The times they arent a changin

Dame Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, has spoken out in a Spanish newspaper (syndicated to the Telegraph) about her worries that the government is exploiting fears of terrorism to expand its powers and undermine civil liberties.

“About time”, some might say; “A bit late”, others might reply. But this isn’t the first time Dame Stella – who should know a thing or two about the UK’s security – has spoken out against draconian UK counter-terrorism measures. She was one of the large group of ‘notables’ who strongly opposed extending pre-charge detention limits to 42 days, for example.

It’s a timely intervention, coming hot on the heels of a report from the International Commission of Jurists, headed up by former Irish president Mary Robinson, which accused the US and UK of seriously damaging respect for human rights and undermining international law in their zealous pursuit of counter-terrorism policies. Like Dame Stella, the ICJ warned that these policies – such as the acceptance of torture, rendition and detention without charge – are counter-productive.

It’s good to hear more support for a position that Amnesty has held ever since the beginning of the ‘War on Terror’, that the threat of terrorism does not justify human rights abuses and that respect for these rights should actually be at the heart of our attempts to combat terrorism.

With Obama in the White House and David Miliband saying that we need to move away from the rhetoric of the ‘War on Terror’, perhaps we might now see a change, then? A growing acceptance that the best way to deal with terrorism suspects, rather than locking them up indefinitely (perhaps after a quick flight to Pakistan for some ‘softening up’) is to charge them, give them a fair trial, then send them to prison if they’re found guilty?

Or then again, perhaps we won’t. Tomorrow the Law Lords will rule on the legality of deportations from the UK to countries known to use torture, on the basis of ‘diplomatic assurances’ – promises from known torturers that they will ‘lay off’ a particular suspect if the UK deports him or her. As well as being completely unenforceable in UK law, international law and the laws of the destination countries, these shady agreements completely undermine the global ban on torture, which includes a ban on sending people to countries where they may face torture.

Then at the start of March, the Commons will vote on whether to extend the use of Control Orders –another shadowy way of detaining ‘terrorism suspects’ without charging them or giving them a fair trial.

Both of these blights on the UK’s human rights record take their lead from the Special Immigration Appeal Commission – a court which can hear ‘secret evidence’ that the defendant can neither see nor challenge. Hardly a fair trial.

I’m delighted that Stella Rimington has spoken out on this issue. Some of the reportage of her comments has focused on forthcoming Home Office plans to increase state surveillance powers, and I know that the ‘surveillance state’ debate is one that is thankfully getting a lot more attention. But to my mind, before we focus on councils snooping on people whose dogs foul the pavement, shouldn’t we start with the basics like opposing torture and fair trials?

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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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