THE BLOG

After Manchester And London Bridge We Should Be Protecting Our Basic Values, Not Ripping Them Up

07/06/2017 13:44 BST | Updated 07/06/2017 13:53 BST
Toby Melville / Reuters

So now it's all about human rights. Theresa May has said she wants to look at whether human rights laws "stop us" from dealing with the threat of terrorism.

Widely reported as a willingness to "rip up" human rights laws if deemed necessary to protect us from suicide bombers and knife-wielding attackers, it's an eye-catching intervention.

But let's take a moment to think this though. What does it really mean? With very little nuance, we're being asked to think of human rights as some kind of blockage to law-enforcement in this country. In the crudest version of this thinking we end up with politicians and commentators denouncing human rights as a "terrorist's charter". Human rights laws are said to "tie the authorities in legal knots", "restricting" their ability to do what's needed.

It can sound seductive. When Mrs May talks about "restricting the freedom and movements of terrorist suspects" some listeners will say they agree.

But what would we be agreeing to? We've been down this road before. Since 9/11, successive UK governments have pushed through a raft of draconian measures. We've had people held in high-security prisons without charge or trial. Then highly-restrictive house-arrest "control orders", again imposed without charge or trial and leading to serious criminal charges if breached. And then "TPiMs" (Terror prevention and investigation measures), another form of house arrest, once again without charge or trial.

The deeply illiberal thread running through all this is without charge or trial. Britain, the country of habeas corpus, has been subjecting people to various forms of detention without publicly producing evidence to justify this denial of liberty. If this were happening in countries like Iran, Zimbabwe or China we would rightly condemn it. Authoritarian governments the world over attempt to justify repressive measures on the grounds of combating "terrorism".

This is the slippery slope toward greater authoritarianism and greater intolerance. It needs to be resisted. Not only is it wrong on principled grounds (we are all innocent until proven guilty, we all need to be able to challenge claims the authorities make against us), it is in part doing the work of the terrorists for them.

Since the horrors of the Manchester Arena outrage we've heard a lot about how Islamic State and their deluded homicidal followers want to attack our "way of life". It's not just pop music, riverside strolls and recreational drinking that ISIS see as symbols of a supposedly degraded way of life. It's tolerance for other religions and other points of view. It's freedom of speech. It's the rule of law. All the things that help make life tolerable and civilised. All the things that help make our democracy strong and enduring.

Every time we "tear up" part of this fabric of our fundamental freedoms we allow Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS (and other groups like them) to believe they're making progress. ISIS might be losing territory in their "Caliphate" around Mosul and Raqqa, but they want their followers to believe they're winning battles in London and Paris. That they're successfully tearing our society apart.

After Manchester and the Westminster and London bridge attacks we are as a nation shocked and upset. But we are not "reeling" (as one US newspaper sensationalistically put it at the weekend). Far from it. A defiant optimism has been the hallmark of the country's response to these killers and fanatics.

Yes, there should be serious conversations about our resourcing of the police and the security services. And yes, we need to ensure that our law-enforcement bodies can process potentially life-saving intelligence quickly and efficiently. But human rights are themselves a vital part of that work, not obstacles to it. Human rights safeguards strengthen and protect our communities. And they themselves place important obligations on the Government to properly protect us from harm.

In all of this there is one very clear point that needs to be made again and again. It's one Theresa May herself made in the wake of the London attack at the weekend. She said the UK's commitment to human rights is one of the cherished values that terrorist seek to destroy. And she affirmed that "our society should continue to function in accordance with our values".

She was right then, wrong now. Let's not do the terrorist's bidding. Let's stand behind our principles and freedoms.