Can Europe Make It?

What kind of security policy better serves democracy?

What type of security policy at home and abroad do we need to make our democracies fit for purpose? A key panel discussion for our times.

Ben Hayes Cori Crider Narzanin Massoumi Daniel Holder
28 May 2019
Fatima Boudchar and her son Abderrahim Belhaj, 14, with lawyers (far left) Cori Crider and (far right) Sapna Malik from Reprieve arriving at the Houses of Parliament in London for a formal apology, May 10, 2018.
Fatima Boudchar and her son Abderrahim Belhaj, 14, with lawyers (far left) Cori Crider and (far right) Sapna Malik from Reprieve arriving at the Houses of Parliament in London for a formal apology, May 10, 2018.
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Stefan Rousseau/PA. All rights reserved.

At this year’s Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics, openDemocracy was invited to curate Democracy Day on March 29, to explore the health of democracy and how to reinvigorate it for our volatile times. One highlight of a packed and challenging day was this panel of four speakers, organised in partnership with the Transnational Institute, on security policy as we know it today. Do the current approaches to counter-terrorism and conflict at home and abroad serve us well ? What type of security policy do we need to make our democracies fit for purpose? This transcript covers the opening contributions from Narzanin Massoumi ( Exeter University), Daniel Holder (Committee on the Administration of Justice), Cori Crider, (ex-Legal Director at Reprieve) and in the chair, Ben Hayes (Transnational Institute).

Narzanin Massoumi (NM): I am going to talk about how profoundly undemocratic counter-terrorism policy has been over the last twenty years in terms of its effect on Muslims, and the ability of Muslims to be able to participate in public life more generally. Obviously the development of counter-terrorism policy over that time has disproportionally targeted Muslim communities. Taking one example, Schedule 7 that allows you to be stopped at a port without any explanation – there is no data on this in terms of religion, but if you are from a Pakistani background you are 150 times more likely to be stopped under that piece of legislation. For many Muslim men, getting stopped is part of the routine of going to an airport and abroad. The impact of these kinds of disproportionate targeting is profound.

I work on the PREVENT programme – which doesn’t apply here in Northern Ireland, but PREVENT, which has developed through a number of iterations, was initially intended to focus on Muslim communities. The first phase of PREVENT after the 7/7 Muslim bombings of 2005 was trying to work with government-friendly Muslim organisations to help defeat terrorism. As a result of that, they tried to recruit specific types of organisations that they thought would be helpful to the government – a strategy that failed for a number of reasons. It was really discredited – it had no credibility among Muslim communities, and at that point, partly coinciding with a change of government, the policy shifted and it became a bit more aggressive.

Firstly it introduced a statutory duty into public institutions – so that now it is a public statutory duty to pay due regard to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. That now applies in education, health, social services, universities – and this has meant that accessing services and participating in public institutions for Muslims particularly has become difficult.

Since this statutory duty has been in effect, 4,500 people a year – 12 people a day – are being referred to this PREVENT radicalisation programme.

Since this statutory duty has been in effect, 4,500 people a year – 12 people a day – are being referred to this PREVENT radicalisation programme. That is quite a lot. One disturbing aspect is that more than half of these are children – including children as young as 3 years’ old have been referred from nurseries for showing signs of radicalisation. It is really beyond belief, trying to imagine what a sign of radicalisation is in a 3-yr.old.

But this also has a huge impact on these public institutions which are spaces of our social rights. In schools, it is harder to teach certain subjects – there is self-censorship. There are reports that Muslim students are being bullied more – there is stigmatising and more racial profiling. In some universities, we have new registers, where we have to say if we are researching certain types of ‘security-sensitive’ topics. It is becoming harder to organise certain types of events on campus: there are long bureaucratic procedures that we have to go through, and events on Islamophobia, PREVENT, and on Palestine have been cancelled as a result of these new policies. Even though PREVENT doesn’t apply here, there was an event at Queen’s Belfast that was cancelled thanks to the standardisation of university practise which has ensured that these restrictions have spread.

