Keeping Britain Unsafe: the stubborn myths of “effective” counter-terror

Since the introduction of the Terrorism Act in 2000, hundreds of new offences have been introduced and yet, this has hardly made us safer. Now that the legislation is up for review, Rizwaan Sabir argues, in his new column, that this is our chance to make sure we get rid of these redundant, harmful and unworkable assaults on our freedoms.

Columns, Sabir on Security - Posted on Friday, September 24, 2010 0:03 - 3 Comments

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By Rizwaan Sabir

Since the events of 9/11 and 7/7, the British government has launched a series of programmes and initiatives under its Counter-Terrorism Strategy (known as ‘CONTEST’) whose aim, according to its official definition, was to counter the threat posed by international terrorism (aka Al-Qaida terrorism). Out of the four areas that comprise the overall CONTEST package (Pursue, Prevent, Protect, Prepare), the ‘Prevent’ strand has been given most attention and coverage by researchers, academics, practitioners and the media. This has led to the ‘Pursue’ component – the classic counter-terrorism strand which has created numerous draconian anti-terror laws with their plethora of new offences – being somewhat neglected and overlooked.

And yet, the bedrock of Counter-Terrorism legislation (implemented under the ‘Pursue’ strand) has been the Terrorism Act 2000 (TACT 2000), a considerable, though by no means honourable, landmark. Leaving aside the problematic, often absurd, offences the Act has introduced, the fundamental problem with this legislation revolves around the very definition of ‘terrorism’ it adopts. In its simplest form, due to the vast broadness of the concept, the bar for what constitutes a ‘terrorist offence’ has been lowered so far as to render it virtually meaningless, thus leading to innumerable instances of legitimate and innocent behaviour to be summarily lumped under the ‘terrorist’ heading.

Indeed, according to the definition, ‘terrorism’ is the ‘use of force, or the threat of force, to influence the government for a purpose related to the advancing of a political, religious, racial or ideological goal, regardless of whether it’s in the United Kingdom or abroad’. A bit of context: if an individual were to argue, for instance, that the North Korean regime was an abusive dictatorship, unwilling to give up power, oppressing its own people and therefore that the North Korean population had a moral right to take-up arms to resist such oppression, since all other methods of bringing change had either already failed or were virtually impossible, well, that individual would be prosecutable under the TACT 2000 for ‘inciting terrorism’. Of course, ‘North Korea’ can be replaced with any other country or authority, and the same conclusion would apply.

To give another example, take the particularly confused offence of ‘encouragement of terrorism’, which continues to provoke intense criticism as an example of an offence that is specifically premised on the very hazy definition of the word. According to TACT, to commit an ‘encouragement’ offence means to be guilty of encouraging (whatever that means) – whether directly or indirectly – an act of violence (by glorifying it). Even if this does not involve an actual attempt to encourage an individual to commit an act of violence, an offence is still committed regardless of whether the person being “incited” is, in fact, incited to commit an act of terrorism. Being “reckless” in one’s conduct (whatever that means too) and behaviour is also an offence under this law.

One of the silliest aspects of this is that it is now an offence to glorify what an American Revolutionary, or Lawrence of Arabia or indeed the French resistance against the Nazis did – all of whom are terrorists according to this current definition. A definition which, to all intents and purposes, is unworkable and perfectly suited to be abused.

So, what should be done?

The answer is simpler than you might anticipate: we should raise awareness of this problem as much as possible and apply as much pressure as we can on the government to alter and tighten this definition. Many of the offences within the anti-terrorism legislative armoury hinge on it and the government must understand that getting rid of this meaningless non-definition is a prerequisite towards “de-powering” other segments of the law that target and potentially criminalise innocuous behaviour by innocent individuals.

The encouragement (or glorification) offence is only one well-known example that I have used to highlight the issue but the same absurdity taints numerous other offences. And yet, a legislation that respects our human-rights and protects our fundamental freedoms is paramount, even more so in this deeply securitised society we live in. Any legislation, whether it’s anti-terrorism or anti-criminal, should respect human and political rights and should be based on due-process. The reality, however, is that the current legislation is not based on this principle, but is rather more reminiscent of repressive and authoritarian societies than of responsible and civilised liberal democracies.

