On 23rd November, ‘Knowing Our Rights’ put together a panel chaired by Guardian journalist, Prof Roy Greenslade, with Tasnime Akunjee, a legal expert working on terrorism cases; Prof Anthony Glees, eminent expert on security and intelligence studies; Pat Magee, a former member of the IRA, convicted for his part in the bombing of the Brighton Grand Hotel, in which five people lost their lives; and renowned author, intellectual and Brunel University London Professor, Will Self, to address the highly politicised and controversial question ‘Do Terrorists have Human Rights Too?’.
The sell out event was held at the Frontline Club as part of the Being Human festival (organised by the University of London, in collaboration with the British Academy and the AHRC). The event sought to determine whether or not terrorists can ever be afforded human rights in a liberal democracy.
The event was opened by Knowing Our Rights director Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos, who placed the debate in the context of Theresa May’s pledge – in the immediate aftermath of the London Bridge terrorist attack – to ‘rip up human rights laws that impede new terror legislation’; May’s anti-human rights rhetoric flies in the face of continuous reminders by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Max Hill QC, that there is no need for additional legislation, and that existing human rights standards have not obstructed the fight against terrorism, said Giannoulopoulos.
He also explained that the theme of the ‘Being Human’ festival this year was ‘Lost and Found’ – values, rights, ideals – but that, in this case, we were risking losing rights that we had only just recently found; we incorporated the European Convention of Human Rights in 1998, bringing ‘rights back home’, rediscovering core rights that had migrated to Europe, and yet we are now facing the risk of losing them again, as a result of persistent governmental antipathy towards them, not least in the context of counter-terrorism, and not least in relation to human rights norms and influences that are coming from Europe (and must therefore be resisted for that fact alone?).
Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos opening the event: ‘The European Court of Human Rights is indispensable to safeguarding our rights’; Will Self (in the background), explaining later that human rights are inalienable only to the extent they are enforced.
Giannoulopoulos: ‘Human rights are not commodities with a use-by date. The government should commit to protecting the Human Rights Act beyond the life of this Parliament. It is absurd to think that the clock is ticking down on safeguarding the European Convention on Human Rights as we come closer to a solution on Brexit and begin to move away not just from the EU, but also Europe and its core institutions’
The optimists of the panel (Roy Greenslade and Anthony Glees) championed the notion that human rights are not a gift nor a commodity that can be given or taken away. Instead human rights are underpinned by the notion of human dignity. A failure to respect human rights is a failure for humanity.
Whilst on the other end of the spectrum, renowned author, and Brunel Professor, Will Self argued, in his somewhat veracious opinion, that human rights are a human construct and therefore exist only where they are enforceable.
Interestingly, Pat Magee was of the opinion that terrorism is a reaction in response to the state. If the rights of many cannot be exercised in a liberal democracy, and once all peaceful means of resistance have been exhausted, terrorism can be justified.
‘Terrorism is a concept that defines nothing’, he explained, ‘it’s a catch all’. ‘The irony here … is that I spent most of my adult life fighting terrorism’, the ‘terrorism of the British state’.
Tasnime Akunjee raised issue with the definition and labelling of terrorism. He was of the opinion that the current label has been watered down so that ‘now it is reduced to something that the state can apply to undesirables to rule them out’.
from left to right, Pat Magee, Tasnime Akunjee, Roy Greenslade, Anthony Glees and Will Self
A number of Brunel Law School students have recently joined the Knowing Our Rights project as research assistants. Here they offer their reactions to the debate:
Will Self ‘s argument goes to the root of the problem by analysing the semantics and the significance of the word ‘human’. He reduces Human Rights to a mere human concept and if, as he claimed, rights are only such if enforceable, then unenforceable rights are not inalienable. Self’s enforceability argument neutralises the concept of inalienability, ultimately neutralising the very concept of Human Rights. However, an argument based on the semantics of the word ‘human’ offers no assistance for the adoption of a pragmatic approach to the problem. Such argument remains a doctrinal exercise which lacks any application to the real-life problem that is the topic of the debate. Self’s semantic exercise is exhausted as a cynical and pessimistic vision which offers no solution to the moral problem. It is merely an argument which is an end in itself.
Self’s argument that the state constitutes itself as a monopoly of violence is a strong one. In the context of IS, our State ‘loves’ an individual that is committed to its destruction, he notes. Anxiety about terrorism forces citizens to return to the state as their protector, while the violence that the state wishes to apply (to other States or organisations) can now be justified.
In the same line of argument, Tasnime Akunjee argues that terrorism is a response to actions of the state, most of the time. However, if a state of fragility and helplessness is recognised, can we go so far as justify terrorism? I believe not. Being helpless does not justify rendering others helpless because of your violence.