As a result, it is extremely difficult for Muslim organisations and Muslim civil liberties and human rights activists to actually partake in democratic discussions within universities. Within the Prevent training for universities , CAGE for example – CAGE is a human rights advocacy organisation you might have heard of – are described as extremists who should only be allowed to speak with certain ‘mitigations’ in place. CAGE is not alone. MEND and other active organisations are constantly being smeared and treated with suspicion, so that our democratic participation is being undermined by these interventions.

Daniel Holder (DH): Going back to the title of our session, I think we find some answers to the question – what type of security does democracy need? – within human rights standards. Because if a state abides by the rule of law, that has to include abiding by human rights law. It follows that if a State’s security policy doesn’t permit human rights violations, it won’t tend to fuel conflict.

If we go right back to the end of the 1960’s and the onset of the most recent period of Troubles, look at the aspects and actions of security policy that involved human rights violations – they were the ones that fuelled the conflict: the use here of torture, the ‘five techniques’ that were the subject of the Ireland v UK European Court case – though now we know that there were at least eight including waterboarding that was used here (although no one used that term until relatively recently, but the testimonies and experiences show that it was exactly that) – these fuelled conflict. Any application of security policy in a discriminatory manner – internment being an obvious example –fuelled conflict.

All those experiences which the other speakers are now relaying in a more contemporary sense, were targeted here at another ‘suspect community’, to use the phrase in Paddy Hillyard’s book title that referred both to people here and to the Irish people in Britain that were being targeted in that manner at that time. Again you could see how that further alienated people from the State.

Also, when you watch some of these awful police programmes that are always misogynist and macho, and always have this thing about how the cops defeat the evildoers by bending the rules and working the outside the rules – the reality is the exact opposite of the case. It is only by the proper application of the rule of law that you do defuse conflict and have a legitimate State. Where you step outside of that and commit human rights violations, you end up fuelling conflict.

It is only by the proper application of the rule of law that you do defuse conflict and have a legitimate State.

There are many other aspects to the patterns of violation of human rights here during the Troubles – particularly the use of informants outside the use of the law, and the way those practises were covered up through the extensions of national security exemptions, but that is a whole other topic area.

But turning to another area - impunity in the first five years of the conflict, 1969 -1974, around 180 people were shot dead by the security forces, the vast majority of them, by the British Army. The number of convictions was zero; the number of trials, zero; the number of prosecutions, zero. The number of police investigations – zero.

There was an agreement whereby the RUC, the then police force, would not investigate deaths at the hands of the military. But it would be done by the Royal Military Police in an agreement that was called the ‘tea and sandwiches’ agreement – their own term not mine – whereby investigators would sit down with soldiers normally for about fifteen minutes to get a narrative about what had just happened. Some would say, “Oh yes, but of course this was a situation in which soldiers were under fire and were returning fire!” But hang on a minute. How would you know that unless you have effectively investigated the incident? From all the testimony it seems that that type of circumstance whenever it happened was very much the exception rather than the rule. What we do know is that 63% of the people who were shot dead were indisputably unarmed at the time that they were killed and only 12% were in possession of a weapon, which doesn’t mean that they were posing an imminent threat that would make any use of force lawful rather than just having someone arrested.

I raise that example because it is simply an example of misapplying the rule of law governing the military. I raise that example, because that is the issue, among others, that we are still struggling with today. It fuelled conflict at the time, but it was only last week or the week before last when we had the decision that there would be only one soldier prosecuted for murder and attempted murder in relation to Bloody Sunday. In fact since the Good Friday Agreement there have only been two other decisions to prosecute members of the military, both in recent years. And this is in the context where only a handful of soldiers served any type of prison time at any point during the conflict.

It is that kind of misapplication of the rule of law and allowing any impunity for human rights standards that really does fuel conflict and make things worse. That is the initial point I wanted to make.

