfering with their work, relationships, and the lives of family members who could include children at school.

The right to private and family life under the European Convention on Human Rights and ICCPR is not absolute, but authorities must consider whether any interference with it is proportionate, including when courts review such orders.

Breach of a TPIM is a criminal offence with a maximum sentence of ten years imprisonment (increased in the new bill from five years). Although the bill raises the standard of proof on the government to impose a TPIM (from “reasonable belief” to “balance of probabilities”), the courts continue to have very narrow powers of review.

One positive element in the bill is a proposal to create a Privacy and Civil Liberties Board to assist the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation in reviewing the impact of UK counterterrorism legislation. In order to be effective, such a mechanism should be fully independent from the government and its agencies, not report to any other authority, and include experts in human rights law. It should have sufficient funding and resources and access to the classified information it needs to carry out its mandate. It should also have the power to refer any abuses it uncovers to the authorities.

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