Countering terrorism

Human rights law requires the State to take steps to protect the right to life – which includes measures to prevent terrorism.

However, any measures taken to counter terrorism must be proportionate and not undermine our democratic values. In particular, laws designed to protect people from the threat of terrorism, and the enforcement of these laws, must be compatible with people’s rights and freedoms.

Yet, all too often, the risk of terrorism has been used as the basis for eroding our human rights and civil liberties:

  • From 1969 to 2000 Parliament passed a number of temporary Prevention of Terrorism Acts, which included powers of internment and the removal of the right to trial by jury in Northern Ireland.
  • After the tragic events of 11 September 2001, emergency laws were passed which allowed for the indefinite detention of foreign nationals, who were suspected of being terrorists. Under this law, individuals could be detained for an unlimited period at a maximum security prison despite never being charged, let alone convicted, of any offence.
  • After a 2004 court ruling that indefinite detention breached human rights law, detention was quickly replaced by the control order regime in 2005. Following the 2010 Home Office counter-terrorism review, control orders were scrapped in January 2012 - but they were replaced with something almost identical, replicating the regime’s worst aspects - Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs). Like control orders, TPIMs allow for indefinite house arrest, and other sweeping restrictions on individual freedoms, on the basis of largely secret intelligence and suspicion.
  • The maximum period of detention without charge for most criminal suspects is 24 to 96 hours. But, between 2006 and 2011, terrorism suspects could be detained for up to 28 days without charge. Despite this period being far longer than the period of pre-charge detention in any comparable democracy, Parliament also considered (and defeated) proposals first for 90 days', and then for 42 days' pre-charge detention.
  • Before it was repealed, section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 allowed people to be stopped and searched without suspicion. This overly broad power was used against peaceful protesters and disproportionately against ethnic minority groups.
  • Broad new speech offences impact on free speech rights, and non-violent groups have been outlawed.
  • Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 is a breathtakingly broad and intrusive power to stop, search and hold individuals at ports, airports and international rail stations. It can be exercised without the need for any grounds of suspecting the person has any involvement in terrorism - or any other criminal activity. This means it can be used against anyone a police, immigration or customs officer chooses. Powers like this are ripe for overuse and abuse. They are invariably used in discriminatory fashion, with stops based on stereotype rather than genuine suspicion.
  • In 2015, the Government passed the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which includes passport seizure and retention powers, a regime of exclusion orders which risks exposing British citizens to torture, statutory 'terrorism prevention' duties for a whole range of public bodies including universities and schools, data retention powers and provisions which seek to breathe new life into the widely-discredited TPIMs regime.
  • In 2016, the Investigatory Powers Act, or Snoopers' Charter, introduced the most draconian surveillance regime of any democracy in history. It lets the authorities hack thousands of devices en masse, forces internet providers to collect our browsing histories and make them available to dozens of public bodies, mandates the collection of huge banks of data on everyone in the UK, and much more. Liberty is challenging this legislation in court.

We believe that terrorism can, and must, be fought within the rule of law and the human rights framework. Repression and injustice, and the criminalisation of non-violent speech and protest, make us less safe - not more.

They also undermine the values that separate us from the terrorists - the very values we should be fighting to protect.