Cori Crider (CC): I am originally from the United States and though I have been in London for the past twelve years, a lot of what I have worked on in terms of counter-terrorism policy and national security cases involves the way that the United States and the United Kingdom went into a kind of lock-step after 9/11 and the various mistakes that they made. So, thinking about the question that Ben asked us, which was, what is democratic or antidemocratic about national security policy – as an American I found myself asking, well how democratic was it for the entire UK public to be sort of dragged along with the worst mistakes of the Bush Administration’s ‘war on terror’? That’s not something that ever gained any democratic assent in the United Kingdom.

I found myself asking, well how democratic was it for the entire UK public to be sort of dragged along with the worst mistakes of the Bush Administration’s ‘war on terror’?

So I think about some of the worst cases that Reprieve has litigated over the years, and they absolutely involved a kind of US-UK collusion nexus. Would there ever have been democratic assent for example, to the United Kingdom sharing intelligence that permitted the abduction, secret detention and torture of an anti-Gadaffi dissident and his pregnant wife, as happened in 2004. A couple of the cases we represented involved the CIA and MI6 colluding to abduct and secretly detain and torture people who were not just dissidents and activists, but their wives. My client as I say was five months pregnant at the time of her rendition to Gadaffi’s torture chambers. And kids. It is another under-discussed aspect of the ‘war on terror’ that the CIA with MI6 support put children between the ages of six and twelve on rendition in Gadaffi’s jails.

So I always think, the United Kingdom didn’t have to go this way. It didn’t have to fall into lock-step behind my nation’s insane and ethnically driven counter-terrorism policies. But it absolutely did, with very little democratic debate and very little democratic oversight.

The second point I would like to make is that you can’t have meaningful democratic oversight of national security policy if you don’t know what’s happening. I sometimes think that the single most corrosive effect on democracy of the national security practises that we have had since 9/11 is simply the disease of secrecy striding into all areas of public life throughout the judicial system.

Time was, fifteen years ago, you didn’t have the ability to have a secret trial in civil courts or in judicial reviews in the United Kingdom. But since 2013 and the so-called Justice and Security Act, you now have an entire separate, secret court system, where as part of a civil trial for torture, such as those brought for these victims of rendition or in other kinds of cases, the client will never see some of the key evidence in the case. There will be supposedly special advocates who are trusted to see the classified evidence – but those people don’t get to talk to the clients. However, the disease of secrecy has spread throughout the political and judicial system since 9/11 and it is going to take a lot of work to take it back. So how can you be democratic with sentencing practises when you don‘t know what they are?

Again, thinking of the Belhaj case, and the rendition of his partner, Fatima – why? We don’t know about this because of a proper functioning democracy. We don’t know about it because the UK government owned up to it. We know about it because during the Libyan invasion, Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch and some rebels found a cache of documents that showed in black and white number 2 of MI6, Sir Mark Allen, at the time, taking credit for the rendition. We would not have known about the British role in the kidnapping of pregnant women and children were it not for the conflict. It wasn’t the proper operation of democracy that threw that stuff up.

The disease of secrecy has spread throughout the political and judicial system since 9/11 and it is going to take a lot of work to take it back.

More recently, there were two really important reports that came out of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) of the UK Parliament last year, which didn’t get much attention. When Dominic Grieve took over ISC he put out a couple of reports on the UK’s role in torture and rendition and the abuse of victims. One of the things we had not known, was that far from just being a sidekick of the United States, the United Kingdom itself actually paid for some renditions. The ISC says that there is prima facie evidence to suggest that a crime was committed in the rendition of someone referred to as Greenfinch. Who was Greenfinch? Is he still in secret detention? Is he dead? People did die as a result of some of these renditions. What happened to him? So it isn’t over now. And there is still no democratic oversight, no accountability.

And then the third essential democratic problem that I would like us to rethink is just the size and cost of the national insecurity state post-9/11. You will have to forgive me for talking about the US when we are thinking about the UK and the EU here, but still it is the Behemoth in the room. The gravitational pull from the United States on policy is so great, that it’s worth thinking about.

