The UK Terrorism Bill: Defending Democracy's Core Values Commentary
The UK Terrorism Bill: Defending Democracy's Core Values
Edited by: Jeremiah Lee

JURIST Special Guest Columnist and UK Home Secretary Charles Clarke says that as the British government's proposed Terrorism Bill proceeds through Parliament we should bear in mind that citizens of democracies expect not only the protection of individual rights, but also the protection of core democratic values such as safety and security…

My foremost duty as the UK’s Home Secretary is to provide security for Britain’s citizens and its society. Without a basic level of protection from harm, the other social and economic advances the Government want to make for the benefit of all cannot be made.

For more than 30 years the UK has fought domestic terrorism and as a result we have a formidable raft of legal tools which are at the disposal of law enforcement agencies. However, the new threat of international terrorism is a different beast — the motivation for these terrorists is not political, but ideological.

Those who attacked America in 2001 and London in July this year don’t come from a background of poverty or social exclusion, but from well educated and prosperous conditions. Furthermore, they are driven by an indiscriminate hatred which thinks nothing of killing large numbers of wholly innocent people, including genuine believers from religions the terrorists purport to be supporters of.

This is the context in which the UK has had to develop new powers to defeat the new international terrorism which is now a very dangerous reality.

First, I think it’s important to set out what we are seeking to defend through the laws we are proposing in the Terrorism Bill which is currently before Parliament. The UK, like the US, values a society with free speech and freedom of expression; believes all faiths, races and beliefs should be treated with respect; is grounded on the rule of law; gives every citizen a stake in our democracy; values a free economy and fully appreciates the fact that women can, and should, play a full role in our society.

These values are not slight or passing. They are deeply rooted and profound — and they are worth protecting and fighting for. The Bill currently before Parliament seeks to build our democracy, alienate extremism and hatred and protect our citizens through three key proposals: making clear what is illegal in terms of acts preparatory to terrorism; tightening laws on terrorist training and outlawing encouragement to terrorism. The Bill also extends the maximum period of time the police can hold a suspect before charging them.

We have seen time and again that modern terrorist outrages are often highly sophisticated attacks, highly planned and meticulously prepared. Often a great deal of time is spent on preparation and it’s only a short while before the actual attack that the final target is known. It’s therefore important the police and security service can intervene early to bring conspirators to justice before an attack takes place. The proposed offence of acts preparatory to terrorism would capture such activity. Prosecutors would have to show intent, but on conviction the maximum sentence is life.

This desire to take a preventative approach to terrorism is continued in our proposals around terrorist training and training camps. Despite it already being an offence to give or receive training in firearms, explosives and chemical, biological or nuclear weapons there is a potential loophole where activity is not overtly linked to terrorism. Our proposal closes this gap by making it an offence to provide or receive any type of training where the intention is that it be used for terrorist purposes, for example flying a plane). This also allows us to be able to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism. We want further, to tighten the law so that those who attend terrorist training camps either here or abroad will be liable for prosecution.

Clauses in the Bill which outlaw the encouragement of terrorism are an attempt to deal with those who incite terrorism obliquely but who nevertheless contribute to creating a climate in which impressionable people might believe that terrorism is acceptable (it is already an offence under UK law to directly encourage terrorist acts). This indirect incitement also includes glorifying terrorist acts where doing so could encourage others to emulate them. Concerns have been raised about the impact this clause would have on free speech. I recognise the genuine concerns here and am prepared to listen t them. But I maintain that it’s not right when one value we hold dear as part of our society tramples on another value we hold equally close. So, that where free speech encourages a climate that makes communities of faiths, races or beliefs feel threatened, or where free speech is used to attack the democracy of our society and claim innocent lives it cannot be right. In such circumstances it is right to allow for a sanction against unadulterated free speech for the security and good of the whole society. This is not censorship, nor a desire to gag the voice of particular people, but if a society is to share values we all have to work within those to protect them.

The pre-charge detention period for suspected terrorists is another element of the Bill which has attracted significant criticism. The Government proposed changing to a maximum of 90 days the period for which suspected terrorists could be held before charging, instead of the current 14. The Police made the case for 90 days believing that it would make the country more secure than we are at the moment. For example, following the London bombings in July, the police investigation involved painstaking examination of weeks of CCTV footage, fingertip searches of buildings and landfill sites, trawling through telephone and e-mail records and extensive queries overseas and cracking encrypted computer files. This resulted in tremendous amounts of information which needs to be sorted through. I can all too easily see a day when a suspect implicated in a terrorist plot is detained for 14 days, but then must be released onto the streets because there is insufficient evidence at that stage on which to bring charges. Put simply, 14 days isn’t long enough to thwart today’s terrorists and the police asked us to extend this to a maximum of 90 days for instances where this might be needed. I agreed with the police’s expert analysis, but Parliament disagreed, preferring instead an extension to a maximum of 28 days.

Along with the glorification clause, the pre-charge detention period is another example where we have to reassess the rights we value in our society in the face of the threat we are presented with. I argue that the citizens I represent — and I believe the peoples of all democracies including America — expect not only the protection of individual rights, but also the protection of democratic values such as safety and security. I say that the right to be protected from the death and destruction caused by indiscriminate terrorism is at least as important as the right of the terrorist to be held for the minimum period necessary for a police investigation

Of course, none of this is being done without consulting all sectors of society, including all faith communities. Throughout the summer Ministers have been meeting with many people including representatives of the Muslim community and we’ve worked closely with them on a series of ideas that have resulted in a National Advisory Council of Imams and Mosques to advise Mosques on how to prevent extremists; a National Forum against Extremism and Islamophobia to develop a youth oriented theological count
er-narrative to Islamic justification for terrorism and a national roadshow of populist religious scholars who are highly influential with young Muslims and have the capacity to reach tens of thousands at a time, expounding the concepts of Islam in the West and condemning extremism.

By holding on to our core values we can strengthen our democracy while also defeating the terrorists who want to destroy it — this is the prize we must fight for.

The Rt. Hon. Charles Clarke MP is the United Kingdom's Secretary of State for the Home Office

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