Government intrusion and the loss of human rights

CCTV cameras

rafael parr under a Creative Commons Licence

On 21 September 2001, US President George Bush declared: ‘Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.’

Some believed that defending us from these ‘rogue Islamists’ would make us safer. But in truth our lives in the West have become far less secure. While Western foreign policy aimed at combatting ‘Islamism’ has merely exacerbated a problem, hypocritical Western governments turn a blind eye to, and even perpetuate, certain human rights abuses within the Middle East (and elsewhere).

The fact that we are less safe isn’t the only legacy of the ‘war on terror’. One major, and often overlooked, legacy is the significant decline in civil liberties in Britain and other Western countries – the very civil liberties that we used to believe were central to our democratic society.

Yet we have seen a consistent repealing of such rights, without notice. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair famously led an assault on our civil liberties in the name of the ‘war on terror’, going so far as to try to introduce measures to detain suspected terrorists for 90 days without charge. He also tabled the idea of mandatory ID cards which would have led to ‘unnecessary and disproportionate intrusion into individuals’ privacy’ according to the then Information Commissioner Richard Thomas.

Although unsuccessful at bringing in ID cards or introducing the 90-day detention, Blair’s New Labour government did succeed in overseeing the start of an unravelling of our basic rights against the backdrop of terrorist fearmongering.

Laws such as The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 allow the government to decrypt private messages and communications in the name of national security. The government can now detain people without trial and electronically tag anyone suspected of terrorist activity, even without sufficient evidence for a trial.

The notorious and controversial Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 was an example of such powers. When it was brought in it allowed police to stop and search anyone, without suspicion, within ‘designated areas’ (which included all of Greater London) and was utilized by police to harass peaceful protesters. Thanks to work from civil liberties and human rights campaigning group Liberty, which took the British government to court in 2010, Section 44 can no longer be used as freely.

The best-known case of government intrusion into our private lives came to light with the revelations made by Edward Snowden in 2013. Snowden leaked details of how the US National Security Agency (NSA) collected 194 million text messages and 5 billion location records every day – and shared the data with the British government’s intelligence and security organization, GCHQ.

Such widespread surveillance into the private lives of most British people, without consent, clearly undermines the democratic legitimacy of the British government. Though some may explain it away with the establishment logic that ‘I’ve got nothing to hide’, in reality we’re living in an age where Google is harvesting all of our data in conjunction with security agencies.

The ruling Conservative Party, now with a majority in parliament, is set to continue Tony Blair and New Labour’s work. They introduced Secret Courts and are now working to repeal the Human Rights Act, which has serious implications for everyone living in Britain.

The furore over the Edward Snowden leaks has died down, yet we continue to be spied on in the name of ‘national security’. Can a society claim to be free and open when the government is able to monitor our every move? In Britain, we have 20 per cent of the world’s CCTV cameras aimed at just 1 per cent of the world’s population. While terrorism is a genuine threat, spying on ordinary people isn’t the answer. An honest conversation about British foreign policy and arms policy is a better way to get to the heart of the issue.