The arguments on both ends of the debate were compelling. The view that human rights are inalienable is certainly a view that most individuals in a liberal democracy would take. The inalienability of human rights, by their very nature, would mean that these rights are not a commodity that can be given and taken away by the state.
However, the lure in the pessimistic argument presented by Will Self is the fact that, in practice, it is a sad truth that human rights exist to only those that are able to enforce them. Such rights are afforded (in most cases) to those that live in a liberal democratic society.
That is not to say individuals outside a liberal democracy do not have human rights, they do. Will Self’s argument is flawed in that it fails to consider the inalienability of human rights. The fact that human rights are founded on the notion of human dignity, means that every individual has rights regardless of where that individual is geographically positioned in the world and regardless of any atrocities they may commit. The issue Self’s argument relies upon is simply an issue of enforcement.
On a separate, but equally important, note there is an issue with the very arbitrary branding of an individual as a terrorist. The state is able to brand individuals ‘terrorists’ with international consequences, including the freezing of assets and travel bans. As a consequence, this arbitrary labelling of individuals carries with it sinister denials of protection of basic human rights.
In sum, by their very nature human rights cannot be given and taken away at the click of the state’s overtly powerful finger. Do terrorists have human rights too? They should have by virtue of being human, but the state has the ability to hinder these rights significantly by using arbitrary labelling.
from right to left: Will Self and Anthony Glees in heated debate; Roy Greenslade asking ‘can the state be accused of terrorism?’
Roy Greenslade: ‘The state could be accused of terrorism; if you think of Bloody Sunday as a perfect example – even David Cameron apologised for shooting thirty innocent people – so is this not an example where the liberal democracy broke down and allowed the forces of the state to do something which was so reprehensible it was understandable people would engage in terrorism?
The panel transcended into a historic debate on ‘liberal democracy’ and into contemporary political structure. The old colonial nugget was referred to and the general discussion strayed from the point I think Anthony Glees was trying to make. Insofar that, in elected liberal democracies of today, terrorism cannot be permitted, and human rights must be suspended if necessary to intercept and protect the ‘state’.
Though of course his argument is short sighted as well, and focuses entirely on one view of the state. To call the extent that a government can make huge blunders, forgivable ‘mistakes’ is a bit deluded. It is a nice ideal though: if the state is democratically structured and lawfully upheld, the only possible terrorists are those seeking its destruction, either by using violence on its population or through direct attack on its institutions. Although, this totally negates the fact that public law demonstrates time and time again the egregious breaches of law carried out by these ‘liberally democratic’ state bodies.
There is also the issue that Glees keeps referring to the democracy he’s known his entire life – but has it always been ‘democratic’? We only have to turn to equality measures – still needing to be introduced today to ensure the fair treatment of people – to acknowledge the democratic ‘state’ he so believes in hasn’t always necessarily been entirely ‘democratic’ and representative.
Will’s opening argument that human rights are a human invention and thus need to be enforceable to exist is a very profound and philosophically interesting point, though not relevant to the question, or the proceeding questions thereafter. The debate was trying to determine what to do after the fact an act of terror has been committed. To discuss so odiously if human rights are a valid set point for this talk would dissolve the entire debate. In order to move forward with the result of this discussion we need to accept that 1) human rights, though a human invention, are a widely encouraged one and celebrated, and 2) they have an important role to play globally and locally, so whether they are perceived with little or a lot of importance is not the great matter at hand because there are many bodies in existence to enforce them (to whatever degree).
In questioning the effects of labelling an individual a terrorist, Tasnime Akunjee’s argument highlights the extremes that human rights can afford to individuals. For instance, if a human being can never do anything which would stop them from being human, then when states break laws and err, they continue to be states. The government does not immediately cease to exist because of mistakes they have made, the same liberties should be extended to the individual because the government is made up of people, anyway.
If anything, due to the resources at their disposal, governments have a greater responsibility to model a way of behaviour for their societies on moral grounds and on those grounds people who commit acts of terror should be treated morally.
Tasnime Akunjee bringing in the debate a 20-year experience of defence work in the area of terrorism
This is combined with the fact that once labelled a terrorist, somewhat arbitrarily, the state has the ability to restrict movement and freeze assets of that individual. To label somebody a terrorist implies they have crossed some point of no return and are considered to be ‘less human’ than prior to taking terrorist action.
By Daniel Proctor
Daniel is a final year student at Brunel Law School, and research assistant at the Knowing Our Rights project.
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Special thanks are given to Dr. Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos, Prof Julian Petley, John Mair, the Frontline club and the Knowing Our Rights team for organising this event.