Sunday, 11 September 2011

Civil Liberties and Human Rights After 9/11

As far as some of our Western leaders were concerned, the aftermath of September 11th was not a time for reflection or debate; little room was afforded for complexities.

If you couldn’t unconditionally offer your support for whatever course of action came next, you were as good as an apologist for terror. 

This desire to polarise was very quickly extended to the field of civil liberties: were the public prepared to sacrifice some of their civil liberties in return for greater security? The political rhetoric was blunt and unashamedly direct: the greatest liberty was the right to life, the right to live free from terror.
What then followed made human rights groups, campaigners, and anyone wary of an abuse of state power, aghast. George W. Bush’s America and New Labour’s Britain became privy to some of the most regressive and authoritarian legislation ever passed.
Centuries’ worth of rights were steadily eroded. The human rights of terror suspects outside the US and UK, when they came up against the “war on terror” machine, were treated with equal disdain.
In the US, dissenting voices (i.e. those asking the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions following the attacks) were slapped down. Those looking for any sort of explanation were demonised.
Thus, against this background, merely six weeks after 9/11, and with barely any chance to debate it, the absurdly named “Patriot Act” was passed. Unbelievably, most members of Congress later admitted to having never even read its contents before voting it into law. And of course to oppose it was to be unpatriotic, even traitorous, when your country is under attack.
Its powers were wide-reaching, and included the right for a government agency to go through any individual’s personal records, be it their bank or hospital records, or even checking what books they were taking out from the library.
Before 9/11, the government at least had to suspect someone of being a terrorist or spy. Now, any records deemed “relevant to an investigation” could be sought.
It also gave widening powers to email and telecommunication wiretaps, and the right for the government to enter its citizens’ homes unannounced. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, these measures were simply ‘unconstitutional.’
Outside of America, Guantanamo Bay went from merely being a harbour located in south east Cuba, to a place where America detained hundreds of men in orange jumpsuits, picked up from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and accused of being terrorists with links to Al-Qaeda. Labelled ‘enemy combatants,’ their status therefore fell outside legal protections offered to prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention.
Secret US military files obtained earlier this year confirmed what many had suspected and reported for a while: detention without trial based on ‘the flimsiest grounds,’ the ill treatment of prisoners, and the use in certain cases of torture (or ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ to use its sanitised moniker) to extract information.
Since 2002 between 750 and 800 have been held there, yet only two have ever been convicted of a crime. Over 150 still remain, seemingly in a state of legal limbo.
The term ‘extraordinary rendition’ also entered the post 9/11 lexicon and applied to terror suspects being forcibly taken from one country and flown to certain locations around the world, where intelligence was gleaned using instruments of torture such as ‘waterboarding,’ something that both President Bush and his deputy were more than happy to admit took place.
All this against a backdrop of supposedly fighting to defend Western values and freedoms: for Messrs Bush and Cheney, the rule of law, habeas corpus and other enshrined human rights, were clearly not meant to be universal principles.  
Over in Britain, civil liberties were attacked with the same gusto by the Blair administration, as successive Home Secretaries sought to outdo each other for the title of ‘most authoritarian Secretary of State since…’
Even though Britain had only just passed the Terrorism Act 2000: “the first permanent counter-terrorist legislation in the UK,” aimed at combating terrorism in Northern Ireland as well as widening the definition of terrorism to cover both the domestic and international, after 9/11,  Labour felt compelled to pass a whole new swathe of anti-terror legislation.
We had the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001, the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, the Terrorism act 2006, and the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, to name but four.
Other pieces of legislation, such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, “while not aimed explicitly or primarily at countering terrorism” as The Guardian explained, “nevertheless had a significant impact on the powers available to the police and security services.”
The impact of these led critics to accuse the government of riding roughshod over a whole litany of civil liberties. The principle charge was that much of this legislation lacked proportionality and was indeed counter-productive.
The human rights group Liberty have regularly argued that much of the counter-terrorism legislation is: “dangerously broad and has affected vast numbers of people, in particular peaceful protestors and ethnic minority groups.”
In December 2004, the government’s policy of indefinite detention without trial of foreign nationals accused of terrorist offences was deemed illegal by the House of Lords, with one of the Law Lords, Lord Hoffmann, delivering his now infamous rebuke that:
the real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.”
In response, egged on from the right wing press and fear of the dreaded charge of being ‘soft on terror,’ and for the need to try and outmuscle the Tories on issues of national security, pre-charge detention became another controversial tool in the fight against terror. Terror suspects faced the prospect of 28 days (up from 7) in prison without charge.
Research revealed this to be the longest detention without charge of any democracy, and yet the government had wanted this increased to a staggering 90 days.
‘Stop and Search’ was widened to gave police even more powers, but was deemed to be a completely ineffective ‘crude instrument.’ Figures revealed that it was used 101,248 times in 2009/10, resulting in 506 arrests, of which not a single one was for a terrorist-related offence.
Last summer it was deemed to be illegal by the European Court of Human Rights, and ditched by the present government.
We have also seen the right to protest and freedom speech treated with similar contempt. Legitimate and peaceful demonstrations have also come up against anti-terror laws, whether they be climate change activists, students or a lone protestor outside parliament.
The “encouragement of terrorism” became an offence. Whether somebody or a group says something that wasn’t intended to glorify terrorism, they still could face up to seven years in prison.
According to the international human rights group, Article 19, the definition of terrorism in UK law is ‘both vague and excessively broad in reach,’ with a potential wide range of acts criminalised.
In short, the years following September 11th have seen a betrayal of a whole raft of civil liberties.
Rather than standing up for these fundamental rights, the UK and US governments have abused them without pause. And they have managed to do this by playing on the public’s fear of that possible next attack, safe in the knowledge that - because of this fear - they are likely to retain their support almost whatever they do to restrict their liberty.

This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on Sunday 11 September 2011

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