Does death of Bin Laden mark end of age of terrorism?

2 May 2011 by

I argued last summer that rights campaigners were approaching the end of the age of terrorism, with economic concerns taking centre stage. The death of Bin Laden, just under a decade since the September 11 terrorist attacks, may ultimately be a historical marker of that shift in focus. 

It is coincidental that Bin Laden’s death was announced on the British May Day bank holiday, traditionally a period of economic protests and celebration of the labour movement. But that coincidence does serve to highlight two different aspects of universal rights protections: to put it crudely, the protection of people we do and people we don’t like.

It is also a coincidence, but an important one, that the history of the Human Rights Act and the reaction to the September 11 attacks have been so intertwined. The HRA was passed into law in October 2000, but many of the major and most visible decisions made under it have been made as a result of the last government’s response to the terrorist threat.

We have posted 59 times on this topic in a year. Notable examples relate to control orders, secret evidence, terrorist deportations, stop and search and evidence obtained under torture. There is also more to come, with the “rendition” public inquiry still to get under way.

The Coalition government pledged early on to “restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power“. But despite its strong words, many of the government’s civil liberties policies have been easy wins or policy choices made in the context of critical domestic European court of human rights rulings: for example in relation to control orders, stop and search and the use of biometric data by the police.

As I said in August, the major battlefront  for rights campaigners now is in relation to the enormous budget cuts which have been made to almost all aspects of the public sector. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, the economy, stupid.

One of the problems arising from the coincidence of timing between the war against terror and the human rights act is that many perceive the act as a terrorists’ charter imposed by unelected European judges. For example, recent (and rather silly) article in The Sun begins “The hated European human rights act…”. In some sections of the public, that sentiment seems now to be automatically assumed, hardly even worth a byline.

Since I wrote the post in August, the imagination of the usually disparate legal community has been captured by the significant cuts to the justice budget, and in particular legal aid, with many combining under the Sound off for Justice campaign. There have also been a number of successful judicial reviews challenging the cuts, although these rarely put human rights at front and centre, but rather more traditional public law arguments against bad decisions. Some have resumed calls for economic and social rights.

A rebalancing of human rights law, at least in the public eye, to focus on economic and social concerns may make the act more popular, as the public realise that it is not just for criminals, pedophiles and terrorists. Universal means for everyone. But this rebalancing is also likely to occur via the Bill of Rights commission, which will probably seek (perhaps even successfully) to make it harder for criminals to use the act’s protection.

Sadly the death of Bin Laden will not mean the end of terrorism, but it does provide a moment of pause in which to consider the remarkable legal effects which the war on terror he provoked has generated in just under 10 years. Those effects will continue to be felt long aftert the terrorist leader’s death. But hopefully the human rights act itself may soon pull itself free from accusations that it is merely a terrorists’ charter.

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1 comment;

  1. James Wilson says:

    I suppose it depends on whether there are any high profile terrorist incidents in the aftermath of Bin Laden’s death, especially in this country. If so, then the anti-human rights feeling will if anything gain momentum, especially as it seems Bin Laden was traced using information gained from Guantanomo Bay detainees, who presumably did not give the info during a pleasant cup of tea.

    I think (as I have argued elsewhere) that the killing of Bin Laden was lawful on any view, but that is due to the extreme circumstances of who he was and where he was found. I would hope that in every respect he will be the exception that proves the rule.

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