Violating human rights could worsen terrorism risk

By Savi Hensman
June 7, 2017

Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister, has said she wants to bring in tough new measures in response to terrorist attacks in London and Manchester. This might involve changing human rights laws. But this might make matters worse.

So might a crackdown on non-violent ‘extremism’, mentioned in the Conservative Manifesto

Many people are aware that she is focusing on this in part to take attention away from her own track record. She heavily reduced police numbers when she was Home Secretary. In 2015 she accused the Police Federation of “crying wolf” when it warned about the impact.

She was even warned in person by a Manchester police officer that intelligence about terrorism had been affected by the cuts She still does not admit that she was wrong.

It has also emerged that some of the attackers were known to security services. Steve Hilton, who was once the strategy director for the former Prime Minister David Cameron, called on her to resign.

There have also been embarrassing revelations about the suppression of a report on Saudi Arabia’s role, given the UK’s close connections to the regime

Nevertheless some people might believe that a reduction in rights and freedoms for a few might be worth it to protect the many. Those affected might include suspects whom there is not enough evidence to charge. In a few cases, stronger powers might prevent an attack. But the overall effects could be the opposite.

For a start, the police and intelligence services are clearly too seriously understaffed to follow up the tips they already get from the public. Dealing with many more people who are largely harmless could leave them with even less time to address real threats.

In addition, harsh repression might further alienate communities. This might mean that fewer members challenge hardliners or report suspicions. Some might even be bitter enough to join terrorist movements.

Suppose, for instance, that you had a cousin with far right views, with whom you argued occasionally. The police then told you that he was involved with a violent group and they thought you were too. But you would not be able to go to trial to clear your name.

If you then lost your job, freedom to travel or access the internet as you chose, your relationships with friends and partner and so forth, this might seem very unfair. It might also anger members of your community, who might then turn against the authorities. Far-right groups might exploit this for their own purposes. So your loss would not be the wider public’s gain – quite the opposite.

Similar problems might also arise if all kinds of people got labelled as ‘extremist’ and their liberties were affected. A parliamentary committee has already described the pitfalls of too loose a definition of ‘extremism’ 

Problems have arisen before, for instance when an attempt was made to detect nine-year-old schoolchildren in London at risk of radicalisation. If they answered ‘yes’ to questions such as “I believe my religion is the only correct one” or “God has a purpose for me”, this was held to present a danger to society. Not only Muslim but also many Christian young people could be targeted.

Many UK residents might think that only Muslims and ethnic minorities would be likely to be harmed. Yet people are closely interconnected. Also governments, given too much power, often end up using this against all kinds of citizens.

Ancient faith and philosophical traditions which emphasise the importance of justice for all contain wisdom which should be heeded today.

There is much that could be done to counter terrorism, from adequate public services and youth opportunities to an ethical foreign policy based on right, not might. Changing human rights laws would almost certainly reduce safety further.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion.

Ekklesia's General Election theme for 2017 is #Vote4CommonGood. This will be explored by writers and researchers from different perspectives and backgrounds, as well as analysis of the different party manifestos in relation to the principles and policies we have advocated for many years.

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