A top European human rights watchdog said on Wednesday Britain’s anti-terrorism laws breached European standards and could force London to opt out of parts of the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite improvements, Britain still tended to see human rights as an obstacle to the criminal justice system, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Alvaro Gil-Robles said in a report.
He welcomed a decision by Britain’s top court which forced Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government to drop a measure allowing detention of foreign terrorist suspects without charge. But problems remained with the law that replaced it. The 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act allows Britain’s Home Secretary (interior minister) to issue “control orders” against terrorism suspects, which restrict their freedom of movement, where they live and with whom they may communicate.
“The Act acknowledges some … of these restrictions may be incompatible with Article 5 (of the European Convention on Human Rights) on the right to liberty, in which case the possibility of derogating from the UK’s obligations under this article is foreseen,” the report said.
Control orders replaced the criminal justice system with a parallel system run by the executive. Special laws might be necessary to counter the risk of terrorist attack but judicial guarantees should always be applied, it added.
Andrew Bell, a spokesman for the British government, said London welcomed the report and would “give careful consideration to the issues and recommendations.”
In London, the minister responsible for the modernisation of the criminal justice system, Baroness Scotland, defended Britain’s far-reaching anti-terrorism laws. “Those control orders are proportionate,” she told Channel 4 television news.
“What we are doing is limiting the ability of those individuals who’ve been identified as potentially causing a risk to our country … I absolutely do not accept that we are in any way exaggerating the threat,” she said. “What are the alternatives? What is being suggested that we should put in place to keep our country safe?”
Some British Muslims, who say they have borne the brunt of laws which give police extra powers to stop and search suspects, welcomed Gil-Robles’ report. The British Islamic Human Rights Commission commended it “for clearly shaming the UK as a nation which, rather than improving, is rapidly digressing from the most basic of human rights obligations”.
“The British government … continues to oppress the minorities in Britain through a general policy of fear,” IHRC Chairman Massoud Shadjareh said. “Fear of terrorism, fear of asylum seekers, fear of Muslims and general fear of ‘the Other’.”
Reuters, 8 June 2005
See also Politics.co.uk, 8 June 2005