9/11 ten years on
11 September 2011
It is ten years since the terror attacks of 11 September 2001. Like many people, I have been thinking back to where I was on that day.
Bizarrely, given what followed, I spent 11 September 2001 only a few miles away from the United States military base in Guantanamo Bay. I was travelling through Cuba with friends, and we had reached the Eastern tip of the island, the seaside village of Baracoa. We had even visited Guantanamo Bay’s entrance the previous day; it was a tourist attraction which the Lonely Planet guide billed as the place where you could find Cuba’s only MacDonalds.
We spent September 11th franticly updating the BBC news website in one of the island’s brand new internet cafes and watching a delayed feed from Spanish CNN in a local resident’s home. The hour delay meant that we saw the second tower fall after finding out from a phone call to my family that it had already fallen. The locals were just as shocked and upset as anyone else, belying the state-sponsored USA bashing we had been soaked with throughout our trip.
Also like many people, my life changed direction as a result of those events, although thankfully not because I lost a relative, as sadly was the case with one of the friends I was on travelling with. When I returned to university the following week I decided to change my course from English Literature to politics and philosophy, as like many others I was desperate to figure out what was going on in the changed world. This was the first step which led me to law and an ambition to specialise in public law and human rights.
Many people have already written about the enormous and ongoing effect 9/11 has had on our legal system, mainly focusing on how the state has chosen to fight terrorism, the balance between liberty and security and the ripple effects from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As for me, my early career has been dominated by two public inquiries arising from the actions of soldiers in Iraq; the Baha Mousa Public Inquiry, which reported last week, and the ongoing Al-Sweady Public Inquiry.
Whatever your view on the results of those inquiries and of the actions of the security services and military during the “war on terror”, it is important that those inquiries are happening and that lessons can be learned from the events following 9/11. The Detainee Inquiry has also been launched and will look into the alleged “rendition” of detainees by the security services in the years following 9/11.
The Human Rights Act preceded 9/11 by just over a year and it is interesting to speculate whether it would have made it onto the statute books if it was proposed in 2002 rather than 1997. Thinking back to the febrile atmosphere following the attacks, I doubt that a statute which risked limiting the potential actions of the security services would have made it through Parliament. Even now, when terrorism is fairly low on the public agenda, the HRA is still widely unpopular for its perceived protection of terrorists and “foreign criminals“.
This blog is about human rights, and it is no surprise that we have written about terrorism more than any other topic. 72 posts and counting, which you can read here or through the links below.
One of the undeniable effects of 9/11 on our justice system has been to put the Human Rights Act through its paces. And one important outcome has been, arguably, to embolden our judges and erode their traditional deference towards the state and in particular the security services. As evidence of this trend, read of some of the posts linked to below, showing how judges are approaching security issues now, and then read this passage from Lord Denning in the 1977 case of R v SSHD ex p Hosenball  1 WLR 766 at 783:
There is a conflict between the interests of national security on the one hand and the freedom of the individual on the other. The balance between these two is not for a court of law. It is for the Home Secretary … In some parts of the world national security has on occasions been used as an excuse for all sorts of infringements of individual liberty. But not in England.
… Parliament, the executive and the courts have different functions. But the function of independent judges charged to interpret and apply the law is universally recognised as a cardinal feature of the modern democratic state, a cornerstone of the rule of law itself
The events of 9/11 will still be having an effect in another 10 years, and the liberty versus security debate will continue to vex politicians and judges. Hopefully, the UK Human Rights Blog will cast some light on that debate.
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