The US’ current national security budget, depending on how you think about it, at the moment, is 1.2 trillion dollars. There is actually an essential democratic conversation to be had about the opportunity cost of spending so much money, when Americans are there on twitter saying, “Can you support this woman’s GoFundMe for her insulin? ” – right? I think to myself, this is what is antidemocratic about our national security policy. And the privatisation of it. The fact that there are a number of companies that participate. That it is not simply the public sector. That the money is going out to various corporations that have an interest in this expenditure, so that there is only ever an escalation in the amount of public funds and tax dollars that go to sustain the intelligence and national security complex.

A lot of the technology then travels home. This is the last point that I will make. It is not just that it gets used on the periphery or on people of colour abroad. I was just in LA, filming with some community organisers in the heart of Skid Row in Los Angeles, who are organising against predictive policing as it is used in their communities.

The technology which is used to assess the most impoverished, most over-policed, poorest citizens in LA, is sold to the police by Palantir.

The technology which is used to assess the most impoverished, most over-policed, poorest citizens in LA, is sold to the police by Palantir. This was a software originally developed to deal with counter-insurgency in Iraq. So having done that, they needed a new market, somewhere else to sell the technology, so where do they go but to LA. You tell me whether thinking of the most impoverished parts of Los Angeles as essentially insurgents who need to be contained and controlled is consistent with community policing and whether it is basically a meaningful exercise in democratic control over security policy…?

Ben Hayes (BH): So the ‘suspect community’ may have changed, but the continuity and entrenchment of these structures of power and authority and control remains, as well as the complete impunity with which egregious human rights violations have been carried out, with rendition and torture practised here in the UK as well.

It is the permanence of some of these structures and, as Cori says, the size and scale of these vested interests, that must strike us. The monopoly of violence that the state once had is now somehow augmented or facilitated by the huge technological infrastructure she invokes, which in many ways is changing the nature of both the potential and the current practise of security policies across the world. This scale of development is not just going to be fixed overnight.

So the ‘suspect community’ may have changed, but the continuity and entrenchment of these structures of power and authority and control remains.

Daniel is clearly right – let’s make states operate within the rule of law; let’s make them human rights compliant and stamp out the human rights violations. That offers us a path forward. But for some of us who have been in this space for quite some time, making these arguments about human rights and maybe those differences between where you are now and where we are in mainland Britain, it kind of feels as if this is just not working for us any more and that states can carry on speaking the language of human rights quite comfortably and setting up human rights commissions – but nothing changes.

So I am going to come back with specific questions for each of you, starting with Narzanin… I’m a huge fan of your work. You have linked the way counter-terrorism operates to the lack of democracy, how it is failing democracy and providing profoundly unjust and undemocratic outcomes. But you have also linked what you have seen of the overall narratives around counter-terrorism and security to the re-emergence of the far right, in this populist moment that we are in now that Anthony Barnett spoke about at the beginning of the Democracy Day. About this, mainstream theory will have it that you have got liberal democracy in the middle and the far right over here and far left over there, and the state just doing its best to mediate this complex terrain in which we regrettably now find ourselves. Your work speaks against that – so I was wondering if you could say more about that.

To Daniel – this is a selfish question from where we are, but the Good Friday Agreement and the Patten Report promised so much in terms of policing reform and maybe offers those of us who are trying to think about what a more just and equitable policing settlement might look like – maybe you can talk to what was promised, what the reality looks like now.

It is the permanence of some of these structures and, as Cori says, the size and scale of these vested interests, that must strike us.

To Cori – there is so much I want to ask you, particularly about the technology and how that is changing things, but the main question is how do we deal with these structures of power – Special Branch – three times the size that it was during the height of the Troubles? The budget I think for the UK intelligence services is five times the budget for the police in the UK. So with these massively entrenched and completely unaccountable structures, it strikes me that if we are going to talk about alternatives for democratic control, we have got to start with those.

NM: I work in a collaborative project with some of my colleagues on Islamophobia: we look at how this anti-Muslim racism has come about. We turned the question upside down, and found that if you really look at how Islamophobia is perpetuated and maintained, supported throughout society and institutionalised within our everyday practises, the crucial backbone for Islamophobia is the state – and in particular its widespread counter-terrorism apparatus.

