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Britain Sets An Example With Its Human Rights Laws - Counter-Extremism Policy Must Be No Different

02/10/2017 08:43 BST | Updated 02/10/2017 08:43 BST
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Many ongoing free speech controversies are about what may be expressed in private realms. How do we stop fake news spreading on social media? Who should be granted a platform at a student union? When it is appropriate for a political party to suspend one of its members because of something they said? These are undeniably important issues with which the Labour party must engage, but they are not problems for a government to fix with legislation.

Yet there do exist free speech issues - mostly relating to security - where the exercise of government power can profoundly affect people's lives. A timid Labour party might be tempted to adopt illiberal policies in these areas, in the hope of appeasing the right-wing media. But a confident Labour party, secure in its values, can persuade the electorate directly that policies that protect freedom of expression and privacy rights will actually make our democracy stronger and our people safer.

The first challenge is that of mass surveillance. The Snowden leaks of 2013 revealed that GCHQ had been illegally retaining communications data on a mass scale. Exposed as doing something to which parliament had never consented, David Cameron's government rushed the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP) through parliament in just two days. This was a profoundly anti-democratic act.

The DRIP Act had a sunset clause, and so in 2016 the newly installed prime minister Theresa May bulldozed through the more permanent Investigatory Powers Act 2016. This was a marginally better law, with enhanced oversight provisions, but the central power to collect and retain the communications data of everyone was included in the final bill.

It was, and remains, a fundamental invasion of privacy. It is analogous to the government taking a record of every book, newspaper article we read, and taking a photocopy of every letter we send and receive, 'just in case' one of us turns out to be a criminal. It is surveillance without suspicion, without even the partial shield afforded by anonymity.

It has a significant effect on the work of investigative journalists, whose sources often speak out only on condition of anonymity.

The awareness that the authorities are always looking over your shoulder as you type, text and tweet is also chilling for political organising. Anyone who campaigns to radically change government policy, or who simply questions the behaviour of our institutions, faces the very real possibility that they will be placed under surveillance

That Labour acquiesced to the Investigatory Powers Act makes it seem as though mass surveillance is now a settled consensus. But that is not so. A legal action at the European Court of Human Rights will be heard in late 2017 and will open the issue for debate once again. Should the ECHR rule against the United Kingdom and declare mass surveillance to be a human rights violation, Labour must resist the temptation to bash the court (as Theresa May's Conservatives surely will). Instead, the party should be poised to announce an alternative policy--one that abides by international human rights standards.

Counter-extremism policy is another area where defenders of free speech must be vigilant. The existing PREVENT strategy is inherently problematic, because it is the part of the CONTEST framework that seeks to make interventions before anyone actually joins a conspiracy or commits a crime.

Of course everyone in society must work together to change attitudes, and many people believe that it is right for the government to fund interventions that steer vulnerable people away from the purveyors of Islamist and far-right hate. Nevertheless, such upstream counter-extremism work finds itself flirting with assumption, extrapolation and prediction, with ideas that speculative fiction writers might call 'thought-crime' or 'pre-crime'.

The government's most recent proposals for counter-extremism legislation are extremely worrying. Among the suggestions were a set of new civil orders, that would have allowed the police to prevent people from assembling with others or from speaking in public: a serious curb on free speech.

Thankfully, Labour politicians have led the opposition to these ill-conceived Extremism Disruption Orders. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, chaired by Harriet Harman, effectively skewered the civil orders in its report published in 2016. The report pointed out that such orders 'could be used in a profoundly illiberal way.

For reasons historical and cultural, Britain's human rights laws set an example to the rest of the world. When the UK fails to live up to the high standards expected of us, other countries notice.

How can FCO diplomats credibly oppose the sinister monitoring of online discussion in China, when GCHQ is running a comparable mass data collection programme in the UK? How can NGOs credibly protest the prosecution of Cumhuriyet journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül in Turkey for 'revealing state secrets' when our own Law Commission has proposed that the UK adopt a similar law? And how can activists effectively protest the treatment of writers like Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, imprisoned for merely imagining a new political system, when the UK Home Office is cooking up mechanisms to shut up our own radicals?

Post-Brexit, the UK will be making dozens of new trade deals and will take on full responsibility for declaring what can be exported where. A Labour government can ensure that those trade deals are tied to support for free speech and human rights. Such a foreign policy will benefit everyone. But to make it work we need to get our own house in order first.

A chapter from Robert Sharp appears in Fair and Free: Labour, liberty and human rights, published by the Fabian Society in partnership with the Labour Campaign for Human Rights and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.