Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Britain, Turkey and trading human rights for 'counter-terrorism'

openSecurity was inspired by a 2005 conference in Madrid on the anniversary of the Atocha station bombings, marked by consensus that 'counter-terrorism' measures had to be consistent with human rights and the rule of law. The UK was hardly represented at the event—and its performance since resembles a state whose human-rights record is ill-starred: Turkey.

Metropolitan Police phalanxThe Met at the ready: the securitisation of politics is bringing the criminalisation of dissent. Photo: Zorilla. Creative Commons.

In world politics today, there is a tug-of-war between institutionalised human-rights norms and ‘national security’ concerns, particularly in the aftermath of ‘9/11’. A comparison of Turkey and Britain offers interesting insights into the trade-off between human rights and ‘counter-terrorism’.

Metropolitan Police phalanxThe Met at the ready: the securitisation of politics is bringing the criminalisation of dissent. Photo: Zorilla. Creative Commons.

In world politics today, there is a tug-of-war between institutionalised human-rights norms and ‘national security’ concerns, particularly in the aftermath of ‘9/11’. A comparison of Turkey and Britain offers interesting insights into the trade-off between human rights and ‘counter-terrorism’.

The UK is a consolidated democracy with a long history of liberal rights, while Turkey is still going through a democratisation process and has not yet habitualised human-rights principles. But they have undergone similar experiences with respect to ‘ethnic’ and ‘global’ terrorism, adopting new ‘anti-terror’ policies as a response. And there are similarities not only in the content and implementation of counter-terrorism measures but also how these have been balanced with human rights.

First, in both cases, such measures target forms of opposition perceived as posing an ‘existential threat’ to the polity. Both countries use a vague and wide definition of terrorism in their legislation, which is not only against the principle of legality but also results in controversial applications. In the UK, the manifestly broad definition provided by the Terrorism Act 2000 remains intact and risks criminalising legitimate demonstrations as well as unlawful protests that raise issues of public order but not terrorism per se. Turkey’s 1991 Law on the Fight Against Terrorism has a similarly expansive definition, which has enabled the labelling of myriad forms of political opposition under the rubric of ‘terrorism’.

Following the London bombings in 2005, international institutions such as the UN Security Council and the Council of Europe  called on state parties to adopt laws prohibiting ‘incitement to commit a terrorist act’. The Turkish and the British governments formulated preventative strategies to eliminate ‘terrorist speech’, including publications and internet activities that were deemed to be encouraging terrorism. In a Parliamentary Justice Commission meeting on May 2, 2006, the then Turkish justice minister noted that the security establishment had lobbied for a legal framework of counter-terrorism which granted it ‘powers not more and not less than those in England’.

This suggests that not only are the two governments adopting similar counter-terrorism measures but also Turkey perceives the UK as a model in security matters. Ambiguous language in these provisions has opened the way for the criminalisation of peaceful expressions of extreme or unpopular views. This was the case in 2011 during the student protests in the UK, when the Counter-Terrorism Command of the Metropolitan Police became actively involved in hunting down ‘extremism’, even contacting London universities to ask for information about their students. In the Turkish political scene, amendments to the anti-terror law have resulted in the country being characterised as the biggest prison for journalists in the world.

Due process suspended

In both countries one can also observe the tendency to suspend due process, where the individual is stripped of any legal status. While the contentious practice of pre-charge detention in the UK goes back to the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1984, in the aftermath of 9/11, the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 introduced for the first time the draconian practice of indefinite detention for non-nationals. Turkey has passed several reforms since 2001 aiming to institute a rights-based understanding within the framework of the EU accession process—one instance was reducing the pre-charge detention period from 15 days to four for collectively committed crimes. Yet the Criminal Procedure Law foresees its extension to ten years for crimes against ‘national security’ or the ‘constitutional order’, paving the way for excessive use of pre-charge detention in terror-related cases. Instead of charging and prosecuting suspects, these practices have provided the grounds for treating individuals as security risks to be contained, in the absence of any clear evidence of crimes.

This suggests that not only are the two governments adopting similar counter-terrorism measures but also Turkey perceives the UK as a model in security matters.

Finally, there is a tendency to repackage contentious provisions under a different banner in the face of mounting criticism, particularly with respect to European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings against illiberal counter-terrorism policies. In the UK, the controversial practice of indefinite detention was replaced in 2005 by ‘control orders’, which were, in turn, replaced by Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs) in 2011. Although TPIMs continue to bypass due process, their scope is relatively restricted. A similar trend can be observed in consecutive amendments to the anti-terror law in Turkey, the problematic articles being refined in 2003 as entailed by the EU accession process—though only to be expanded once again three years later. After numerous ECHR rulings against the content of the anti-terror legislation, amendments introduced in 2012-13 have once again attempted to narrow down the clause referring to terrorist propaganda, differentiating it from being a member of a terrorist organisation.

All in all, both governments have been attempting to securitise areas of social life in response to perceived threats. Once a concern is deemed a security issue per se, state officials, evoking a sense of emergency, can employ the right to use extraordinary measures. Although the UK is a long-established liberal democracy, it has nonetheless resorted to draconian practices comparable to those of a democratising country.

On the other hand, whilst pursuing security policies these governments are under obligation to justify their conduct in the eyes of their constituents and the international community. Even if employed strategically, lip service to international norms is indicative of the significance of legitimacy in international politics. Whether states actually comply with these principles is a different question but the fact that they feel the need to be part of the international human-rights regime and portray their conduct as upholding such norms is an interesting phenomenon in itself.

This article is reproduced with the courtesy of Political Insight.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.