In less than three months, the UK has suffered from four major terror attacks. As the UK is recovering after the attacks in London Bridge and Borough Market, and in Finsbury Park, the question that emerges is whether these terror attacks could have been prevented. The Government has just announced that it will review its counter-terror strategy: in light of the Prime Minister arguing that human rights interfere with the struggle against terrorism, this review must be thorough, and recognize the importance of respecting human rights.
UK counter-terrorism law and strategy have been strict for years following the introduction of the Terrorism Act 2000, subsequent pieces of legislation, and the counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST. However, in 2015, the UK Government proposed to introduce legislation to ‘prevent radicalization, tackle extremism in all its forms, and promote community integration.‘ In October 2015, the UK Government released its ‘Counter-Extremism Strategy’ addressing the issue of ‘extremism’. While after the recent attacks, many may agree that such an approach is needed, the devil is in how the strategy defines ‘extremism.’ The strategy does not focus on violent extremism exclusively. In fact, any unpopular views can be categorised as extremist under its approach. Furthermore, the strategy relies on the notion of ‘British values’. However, this vague term is often erroneously interpreted as including an obligation to promote equality at the price of other rights, for example, religious freedom. Consequently, the strategy targets religious communities or individuals with unpopular but non-violent views. Such a broad approach is problematic as it opens the door to ungrounded complaints made by individuals against others with unpopular but non-violent views, taking away the focus and resources from the cases of violent extremism, terrorism and complicitous acts.
The strategy departs from work done on the topic by the United Nations (UN). One of the fundamental differences between the approaches is in the scope of the focus. The UN focuses on countering terrorism and violent extremism. Some of the examples cited by the UN include the atrocities committed by Daesh or Boko Haram. Rightly so. This narrower approach is evident from Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism and the UN General Assembly Resolution 70/291 on the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy Review. In fact, the wording used by the UN often refers to ‘violent extremism conducive to terrorism and incitement to commit terrorist acts’, emphasising the link between violent extremism and terrorism.
The UK’s broad approach comes with a price tag. Broadening the approach means more investigations and cases, requiring more human resources and funding at a time of spending cuts. If no resources are found to cover the costs flowing from the strategy, investigations will be conducted with insufficient resources, leading to inefficiency in handling cases. Ultimately, the police will be responding to non-violent extremism rather than focusing on terrorism and violent extremism. There will be too many suspects and leads to follow up. Having large databases of potential ‘extremists’ will not achieve much if there are no resources for the follow-up.
Furthermore, the strategy has a second price tag. The vague language of the strategy aims to give flexibility to respond to the terror threat as needed, but this can limit the enjoyment of human rights. The first rights that are targeted by the strategy are freedom of religion and freedom of expression – the rights that constitute the very foundation of a democratic society and are the very kernel of British values. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly indicated after his visit to the UK, it is evident from the recent cases that the Prevent strategy may target religious groups.
The review promised in the Queen’s Speech and a subsequent statement by Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, is therefore welcome. The review will be conducted by David Anderson QC, former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. In this role he has already reviewed the UK counter-terrorism law and strategy and proposed a number of recommendations. He emphasised the dangers presented by vague or unclear counter-terrorism laws. He also commented upon the risks of broadening the counter-terrorism law to include non-violent extremism. He emphasised that the law as it stood was ‘well-stocked’, there were many challenges in prosecuting so-called ‘hate preachers’ that were a consequence of the insufficiency of evidence and not inadequacy in the law. Nonetheless, to date the recommendations have not been implemented.
It is to be hoped that the review will proceed in a rigorous way, tests counter-terror law and strategy against human rights, and tests the empirical evidence that was used to justify the Government’s approach. The acts of terror in London and Manchester that shook the world cannot happen again. However, human rights cannot perish in response.