A new chapter? Forging a truly progressive response to the threat of terrorism

A progressive consensus

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Gavin Hayes focused on how we could forge a truly progressive consensus on dealing with the threat of terrorism by discussing the government’s plans to extend the detention period for terrorist suspects.

He recalled how in 2005, Compass took the decision to help lead the campaign against 90 days detention and favoured the compromise and consensual position of 28 days detention that later became law. This proposal has now secured a clear consensus both in Parliament and in the country.

“I strongly favour the notion that our basic liberties and human rights are the bedrock of democracy and to curtail them requires not only extensive debate but firm justification.”

Charge or release

Sabina introduced Liberty’s latest campaign “Charge or Release” and advised that the government’s announcement to extend pre-detention was a lost golden opportunity to achieve the consensus. The proposals have several key flaws:
o Government can extend detention without consultation
o Weak parliamentary and judicial oversight
o Parliament isn’t the right place for dealing with individual cases

The human cost of pre-detention

What has been overlooked by the mainstream media and political arena is the human cost of pre-detention, warned Sabina. This affects real people with real lives – there are huge personal costs for people not charged. They lose jobs even families.

There is also a misconception only terrorists can be detained. None of the people arrested so far under the 28 days rule have been charged and one detainee said that “12 days felt like 12 years…this experience has changed my life forever”.

The existence of the law itself serves to increase the distrust and unwillingness to cooperate with the police. We should be reminded that internment was the best recruitment tool the IRA ever had.

An evidenced and principled detention policy

Liberty commissioned a legal study of comparative pre-detention periods and the UK is far ahead already in the length of time.

The evidence shows

o We already have the longest maximum period of detention without trial in Western Europe

o There has never been a case in the last two years since the last time the limit was voted on in Parliament where the authorities have needed to detain anyone beyond 28 days

o Adequate laws and powers already exist to tackle the threat. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 allows temporary extension of pre detention periods in a terror emergency. This act could be invoked if the Government thought a serious enough threat warranted it.

After successive admissions by the ex Attorney General, Director of Public Prosecutions and the Mayor of London, why does our Home Secretary and the police want more powers when they haven’t even needed to use the ones they’ve already got?

Manipulating the war on terror

Lord Ahmed reminisced he was involved in the Compass Youth of his time, as a young community activists and college president. He warned that many countries were using the narrative of the war on terror as a pretext of abusing human rights, dictatorships and democracies included. Although he was glad Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith had changed their languages when addressing terrorism, he was concerned about the lack of due process in the legislation.

Ruqayah Collector, the NUS Black Students Officer, said that six years after defining the war on terror our civil liberties have been curbed and many ethnic minorities and student activists have been systematically stopped and searched and being woken up at any time of the night to be arrested. We need to tackle wider discrimination issues in society, such as racism or Islamophobia.

Ethnic minorities need to feel supported and not isolated. Sometimes community cohesion feels like assimilation and they wonder “am I not British enough?”

Peter Facey, from Unlock Democracy would like the government to remember the “ethical foreign policy” it talked about in 1997, that we can link trade to democracy and human rights, like in Botswana. Indeed, we cannot allow the perception that we can complain about lack of due process in other countries, when at home there are serious shortcomings. He would be happy for international observers to monitor the elections in the UK and learn lessons from other countries with better democratic standards, such as in Croatia.

Tough on terrorism and tough on the causes of terrorism

Gavin Hayes advised we should be guided by the spirit of the Madrid Agenda’s view that “we owe it to the victims to bring the terrorists to justice. Law enforcement agencies need the powers required, yet they must never sacrifice the principles they are dedicated to defend."

Rebuilding trust, cultivating cohesion

The police and the Government need to promote and defend civil liberties to cultivate the cohesion, support and trust of all the communities it needs to beat terrorism. Using draconian measures against British citizens is only likely to inflame and alienate sections of society.

Will young Muslims seeing their friends and family members dragged away for months without trial, or even being given any reason for their detention not seriously damage any efforts made to tackle terrorism?

Lord Ahmed advised Muslims want respect and identity. They feel strongly British but also demonised at times. We shouldn’t blame religion for terrorist activities. Muslim values are no different from any others, they want to feel and practice their religion. They have always made a contribution to British society. Their ancestors worked for 18 hours without being unionised and helped make Britain the fourth biggest economy.

“Hearts and minds”

We need to deal with extremism through education. There is no reason why we cannot regenerate these communities, like we did with the coalmining communities. A multiculturalism that emphasises reluctant acceptance of the other as long as they stay away from us is a dangerous path, we need to work with people not force them to come together.

The danger of abuse of power will always remain

Anti-terrorism laws have already been used against peaceful protest such as at this year’s Climate Camp at Heathrow. It was justified by saying that these protestors would reduce the police’s ability to tackle terrorism, a dangerous precedent to set. Anti-terrorism laws are always in danger of being abused or used for purposes other than they were intended for.

