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42-day detention would be a 'disgraceful legacy' for Labour, says professor of human rights law

Government ministers and Labour MPs will be guilty of hypocrisy if they vote for extended detention of suspected terrorists and then return to civil liberties positions when they have lost power says Conor Gearty, Professor of Human Rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Professor Gearty, a former advisor on terrorism to Tony Blair in the mid 1990s, said Labour politicians attempted to portray themselves as champions of civil liberties in opposition and may do so again in the future - but they would expose any such position as hollow if they vote now for the Counter-terrorism Bill. 

Photograph of Conor GeartyHe said: 'The Government has not even bothered to try and build an empirical case for this change; all it has done is talk vaguely about the future. It is a disgraceful legacy for any government to leave, much less a Labour government allegedly committed to human rights.'

Professor Gearty's remarks came as he published a report, Human rights, civil society and the challenge of terrorism| from LSE's Centre for the Study of Human Rights.

The report, which summarises the discussion of politicians, lawyers, journalists, academics and citizens in a series of seminars, points out that the UK has a long history of escalating its security powers by claiming the country faced a uniquely new and dangerous threat.

In 1939 Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare got 'draconian' laws through Parliament by 'exciting MPs about the IRA's special "S-Plan" of devastation.' In 1996, legislation was introduced to prevent an expected campaign of IRA violence to mark the 80th anniversary of the Easter uprising - yet the terrorist campaign never materialised.

Illustration of a figures in a prisonThe report says the language used by successive governments, is remarkably similar: 'The latest way of causing mass casualties in an asymmetrical conflict - whether it be dynamite, Semtex, the car bomb, a remote controlled explosion or the suicide bomber - is always described at the time of its occurrence as uniquely threatening and dangerous. The groups behind such attacks are invariably said to be numerous, well-organised and desperate, and to be about to embark on some vast campaign of violence which requires immediate action.'

The report says that this process of escalation and frightening language has eroded public trust in official pronouncements on terrorism. Politicians and police must both temper their language - as they did successfully during security incidents in Glasgow and London a year ago.

At the deepest level, finds the report, there are two different structures for legislating on and combating terrorism in the UK. One is the path of criminal process which punishes offenders for what they have done or are about to do but is bound up with a system of evidence, proof and human rights. The other is the precautionary approach (rooted in the Cold War) where security services lead policy by seeking to identify and constrain future terrorists - an approach that runs counter to a theory of human rights.

The vote on 42-days detention, said Professor Gearty, will show which approach Parliament favours. He said: 'The test for a civil libertarian is what he or she does when in power, not what they say when in opposition. Labour in opposition always seeks to recover its civil libertarian identity but, if the party is go into opposition very soon, as may be the case, none of the MPs and Ministers who vote for the Government on this issue should ever be allowed to seek to rebuild their careers in this way. '

Human rights, civil society and the challenge of terrorism|

Conor Gearty's website|


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10 June 2008