Human rights campaigners and, indeed, any other concerned persons that believe in the idea of human and civil rights must take it upon themselves to continue in the struggle against these insidious and draconian powers. Powers which have taken so much away from us yet have done little by way of preventing terrorism and protecting us, not to mention their long and disgraceful track record of causing (and justifying) botched terror raids, wrongful arrests and the criminalisation of innocent people. As a human rights activist, I believe that what I am calling for is not crazy or irrational, but simply based on – to misquote John Lennon – ‘giving fairness a chance’.

Whilst I believe that fighting terrorism is a serious responsibility that the government should take equally seriously, such a fight should use means that are proportionate to the threat. The legislative powers in place at present are unnecessary and too broad to be of any use, especially when they are weighed in relation to the hard-facts we do have on the actual threat level of al-Qaida activity in the UK (which I will be addressing in a separate column in the near future.)

Another important point to note is that the UK already has had, and for a considerable number of years already, a set of laws that is more than adequate to deal with any of the ‘terrorist offences’ recently introduced. In other words, many of these offences are not only misguided but redundant too. While I understand that, to some, what I am arguing here is hardly news, I do believe that refreshing everybody’s understanding of the issues is a positive step, and one that brings us closer to applying urgent, much-needed pressure on the State.

Regardless of our role in society, we can all make a difference in our own way; whether it’s by writing letters to our MPs, discussing the issue in the pub (albeit, it may not be as cogent a debate after a few pints), or by holding a placard outside downing street. It’s up to you.

Although the review currently taking place in Whitehall is hopefully going to alter some of the country’s draconian counter-terrorism powers and strategies. The question remains: do you want to play a part in shaping this change? to have a say in what is discussed, amended, scrapped, and introduced? or do you want to allow the State to decide which one of your liberties you really need and, indeed, deserve?

The choices (and the repercussions) are yours to decide.

Rizwaan Sabir is a human rights activist and doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde. He is researching the role of Islam in British and Scottish government policy, with a special focus on counter-terrorism. In May 2008 he was detained for six days as a suspected member of al-Qaida for being in possession of primary research literature. He was released without charge. His column on counter-terrorism and security appears every other Friday.

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3 Comments

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Steven Harkins
Sep 21, 2010 17:41

Good article.

The most worrying thing about the creation of all this anti-terror legislation is how the state can take advantage of such broad concepts, as you point out ‘the bar for what constitutes a ‘terrorist offence’ has been lowered so far as to render it virtually meaningless’.

In 2008 the UK used the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act to seize the assets of an Icelandic bank http://www.politics.co.uk/news/economy-and-finance/iceland-bank-freeze-used-anti-terror-laws–$1244102.htm

Who knows what use such broad legislation will be used for in the future?

Usayd
Sep 21, 2010 17:49

I agree with the above comment, and the article raises an important question – what should be done? I wonder if a change in the ‘definition’ is really enough, perhaps merely a start in addressing the wider problem. In other words, I find this almost too optimistic : something I wouldn’t say lightly.

Rizwaan
Sep 22, 2010 10:43

Steve:

The nature of the legislation (and indeed the people who act upon it) is such that they will use (and abuse) it if it allows them to carry out a purported duty without having to face difficulties or hindrances. Such is the nature of these draconian laws. They are asking to be abused, which is why redressing them is critical.

You said: “who knows what use such broad legislation will be used for in the future?”

We know it can stifle trade union and strike action by fire fighters: http://www.out-law.com/page-3054

Usayd:

I agree that the change in the definition is ONLY a first step in moving toward a sustainable and (as you say) wider solution, but there is cause for optimism. Section 44 has been temporarily repealed. That’s one result, which shows that such draconian and authoritarian powers can be challenged. What is there to say that the definition of terrorism or Schedule 7 or another power can’t be challenged and repealed in the same way?

Indeed, it won’t be easy or simple, (which my article may have alluded to a little too much), but the struggle should continue, and in a way that is feasible and based on the “one-step-at-a-time” paradigm.

Pressuring the government is the first step.

All best
R

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