We must not allow the Paris atrocities to ignite a bonfire of our liberties.
Immediately after the recent Paris terror attacks, Andrew Parker, director general of MI5, seized the opportunity to remind the UK media and public of the intent of Islamist extremists to harm the west. Parker warned that Britain was facing its gravest terror threat, including from ‘several thousand’ Islamist extremists who are living here and may want to attack our country.
The attack on the office of the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo, and the hostage situations that followed sent shockwaves around the world, with the events perceived as an attack on ‘freedom of expression’.
Freedom of expression, along with ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’, and ‘freedom of movement’, are just some of the human rights listed by the UN Declaration of Human Rights, defining characteristics of democratic countries. However, so too is the right for all to be treated equally before the law, the right to a fair trial, the right to hold the government to account and the right not to be arbitrarily arrested, detained or exiled. While freedom of expression has been attacked by terrorists in Paris, other civil liberties could now be under threat in the UK if the government overreacts.
Unsurprisingly, Downing Street confirmed that security has been tightened at British ports and at UK passport control posts in France. But while a heightened visible presence at the UK passport control at the Gare du Nord Eurostar terminal in Paris and a tightening of border security may give a little more reassurance to the public, there has to be an argument that more consideration should also be given to the impact of the measures proposed to improve the ability of intelligence agencies to access communications.
Parker said his ‘sharpest concern’ as head of the service was the ‘growing gap between the increasingly challenging threat and the decreasing availability of capabilities to address it’, and expressed MI5’s desire to ‘be able to access communications and obtain relevant data on those people when we have good reason to do so’.
Tougher security measures are frequently sought in the wake of terror attacks. We saw it after the 9/11 attacks, the train bombings in Madrid, and the 7/7 attacks on London’s transport system.
Following the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Conservatives have promised to increase online surveillance powers to close the ‘safe spaces’ used by suspected terrorists to communicate with each other online. The government’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, announced in November and going through the House of Lords after successfully progressing through the Commons, seeks to prevent British citizens from returning to the UK after suspected ‘terrorist activity’ abroad. It reintroduces relocation measures and increases data retention powers.
The prime minister’s deputy official spokesman said: ‘We are standing up for freedom of speech and democracy’, and Downing Street indicated that newspapers and magazines should feel free to publish the cartoons that are said to have ‘provoked’ the attack.
However, it must not be forgotten that democracy also provides the natural environment for the protection and effective realisation of human rights. In the battle against terrorism it remains of paramount importance that these are not lost. The Law Society’s view is that a number of the measures proposed under the government’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill could significantly affect human rights.
We are particularly concerned about the lack of provisions that would allow powers within the bill to be challenged, and the lack of proper oversight and judicial safeguards to make sure that some powers, including the home secretary’s ability to impose temporary exclusion orders, are not abused.
While it is appreciated – and, in fact, vital – that terrorist threats are fully dealt with, it is equally important that other fundamental liberties are not forgotten.
Andrew Caplen is president of the Law Society