By Lord Nazir Ahmed
All of us share the same objective when it comes to the safety of our country and our citizens. Since the tragic acts of 9/11 and 7/7, the United Kingdom, like many countries around the world, has put in place many laws to ensure that the police and security services have all the powers and means to arrest terrorists and stop terrorist acts in our country and around the world.
In rightfully making such provisions, it is critical that we do not allow legislative provision to go forward that fundamentally undermines who we are and what we stand for—our rights of freedom of speech and thought and our right to freedom of religious belief.
Britain has the most wide-ranging terrorism laws in Europe. Since 1998, a raft of terrorism laws has been passed in the UK. Despite these laws, the summer of 2017 saw major terrorist incidents, which were mentioned earlier. So, politically motivated violence remains a problem from which the state must safeguard its citizens.
However, while the law needs to target criminals and their acts and plots, constantly widening laws and offences to bring more people within the definition of terrorism and treating them as a security threat will ultimately prove counterproductive, as that alienates the very people whose support is needed for an effective counterterrorism strategy. The Bill again widens the scope of terrorism, which will affect every citizen, and when we come to look at the details, we will see that innocent citizens could be caught by the proposed new laws.
My concerns are shared by many, including human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, which has voiced concerns over Clauses 1, 2 and 3 as well as Clause 20 and Schedule 3. The Government’s own inadequate impact assessment does not even refer to the fact that this major piece of legislation will have a differential impact on many citizens and communities. Legislation on the statute book has already been widened by our courts. For example, the definition of terrorism in Section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2000 has already been criticised for being too wide, and its scope has been widened by the Supreme Court.
For a moment, I will highlight the impact on the Muslim community. This proposed legislation would place Imams, scholars and Muslim speakers in a difficult position when they are talking about overseas conflicts in which Muslim communities are suffering and local scholars have already declared resistance as legitimate. As a consequence of the definition of terrorism and the extra offences created in the Bill, speakers and comments may be deemed terrorist or seen to be encouraging terrorism when they are discussing matters overseas and pose no threat to the UK whatever. Clauses in the Bill make this even more likely.
The provisions covering expressions of support for a proscribed organisation extend the offence of inviting support for a proscribed—terrorist—organisation to cover expressions of support that are reckless regarding whether they will encourage others to support the organisation. Creating an offence that criminalises “expression of support” as opposed to “invitation to support” a terrorist group—this can also be “reckless”—will draw into criminal activity people who may be speaking, writing and discussing political affairs around the world. The law seems to be moving away from criminalising people for their acts to their thoughts and expressions.
There is also an underlying acceptance in this clause of the conveyor belt to violence theory—that there is a straight-line progression from expression of political ideas, leading to joining groups and/or violence. That theory has been rejected by a host of security and academic experts. Such a clause will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and opinion. One can still hold an opinion, but if it cannot be expressed, then individual freedom has effectively been curtailed. This clause also appears to be in contradiction with Article 19 of the ICCPR and Article 10 of the ECHR, according to the UN Special Rapporteur for the Protection of Human Rights in her submission to consultation on the Bill.
New provisions covering the obtaining or viewing of material over the internet have been mentioned on many occasions. They update the offence of obtaining information likely to be useful to a terrorist to cover terrorist material that is just viewed or streamed over the internet, rather than downloaded to form a permanent record.
The existing “reasonable excuse” defence will apply in circumstances where a person did not know that the documents would contain terrorist material. However, the clause now seeks to extend the current offence of downloading or distributing terrorist materials to capture people who may not download but view streamed materials online. This would mean that a person who clicks online rather than downloads may be committing a terrorist offence.
The offence was meant to apply to three clicks, which has been mentioned, and even if someone did not click directly but was looking over someone else’s shoulder. In an interconnected world where social media provide the platform to meet people’s intense interest in what is going on, there is a real potential to criminalise them for their curiosity or legitimate interest in general research for journalism purposes.
Innocent people may click on links sent on Messenger but may not actually view them. For example, my inability to understand IT means that I click everything that is sent to me on my mobile phone.
Terrorist materials are categorised as tier 1, tier 2 or tier 3 and can include literature, articles and lectures by prominent personalities. They can also include videos of conflict battle scenes. Without a definitive published list of terrorist materials and personalities, how do we know whose lectures and work should not be viewed? Many people, particularly children and young people, may not know what constitutes terrorist material and may be unaware that they are committing an offence.
For example, in communities originating from conflict zones such as Syria and Libya, viewing and sharing conflict scenes from those areas is common as they have a legitimate interest in the conflict and want to keep up to date, or their families are affected by them. Some of these viewings and materials may be deemed terrorist in nature. Even if an investigation takes place and no prosecution is brought, the burden of proving “reasonable excuse” will cause much distress, especially to young people.
Between 2000 and 2015 Parliament passed six counterterrorism laws; this Bill will be the seventh. Many human rights groups have argued that there are enough laws to deal with the current threats posed to the UK. At some point there will need to be a new debate and thinking around how we tackle violence with political motives, which is essentially how the law defines acts of terrorism. We can continue to enact more legislation to tackle the challenges of terrorism, but the truth is that until we work with our communities to counter the evil of terrorism, we can have as many new laws as we want and spend as much public money as we want, but we will never rid ourselves of the scourge of terrorism.
We will not be successful in meeting the challenges of terrorism until we work with all communities, as mentioned by the Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, and our communities take on the challenge of fighting terrorism with our Government. Our police and security services may need more powers, but equally important is that those powers do not erode our fundamental freedoms. Urgent thought and action is required to engage with our communities and unite them behind our fight against terrorism.
(Lord Nazir Ahmed is human rights leader and life peer in Great Britain. The contents of above articles are based on his recent speech at the House of Lords.)