Scrapping control orders: it's about justice, not politics

Judging by the increasing media noise in the UK about control orders, it sounds like something is finally about to happen regarding UK counter-terrorism policy. Speculation about the political battles going on behind the scenes should not obscure the basic human rights arguments against keeping control orders.

Having trumpeted their shared belief in civil liberties as one of the key points of agreement between the two parties, the coalition government set up a review of counter-terrorism legislation, the results of which should soon be publicised. After months of delay, my guess is sometime between 10-24 January, but I won’t be taking (or placing) bets. However what the review will actually say is even less certain.

The Sunday Times reported that Nick Clegg had ‘secured a victory’ on the scrapping of control orders, a Lib Dem manifesto commitment. A coalition of international civil liberties organisations has also signed-up to a joint letter calling control orders the ‘trademark of despots’ and urging their abolition. Today’s media salvo came from the rival camp, who had assembled four former home secretaries (the post-Christmas successor to eight drummers drumming or seven maids a-milking) to voice their support for control orders.

The story is being portrayed as a political tussle between Cameron and Clegg, with the former under pressure from the security establishment to keep control orders and the latter fighting to honour his party’s commitment to scrap them, following the volte-face over tuition fees. The Labour Party’s position is less clear, as this New Statesman piece underlines. Amnesty’s director Kate Allen argues in this article that there is a real opportunity for the Labour party to regain some of the credibility on  human rights issues that was lost in the ‘war on terror’.

The other common media angle is that this is a battle between two opposing factions, ‘liberty’ and ‘security’: those who want to keep us safe versus those who want to keep us free. A strong point made in the Guardian’s Leader column today, as well as by numerous others previously, is that control orders don’t exactly offer a guarantee of security in the first place. Numerous people (number?) have absconded while on control orders and only four people are currently subjected to them in their strictest form, prompting the Guardian to ask whether the UK security establishment really can’t keep four already-identified individuals under surveillance?

Security vs liberty is a false choice in the first place, however. The two can go hand-in-hand and always should. Many agree that human rights abuses during Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’ acted as a ‘recruiting sergeant’ for the provisional IRA, and the same point has been made countless times about Guantanamo and other human rights abuses post-9/11. The basic principles of justice, fair trials and habeas corpus should not be thrown out of the window when it comes to fighting terrorism. Control orders impose serious restrictions on people’s liberty (and other freedoms such as movement and association) without giving them a chance to challenge the allegations against them in a fair trial. Regardless of coalition politics, they should be scrapped.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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