But the state works alongside social movements, and there are a number of these social movements, not at all confined to fringe groups like the EDL on the streets. There are different currents: elite social movements like the neo-conservative movement, the counter-jihad movement, parts of the Zionist movement, but also some liberal left movements and there are ways in which these movements overlap.

They begin by lobbying the state, pushing forward more aggressive, rightwing, racist and more authoritarian policies that affect Muslims disproportionately – so for example, much of our counter-terrorism legislation has been heavily influenced by neo-conservative groups. But as they overlap, in funding sources, movements and even ideas, you begin to see a merging between say neoconservative and counter jihad movements. The state enables this by adopting some of the same kind of language and rhetoric as these movements in terms of their policies, but also by how these groups thrive in the context of policies that cite Muslims as extremists and see them as living in suspect communities and so forth.

So what do we do about this? There are a couple of principles here. First we have to think about how we can undo past harms – the longer process of holding people to account for their actions. But in terms of dealing with the racism that the state enables, we have to be able to hold the state to account for these policies, and the way in which these policies are being formed at the moment is profoundly undemocratic – it is a very narrow group of people that are having an input into the discussion about what the problem is, and how we deal with it. Our institutions themselves, our public institutions, need to be democratised and re-educated, so that principles of human rights, multiculturalism, children’s right are enhanced and at the core of these institutions. Mechanisms allowing us to hold them and therefore the state to account would prevent these kinds of social movements from influencing our policy in the way that they do.

It is a very narrow group of people that are having an input into the discussion about what the problem is, and how we deal with it.

Cori spoke about secrecy and accountability, and within the legislation and practices to do with counter-terrorism and Muslim communities, there is far too much secrecy, even when it comes to civil society. For example, it was recently revealed that RICU, which is the research, information and communication unit in the Home Office, has, with the help of a PR firm, been creating covert Muslim civil society campaigns and covertly supporting organisations which present themselves and engage in activities seemingly as representing grassroots Muslim voices. This, of course, has a profoundly negative impact, in terms of trust, and enabling people to know who and what they are engaging with when it comes to resourcing community activity. For example, in Bristol where I live, I went to a local Muslim community event there, talking about PREVENT and what not – to find that the whole event was run by two organisations heavily funded by the Home Office – though the nature of this support wasn’t actually revealed at the time – but also that it was being run by the local Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Unit. So what was going on? The way it was billed as representing grassroots voices was deceptive. This is intimidation and interference. So those transparency issues are incredibly important and we try to make such information available about who is running what, because it does have reputational implications for people who, say, end up working for the Home Office without realising it.

DH: Overall, going back to your question, going back to Good Friday and the Patten Report – and not just in terms of the police but also the justice system, this is a good news story. Those who say nothing has changed are wrong. This is one of the good news stories of the peace settlement. It had to be fought for every inch of the way over three different pieces of legislation. Even now we are fighting every day against roll back from all this. But the police have been very significantly reformed.

It is not just issues around composition. But take having to work with a human rights compliant framework. The European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) is not only embedded as part of the Good Friday Agreement, but it is then incorporated within the binding Code of Ethics for police officers, and we have a very powerful oversight institution in the Police Ombudsman that has full police powers to investigate police officers. We have an oversight architecture in the shape of a Policing Board, and we did have an independent human rights adviser role until last year when the opportunity of the collapse in power sharing was used to cull that role, and we hope that now will come back. So it is a running battle to keep this level up, and there are caveats, but on the whole it is a good news story.

ECHR is not only embedded as part of the Good Friday Agreement, but it is then incorporated within the binding Code of Ethics for police officers.

The running battle has involved attempts by the UK to insert police and law enforcement bodies into Northern Ireland that sit outside that oversight architecture. There was a huge battle over the National Crime Agency where fortunately both of the nationalist parties blocked it being legislated for fully with police powers until the Home Office agreed that it would fall under the Ombudsman and the Policing Board and everything that has been set up.