The teddybear paradox

If we compare the following cases, we can be perplexed by the government’s contradictory vision of democratic process. The government campaigns both for

o The release of a British citizen who had been arrested, tried and sentenced for naming a teddy bear Mohamed

o The power to put British citizens who’ve not yet been found guilty of anything, under lock and key without even informing them or their families of what they have been put under lock and key for, with no trial for up to 42 days

“It’s no good paying lip service to liberty and democracy on the international stage in the name of a so called war on terror, when we are willing to play fast and loose with such values at home.”

We need to stand up to these groups, let’s not give them the sexy appeal of being dangerous and trendy.

The constitutional approach to civil liberties

Peter Facey wondered if in some ways, it’s because we don’t have a constitution that we’re having this debate. We need to remember the difficulties of internment without trial when we removed the liberties of citizens in the Northern Ireland, when people felt the state was against them.

He proposed we stop using the term of “war on terror” – if we use the language of Bush, we will have the consequences of Bush, we’ll do the terrorists job for them.

Enshrining human rights in a bill of rights

The Human Rights Act is not strong enough. Our human rights need to be rooted in constitutional reform and that’s why he couldn’t think of a better time to have a national discussion on the Bill of Rights.

Celebrating our values, taking the debate to the streets

Next year, we will have a citizen summit to draw up a British statement of values. Let’s take the opportunity to have this debate – we need to celebrate what makes us British, the values of democracy, civil liberties, rule of law and human rights. Let’s take the government at their word, let’s take the debate to the streets, the trade unions, the churches, the mosques, etc.

The other threat – tackling climate change

A participant asked if we looking at answers through the same frame as the “war on terror” itself? A participant proposed that the threat of climate change was far greater than the threat of terrorism and was astonished that Gordon Brown was terrified of charging people a few pounds for their recycling but comfortable with detaining others for close to two months without…charge.

Another member asked what could be done to protect citizens when there may be a threat but not enough evidence? A participant advised that investigations don’t begin on the day of detention while another was concerned that increasing the pre-detention period could compromise relations between policy and the community.

Hope against hate – to ban or not to ban?

One member of the audience asked if we should ban extremist groups. The NUS have a no platform policy for groups who incite hatred. A participant declared he couldn’t stand the BNP for example, but believed they should exist. One of the bigger tests of democracy is being able to deal and argue with even the most offensive groups.

We need to stand up to these groups, let’s not give them the sexy appeal of being dangerous and trendy.

Campaigning for dignity in detention centres

Another participant asked what could be done about asylum seekers in detention centres whose rights have been violated not for 28 days but for sometimes over a year. Someone pointed out that detention centres are run by private companies and the conditions are appalling. Someone else said it was urgent to start a campaign on this.

Compass have just published proposal for a more progressive immigration policy and Liberty are calling for a public enquiry into the events at Harmondsworth detention centre. These could provide the platform for a campaign for dignity for asylum seekers.

Stop caving in, stop looking tough – towards a politics of hope

The speakers agreed that New Labour never want to be outflanked. We need to take away the incentives from targeting swing voters. At the heart of Compass is changing the terms of debate. The Prime Minister has changed the tone but the real worry is sticking to the politics of triangulation, trying to look tough, talking about giving “British jobs to British workers” reminiscent of slogans of the far right. Ruqayah Collector warned that for many ethnic minorities they don’t feel like its aiming at them. It feels like the BNP is setting the agenda.

Progressives shouldn’t cave in; we should promote a politics of hope, not a politics of fear.

If we can change the terms of debate, then we can give the government some space to innovate and drive forward more equal and democratic policies.

Community, community who art thou?

Marcus Shukla, founder of Compass Youth East Midlands advised that we need to be careful about what we mean by community leadership to avoid glossing over problems. Another participant warned that we shouldn’t shadow out consulting groups who don’t agree with the government or create new groups that have no legitimacy. Lord Ahmed informed that an organisation designed to train imams around English and conflict resolution had been launched very recently and this was a hopeful sign of improving understanding between religious representatives and their communities.

Show me your ID – belonging and shared identities

Daniel Elton, Compass Youth Secretary proposed a debate on the progressive identity politics, asking how helpful it was to target individuals by identity when we all have diverse and shared identities. Peter Facey agreed that we shouldn’t get into cul-de-sacs over this agenda.

Proposals from the floor

o Learn the painful lessons of the past, such as the approach with the IRA and the optimistic ones, like the Madrid Agenda

o Use of intercept evidence
o Post charge questioning
o Use the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to allow temporary extension of pre detention periods in case of a terror emergency

o Enshrine human rights in a future bill of rights
o Tackle extremism through education and wider discrimination issues
o Regenerate neighbourhoods at risk of extremism like we did with those at risk of social exclusion
o Empower communities to re-engage with institutions, like the police and government

And last but not least, let’s take the debate to the streets!

Next steps – we want you to shape the debate

In the coming weeks Compass will be facilitating a wide-ranging informative debate and consulting on this very issue as we did in 2005, we’ll be putting a consultation on the government’s proposals – with information on the arguments, both for and against in a balanced way, out to our email list very shortly, please do respond to it – last time we got over 1000 responses in less than three days.

Take a look at other articles in our "social and civic justice" series. If you'd like to join the social and civic justice network please fill in the survey here.