Safeguarding civil liberties over increased security is not a case of “heads or tails”

5Pillars, , , , , , , , , ,

Should civil liberties be sacrificed for the sake of increased security? This is a question that many Britons have been asking since the dawn of the global ‘war on terror’. However, George Orwell in his famous book 1984 describes how the curtailing of civil liberties by the State will nearly always be justified through the lenses of national security. In fact, this was a common theme throughout the Cold War, from the repressive McCarthyism era in America to the draconian surveillance policies of the USSR.

However, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent events that occurred thereafter, the long-lasting debate between the preservation of civil liberties or increased security has taken a turn for the worse. In the UK, we have witnessed the corrosive nature of the controversial ‘Prevent’ strategy, which claims to “prevent terrorism” but has done anything but what it says on the tin.

More worryingly, Prevent has now been placed on a statutory footing under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, and requires all public sector workers to report people they believe are in danger of being ‘radicalised’.

Expectedly, there was a surge of over-reporting by public sector workers, with nearly 4,000 people referred to Prevent (11 people a day) last year, which was up from 1,681 in 2014. If this isn’t a manifestation of a kneejerk reaction from public sector workers who have been forced to become state spies, then I really don’t what it is.

Opposition to Prevent

What has been commonly dismissed by some of the policy’s cheerleaders as an exclusive “Muslim denialism” to tackling terrorism and radicalisation, wider civil society groups, academics and senior police officers have also been very vocal in their criticisms of Prevent. Prominent examples include:

  • In July 2015, more than 280 academics and NUS members issued a public statement against Prevent, stating that it would have a “chilling effect on free and open debate and political dissent,” adding that “it shifts attention away from grievances that drive individuals towards an ideology that legitimises political violence“. The public statement concluded by calling for Prevent’s total abolition.
  • The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Louise Richardson, argued that “extremists” should be allowed to speak at universities, and banning them from doing so would be a fundamental impingement of free speech.
  • Former Metropolitan chief superintendent Dal Babu described Prevent as a “toxic brand”.
  • Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, Sir Peter Fahy, stated that Prevent was hampered from the onset due to the Iraq war, and he argued that defining “extremism” was not the responsibility of the police.
  • The Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC, criticised Theresa May for her policies (as Home Secretary) under the Prevent strategy, as he believed they risked extending the “surveillance state” too far.
  • Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham, has also called for the scrapping of the “toxic” Prevent strategy.
  • A joint statement signed by 150 prominent academics and psychologists last September questioned the legitimacy of the ‘scientific’ studies underpinning the Prevent policy.

Snooper’s Charter

However, whilst the above criticisms of the Prevent strategy is a promising indication of widespread objection to draconian policies, only last week, the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ came into effect. For those of you wondering what this is – the UK Government and police can now record everything you click on online.

The controversial law, officially entitled the ‘Investigatory Powers Bill’, means internet service providers and app companies such as Whatsapp, must collect and store users’ data and messages for 12 months, enabling law enforcement agencies to collect and use as evidence. Once again, the justification for this has been to “fight terrorism”.

The bill is set to replace the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which has been misused in the past. RIPA was originally introduced to allow local authorities in the UK to carry out more than 55,000 days of surveillance over five years. This includes using listening devices, cameras and private detectives to spy on people if there was a reason to suspect serious criminal activity.

Describing the Snooper’s Charter, Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Brian Paddick said: “Spying on the public should be a last resort not an everyday tool. While the Investigatory Powers Bill will now restrict the ability of local authorities to monitor people’s communications, it will give mass surveillance powers to a huge number of government bodies.”

He added: “As with any legislation, there is a significant risk that authorities will use powers in a way that Parliament never intended. That is why it is vital we have proper oversight in place that ensures any surveillance is targeted and proportionate.”

“Proper oversight”? “Proportionate usage”? “Significant risks”? The “will of authorities and the intention of Parliament”? Unfortunately, we’ve all heard these reservations before!

Ladies and gentlemen, the time is nigh and the environment is ripe for people of reason belonging to all faiths, no faith, and all political persuasions to come together and collectively oppose the further securitisation of this country.

Today, it may just be Muslims who are affected by these laws, but in the coming months and years, the very same laws can affect socialists, liberals, environmentalists, Christians, Jews, and the growing disenfranchised working-class black and white communities.

Make a stand now, as it may be too late for others to defend your faith, race, profession or political group if the State targets you as an “extremist”.

This article was first published on Deo Volente Solicitors‘ website.