The one body that isn’t is MI5, which has been estimated to have something between 500- 700 officers here (that is two thirds of the strength of RUC Special Branch), sitting in a base down on the Belfast Loughshore. Mi5 sits outside all of these oversight provisions. That is very worrying. We do know, through other litigation in which we have been involved, that MI5 do now have guidelines on the involvement of informants and crime and criminal activity, and authorisation processes. When I say we have those Guidelines, they have been put into the public domain, but ninety per cent of the page has been blanked out. But the last sentence is very telling. It says, something along the lines of “informants shall not be authorised to entice or be involved in a serious criminal offence, unless it is authorised under these guidelines.” So at first you think, yes that sounds like a democratic society, but it’s only when you read the second half of the sentence that you think, hang on, that’s a bit of a problem.

Mi5 sits outside all of these oversight provisions. That is very worrying.

It has already been mentioned that we have been spared PREVENT. I imagine that someone from the Home Office went to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and asked, “Would you like to go into classrooms around Belfast and tell people that we are the forces of law and order and that they shouldn’t become evil terrorists?” And that the PSNI said, “Er, no, I don’t think so”. In relation to such State intervention programmes in general my sense is that the overwhelming feeling would be one of gross hypocrisy, especially when States are themselves involved in illegal wars of aggression and in human rights violations in different places.

We are a human rights organisation and opposed to all forms of violence, and that’s why we won’t use the word “terrorism”, because that term is just an ideological concept for separating out ‘good’ violence from ‘bad’ violence. And that’s a problem for those of us who are opposed to all forms of violence.

We won’t use the word “terrorism”, because that term is just an ideological concept for separating out ‘good’ violence from ‘bad’ violence.

We were spared the Counter Extremism Strategy because the Home Office knew they couldn’t legislate for it here, because again, the representatives of past ‘suspect communities’ were quite vocal about how they would block this from going through the NI Assembly. It also contained a vague concept that it would target extremists, and it defined ‘extremism’ as not abiding by British Values.

That was always going to be an interesting concept here, because of course we don’t have to be British. We can be Irish or British or both and so forth… When you looked at what British Values were, there was a problem. Not with the values themselves… they were all about tolerance and democracy and this, that and the other. But the problem was that they weren’t British Values, they were universal human rights values, and the problem was that they were being projected as if they were only embodied in British Values and weren’t held by the undefined foreign Other. That’s how they were being projected and that was extremely problematic.

One of the British values extolled there was tolerance of people with different sexual orientation, and we thought, “Right, that’s why they are not implementing it here, because they would have to arrest the DUP”. But of course they would never have applied the legislation in that way. But it would have been used to target the community that was going to be the ‘suspect community’. A lot of these interventions have to be called out for what they really are. It was essentially thinly-disguised British nationalism. That’s all it was – about isolating a particular set of values that weren’t held by the Other and then targeting that Other, whilst ignoring the patterns and practises of the State both at home and overseas.

CC: I have two families of answer that I have been chewing on since you approached me. One is to answer on the security state’s own terms, which was to say, if your objective was to reduce the risk of ‘jihadist violence’, you have failed under your own terms. If MI5’s Eliza Manningham-Buller can herself see and say that the single greatest driving factor for recruitment to armed groups was the invasion of Iraq, then the point is made. It is at least partially the case that you can draw a line between the invasion of Iraq, the creation of the Islamic State, the refugee crisis and the rise of the far right. It is not the whole story, but it is a line that it is legitimate to draw and a part of the story that people need to think about. So there is one answer that goes, even by your account you have failed, and you have increased the risk.

The answer I am more interested in is the exciting thinking that is going on about what progressive foreign policy and progressive national security policy might look like. It reframes the question and asks, what is security policy actually for, what is the purpose of security policy? – i.e. if it is actually about trying to preserve a way of life, an open and tolerant and pluralistic democracy – if you ask that question instead – then I feel that whole new vistas open up for you.

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