Britain defends anti-terror measures

Britain defends anti-terror measures

By Hannah K. Strange, UPI UK Correspondent, 26 April 2006

LONDON — Britain’s use of controversial memoranda of understanding to enable deportations of terror suspects to countries with poor human rights records is in fact « an advancement of human rights, » Home Secretary Charles Clarke insisted Tuesday.

Giving testimony before the International Commission of Jurists’ Eminent Jurists Panel in London, he argued that by securing guarantees from such countries that they would not torture or otherwise mistreat returned individuals, Britain was in fact promoting a greater respect for human rights worldwide.

Some 12 foreign nationals accused of involvement in terrorism are currently in custody in Britain pending deportation to their home countries, understood to be Middle Eastern and North African nations. Clarke said the government had already concluded « two or three » memoranda of understanding and was negotiating several more.

The memoranda are intended to avoid violation of the European Convention on Human Rights — which prohibits deportations to countries where the returned individual is at risk of torture or ill-treatment — by obtaining guarantees on deportees’ treatment. However, several prominent human rights organizations — including the United Nations Commission on Human Rights — have expressed serious concern about such agreements, which they describe as little more than pieces of paper with no legal worth.

But during intensive questioning on the issue, Clarke insisted that such a memorandum was far more than « a gentleman’s agreement. » The treatment of returned individuals would be monitored by independent organizations — such as, in Jordan, a panel of human rights lawyers — and any breach reported to the British government, he said. Britain would then be obliged to redress the situation in some way, he suggested.

The home secretary maintained that the memoranda of understanding were behind Algeria’s recent decision to sign up to an optional protocol of the United Nations Convention Against Torture. The contention of critics that nations with a history of human rights abuses could not be trusted to change their behavior was a « neo-colonialist » argument, he claimed.

« I believe, counter to many human rights organizations, that for governments in these conditions to agree to signing a memorandum of understanding and then honor it — and presumably they will, including the monitoring procedures — is actually an advance for human rights, » he told the panel.

« The argument that (human rights organizations) make, which I essentially categorize as neo-colonialist, is that those governments, for example North African governments, cannot be trusted to adhere to these agreements because they are so dyed-in-the-wool against human rights. »

Human rights groups were essentially saying that there were « whole swathes of the world which do not fit our tastes in the U.K., and which you can’t do anything with, » he said. « I think this is wrong, that actually we have to work constructively to extend human rights in these countries. »

He argued that in fact the process of negotiating such memoranda would advance human rights in such countries. « The memoranda of understanding should be celebrated as an advance for human rights rather than attacked as an attempt to avoid human rights (obligations.) »

But Justice Arthur Chaskalson, former chief justice of South Africa and the chair of the ICJ panel, queried whether countries known to have engaged in the « abhorrent practice » of torture could in fact be trusted to respect such agreements. He characterized the position of the British government as: « We are willing to hand people over to torturers on the understanding that they will not torture. »

Even if the countries concerned did not torture the individuals subject to such agreements, this would not necessarily have any effect on the treatment of other prisoners in their custody, he suggested.

The panel also raised concerns about the British government’s use of control orders to restrict the movements of terror suspects. Implemented in 2005 as a response to the Law Lords’ ruling that detention without charge was unlawful, the control orders include a range of measures ranging from curfews to house arrest, and are imposed without charge or trial. While subject to judicial review, the individual concerned is not allowed to know or answer the evidence against them. Eleven people, including three British nationals, are currently subject to control orders, according to Home Office figures for March.

Chaskalson said he had experience of similar orders in South Africa which had had « a devastating impact » on the lives of those concerned. This was a « vast deprivation of liberty, » he said, subject to only limited judicial control which « fell short of fair trial procedures, » he contended.

But Clarke rejected that argument, suggesting that the panel did not have a sufficient grasp of the terror threat. « I don’t think you understand,’ he said. « Do we just somehow pretend it’s not there?’

« A terrorist attack is pretty devastating on the victims of that terrorist attack, » he said. « In these cases, we are talking about people on whom we have intelligence which leads us to believe they are a threat… We think the risk of a terrorist attack is sufficient justification to limit the freedom of the individuals concerned. »

His testimony comes at a time when the government is mounting a staunch defense of its record on civil liberties. Clarke Monday attacked the press for presenting a « distorted » view of the government’s anti-terror and law and order legislation, accusing media « poisoners » of seeking to characterize modern democratic governments such as Britain and the United States as dictatorial tyrannies.

But his criticism was rejected by civil liberties campaigners and opposition politicians. Conservative Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said Clarke « should realize that you don’t defend our way of life by sacrificing our way of life. »

« The evidence shows that in many cases, things have been enacted in the name of defending our security have actually done nothing to protect the people, and have even resulted in consequences entirely contrary to the government’s own intentions, » he said. « It is remarkable that he has chosen to blame the media — especially as his whole strategy seems designed to achieve good headlines for the government rather than effective policies to protect the citizens of this country. »