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Anti-terrorism: new leadership, new strategy

Tom Porteous
28 November 2006

Tony Blair's premiership started optimistically with the launch of an ethical foreign policy. It is ending with a depressing debate about how to balance national security with human rights and civil liberties at home in Britain.

The implication is clear: in the face of the terrorist threat post-9/11 the government cannot guarantee the rights and liberties of its own citizens, let alone pursue policies which protect the rights and liberties of foreigners.

The challenge for the successor to the British prime minister - who has promised to step down in 2007, though the exact date of his departure remains undecided - is to return to the rationale of an ethical foreign policy: now more than ever, the country's security depends on promoting human rights and the rule of law both at home and internationally. The government insists that this is indeed the United Kingdom's approach. But the record proves otherwise, especially in the Muslim world. There is much lost ground to make up.

Tom Porteous is the London director of Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch-related material in openDemocracy includes:

Neal Ascherson, "Torture: from regress to redress"
(1 March 2006)

Eric Goldstein, "Algeria's amnesia decree"
(10 April 2006)

Nisha Varia & Susan Meiselas, "Costly Dream" (7 August 2006)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka: time to act"
(11 September 2006)

In Iraq, a government installed, paid for and propped up by the occupying powers, is deeply implicated in killings, torture and sectarian violence. The invasion and its disastrous aftermath have fuelled international Islamist militancy and increased the threat of terrorism in the UK. There is now no easy way out of this self-inflicted mess.

In Afghanistan, the British-led Nato campaign is losing hearts and minds through a failure to minimise civilian casualties and through its alliances with drug barons and warlords whose brutal behaviour in the 1980s paved the way for Taliban victories in the 1990s. As a result British and allied forces are facing a growing insurgency and have no exit strategy.

During the fighting between Israel and Hizbollah in Lebanon in July-August 2006, the British government rightly joined the United States in condemning Hizbollah for its attacks on civilians but refrained from serious criticism of Israel for its more lethal (and likewise illegal and reprehensible) attacks that harmed civilians in Lebanon. On Israel's behalf, the UK resisted calls for a humanitarian ceasefire and gave a green light to the transfer of American weapons to Israel through the UK, leading many Lebanese to see the UK as complicit in the violence they suffered at the hands of the Israelis.

There has been a similar reluctance to criticise Washington for its abuses in the "war on terror", particularly the systemic abuse (sometimes amounting to torture) of terrorism suspects in detention facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantànamo Bay. Under public pressure, the British government belatedly called for Guantànamo (but not other detention facilities) to be closed. But the UK has shown the world that its political considerations outweigh its commitment to upholding the most fundamental detainee protections.

In south Asia, the middle east and north Africa, states are increasing their repressive machinery, justifying arbitrary detention, torture, "disappearances", suppression of political freedoms and extension of emergency powers in the name of the "war on terror". But the British government has done nothing to criticise let alone rein in those it counts as its allies in the region. Tony Blair travelled to Pakistan in November 2006 not to speak out against the egregious abuses committed by the military government there, but to praise its cooperation in counter-terrorism and to announce a doubling of British aid.

Closer to home, the government has been seeking to deport from the United Kingdom terrorism suspects whom it is unable or unwilling to prosecute to middle eastern and north African states where they face a serious risk of torture on their return. To do this it is using the fig-leaf of written "diplomatic assurances" from governments that widely practice torture. But experience shows that such assurances will not provide the deportees with protection from torture.

A policy that works

If its counter-terrorism strategy were working the government would be in a better position to defend the idea that we need to bend the rules to deal with the threat being faced. But it is not.

The head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, laid out the extent of the danger in her speech on 9 November. MI5 has identified 200 terrorist networks in the UK and 1,600 "identified individuals who are actively engaged in plotting, or facilitating, terrorist acts here and overseas". It is aware of up to thirty terrorist plots "to kill people and to damage our economy".

What is needed in these difficult times is leadership that will not be swayed by the understandable public fear and revulsion at the next terrorist attack to adopt a "more of the same" approach to national security at home and abroad. The UK government should recognise the wisdom of ensuring that its policies do not undermine its national security, even as it rightly rejects the notion that acts of terrorism should be allowed to influence foreign policy. Here are three principles which might underpin efforts to develop a rights-based UK approach to foreign policy that would help combat terrorism:

  • have clean hands. Acknowledge that abuses perpetrated in the name of national security by the UK, the US and their allies in the middle east and elsewhere help fuel the very problems that need to be solved, and work actively to end those abuses
  • hold all to the same standards. Demand publicly that all sides to armed conflicts in the middle east and elsewhere uphold their obligations to respect international law and protect the civilian population. The deaths of innocent men, women and children are an important factor driving hatred and polarisation
  • rhetoric abroad must match policy at home. Work genuinely to uphold the global ban on torture rather than undermine it by failing to criticise abusive governments or by actively seeking to deport terrorist suspects to such countries.

The challenge for Blair's successor is to convince public opinion that Britain will be better protected if the government pursues a global counter-terrorism policy that is based on human-rights principles and the rule of law.

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