Air cargo bomb threat puts terrorism back on rights agenda

4 November 2010 by

The air freight bomb plot that came to light over the weekend was a stark reminder that, while new pressures on human rights may come as a result of the economic crisis and budget cuts, the tension between national security and civil liberties as a result of terrorist threats is still a live issue.

However, whereas the New Labour government came under intense criticism for its anti-terrorism policies, the Coalition’s response to last weekend’s events has (so far) been comparatively restrained. The measures announced yesterday were mainly focused on cargo originating from Yemen and other potentially dangerous parts of the world. The government has also said that it will conduct a review of air freight policies and procedures, and consult with the air freight industry on improving security.

While there have been some calls for a much tougher response, even including consideration of military intervention in Yemen, the Coalition’s cautious approach has been applauded by others.

Moreover, the bomb plot came only a day after the head of the Secret Intelligence Service made his first public speech, reminding the public of the importance of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ’s work. As the Guardian pointed out:

The air freight bomb discovery might almost have been designed to underline what the MI6 chief, Sir John Sawers, said last week about the ongoing nature of the terrorist threat, especially to air travel, and the immense importance of intelligence in combating it.

Sir John’s speech is worth reading and attracted a lot of attention in the press. What was interesting about it from a human rights perspective was that he addressed the issue of the tension between ensuring national security and protecting civil liberties head-on, asking “How can the public have confidence that work done by us in secret is lawful, ethical and in their interests?”. He explained the legal framework in which SIS operates, and the various levels of oversight and accountability that are in place, emphasising that:

These processes of control and accountability are as robust as you will find anywhere. SIS fully supports them. We want to enjoy public confidence.

However, Sir John made the point that the intelligence services’ work must by its very nature be conducted in secret and he defended this vigorously, saying “Secrecy is not a dirty word. Secrecy is not there as a cover up. Secrecy plays a crucial part in keeping Britain safe and secure“. In particular he made a not-so-subtle criticism of some recent judicial decisions:

We work with over 200 partner services around the world, with hugely constructive results. And our intelligence partnership with the United States is an especially powerful contributor to UK security. No intelligence service risks compromising its sources. So we have a rule called the control principle – the service who first obtains the intelligence has the right to control how it is used, who else it can be shared with, and what action can be taken on it. It’s rule number one of intelligence sharing. We insist on it with our partners, and they insist on it with us. Because whenever intelligence is revealed, others try to hunt down the source. Agents can get identified, arrested, tortured and killed by the very organisations who are working against us. So if the control principle is not respected, the intelligence dries up. That’s why we have been so concerned about the possible release of intelligence material in recent court cases.

He also addressed the question of torture in very clear and forthright terms:

Torture is illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances, and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it. If we know or believe action by us will lead to torture taking place, we’re required by UK and international law to avoid that action. And we do, even though that allows the terrorist activity to go ahead.

But he did note that important information would be used from intelligence services in countries which adhere somewhat less to international human rights standards:

We can’t do our job if we work only with friendly democracies. Dangerous threats usually come from dangerous people in dangerous places. We have to deal with the world as it is. Suppose we receive credible intelligence that might save lives, here or abroad. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it. We will normally want to share it with those who can save those lives.

All in all, some interesting insights from someone at the front-line of counter-terrorism who has to deal constantly with very real and very difficult questions of how to uphold human rights standards while at the same time effectively defending British citizens. And insights that are quite prescient, given recent events.

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  1. Alex says:

    More countries will have their cargo screened:

    Do you happen to know under what power the government is able to do this? A temporary restriction on cargo from Yemen just after an attempted attack while Parliament discusses emergency legislation seems fair, but for the executive to just impose proper restrictions (rather than temporary ones), including against countries not involved in the attack? That power seems excessive.

    So what power is being used here? Henry VIII clauses or prerogative powers or similar?

    It seems a lot like the government’s temporary cap on non-EU immigration. That the executive, without recourse to Parliament, can do these things is illiberal.

  2. These air cargo bombs are in my view a sign that we need to worry much less. Al-Qaeda seems to have serious trouble finding qualified suicide bombers:

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