Review of terror laws is welcome - SACC statement

Statement from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC)
20 July 2010

The review of the UK's counter-terrorism laws announced last week by Home Secretary Theresa May is very welcome. It is to be hoped that it will mark the beginning of the end for the regime of oppressive anti-terrorism laws enacted by the Labour Government over the last decade. SACC is calling for the reviewers to throw open their doors and invite submissions from all groups with an interest in the issue.

The only non-governmental group so far invited to provide input to the review is Liberty – a group that deserves respect but has no remit in Scotland. That isn't acceptable.

Disappointingly, in two of the six areas of law prioritised for review – deportation to torture and banning of organisations thought to problematic – the Government seems to be seeking to expand its powers rather than to roll them back.

SACC welcomes any genuine roll-back of counter-terrorism powers, however limited. But we believe that justice, freedom and security will best be served by the full repeal of Britain's anti-terrorism laws, and we will continue to campaign to that end.

Background

Theresa May says that the Home Office review of counter-terrorism powers – to be overseen by former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Ken Macdonald QC – will be rapid and will report back in the autumn. Any proposals for changes to the law will then need to be put before Parliament. Recent years have seen a series of epic Parliamentary battles over controversial anti-terrorism powers. MPs will no doubt wish to take account of the views of their constituents and of anyone directly affected by the legislation before voting on changes to the law.

The review needs to provide a meaningful starting point for the Parliamentary debate and the wider public debate. To do that, it will need to be conducted in an open manner and it will need to take a fresh look at the core principles of Britain's counter-terrorism laws.

The Government has already invited civil liberties pressure group Liberty to become involved in the review - an invitation that Liberty has accepted. This is a very welcome development. But there are a number of other groups besides Liberty that have accumulated valuable experience of the human rights challenges posed by counter-terrorism legislation. Their voices deserve to be heard. Another problem is that Liberty has no remit outside England and Wales. SACC is therefore asking the Home Office to issue an open invitation for all groups with an interest in counter-terrorism legislation to submit their views to the review.

Theresa May says that the review will focus on six priority areas: control orders, section 44 stop and search, pre-charge detention, deportations, organisations promoting hate and violence, and surveillance by local authorities.

Each of these areas concerns matters that SACC has campaigned about over the seven years since our organisation was set up. Naturally we agree that they are matters that need to be dealt with urgently. However, we also recognise that many of the issues raised within these priority areas are underpinned by the definition of terrorism introduced into British law by the Labour Government's Terrorism Act 2000. This definition has attracted widespread criticism, partly because it criminalises non-violent activity and partly because it criminalises activity directed against any government in the world, no matter how oppressive.

An earlier review of the statutory definition of terrorism, carried out for the Labour Government by Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, concluded in 2007 that the current definition is "useful and broadly fit for purpose". But Lord Carlile had already, in his capacity as independent reviewer of the operation of the Terrorism Act 2000, said in each of his previous annual reports on the Act that the Act as a whole was "fit for purpose." It would have been very difficult for him to then say that the cornerstone of the Act – the definition of terrorism – was fundamentally flawed. The current review needs to return to this issue in the context of the wider changes in the law now being contemplated. Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, last week described the review as a "once in a generation opportunity to reform counter-terror measures." If the review doesn't tackle the definition of terrorism it will miss that opportunity by a mile.

Serious problems are raised by the way that Theresa May has set out some of the priority work for the review. For example, she says that it should look at "extending the use of deportations with assurances to remove foreign nationals from the UK who pose a threat to national security." She is talking about the deportation to possible torture of people who haven't been charged with any crime in the UK. The Labour Government sought to cover this horror with the fig leaf of assurances from destination countries that deportees would not be tortured. The assurances were not accompanied by any enforcement mechanism and were in any case given by countries known to be in breach of the international prohibition on torture. The Coalition Government needs to take a fresh look at this odious practice. It is quite wrong for Theresa May to pre-judge the outcome of the review by saying that it will look at "extending the use of deportations with assurances."

Tricky issues are also raised by Theresa May's statement that the review will consider "measures to deal with organisations that promote hatred or violence." It's safe to guess that she has raised this because of the frequently-stated desire of leading Labour and Tory figures to ban the Islamic political party Hizb ut-Tahrir – a desire that featured in the Conservative election manifesto. Hizb ut-Tahrir does not promote violence, but is accused by its critics of spreading hate. The more likely reason for their hostility is that Hizb ut-Tahrir is seen as a political threat by governments in the Middle East and Central Asia that are friendly to Britain.

The reviewers need to take a long, hard look at the powers to proscribe organisations already provided by the Terrorism Act 2000. The Act allows the Home Secretary to order the banning of an organisation "if he believes that it is concerned in terrorism." 46 groups are currently banned under this legislation. Many of them have never carried out an act of terrorism in Britain and are unlikely ever to do so. Some of them enjoy very wide support in their homelands, where they are seen as liberation movements. Some also attract general sympathy within diasporas in Britain.

Organisations can be banned with minimal parliamentary debate, but a ban can have immense consequences. It can criminalise whole communities of otherwise law-abiding migrants and refugees. It can push them into isolation and undermine community cohesion. It can deprive populations living in troubled parts of the world of any effective representation on the global political stage. In doing so, it can block the road to peaceful conflict resolution and pave the way for gross human rights abuses by governments.

The banning of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in Britain and elsewhere helped to create the humanitarian catastrophe that engulfed Tamils in Sri Lanka after last year's defeat of the Tamil Tigers by Sri Lankan government forces. Louise Arbour, a former chief prosecutor in international war crimes trials, said earlier this year that the actions of the Sri Lankan government have dealt "the most serious of body blows to international humanitarian law."

The banning of the PKK in Britain and elsewhere has helped to create an international climate that allows the Turkish government to trample with impunity on the rights of Turkey's Kurdish minority. A renewed government offensive against the PKK has been taking shape in recent months following a period of relative peace. There is a real risk that Turkey may choose the "Sri Lanka option" in preference to negotiation and democratisation.

The proscription of allegedly "terrorist" groups in Britain isn't about preventing violence. It's about licensing violence by favoured states. After 10 years of proscription, it's time for a serious policy re-think.

Britain's Coalition Government says it wants to roll back Labour's counter-terrorism laws. So it's disappointing that in two of the six priority areas identified by the Government – deportation to torture and banning of organisations – it seems in fact to be seeking expanded powers.

Lord Ken Macdonald, tasked with overseeing the review, will need to be energetic in ensuring that the process isn't skewed by Home Office reflexes inherited from the Blair-Brown years. And he will need to be courageous in insisting that the Government seizes the opportunity for real change and resists the urge to merely tinker with the bloated mess of counter-terrorism legislation that it has inherited.

Parliament needs to give terrorism suspects the same legal protection as people suspected of other serious crimes. That's the only way to prevent people suspected of terrorism – and it can happen to anyone – from suffering miscarriages of justice. We don't need laws that create a legal ghetto for terrorism suspects. We don't need laws that send police chasing after perpetrators of newly-invented crimes instead of pursuing those who are intent on murder and mayhem. SACC will continue to press for the full repeal of Britain's counter-terrorism laws.

More Information