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Saturday 23 September 2023 Dublin: 5°C
# War on Terror
Is the UK taking a step back from human rights protections?
Theresa May is talking about ‘ripping up’ human rights laws – so how important is it that she doesn’t?

General Election 2017 PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

If human rights laws get in the way of tackling extremism and terrorism, we will change those laws to keep British people safe.

A LOT OF extraordinary things get said on the election trail, and this might be the most significant comment by the leader of one of the world’s most powerful nations.

While on the election campaign trail, UK Prime Minister Theresa May told supporters that she would clamp down on terrorism by promising longer prison sentences and restrictions on the freedom and movements of terrorist suspects.

She said this would happen “…when we have enough evidence to know they are a threat but not enough evidence to prosecute them in full in court”.

And if our human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change the laws so we can do it.

Her comments came just 36 hours before voting begins in the UK’s general election, which begins today.

Since the terror attack on London on Saturday night in which seven people have died and 48 people were injured (21 of those people’s injuries were described as ‘critical’).

For many, it reignited fears that were first aired when Britain’s decision to leave the European Union was announced – that it would loosen up human rights ‘restrictions’ of which it’s had a questionable record at best.

In the past, the British government has been found by the European Court of Human Rights to be in breach of rules in relation to prisoners’ right to vote (which David Cameron said made him feel physically ill); and accused of breaching the privacy of millions of people in the UK and Europe (a case which is still ongoing).

So are they looking to take a more loose approach to human rights issues?


Amnesty Ireland’s CEO Colm O’Gorman described May’s comments as ‘misinformed’ and ‘extraordinarily reckless’.

“It’s ironic that the UK is thinking about abandoning human rights when they have had a consistent approach to advancing human rights campaigns over the years, and were a significant contributor to the EU Convention of Human Rights.”

May has said that she wouldn’t abolish Britain’s Human Rights Act in the past, he said, but it’s not in their manifesto either. So are there concerns that the UK are regressing in the case of human rights?

“I think this has to be taken in the context of a UK election and in reaction to the appalling attacks in London,” he says.

The UK has a right to protect its citizens, and I would go further than that – they have an obligation to protect them from human rights violations like what happened in London.

“But you don’t protect citizens by rewriting human rights laws. There’s no such thing as safety and security without human rights.”


Investigatory Powers Bill Protest Dominic Lipinski / PA Images Members of the campaign group wearing masks of the then-Home Secretary Theresa May outside Westminster to protest against the speed with which the Investigatory Powers Bill is being pushed through the House of Commons. Dominic Lipinski / PA Images / PA Images

O’Gorman says it’s easy to see from an Irish perspective how important and influential human rights laws have been.

He says that Ireland is the first country to take an inter-State case to the European Court of Human Rights in the Hooded Men case – where Northern Irish men argued they were tortured at the hands of the British Army.

Fourteen 14 men were arrested during internment in 1971 and removed for special, so-called ‘in-depth interrogation’ where they were subjected to a “psychological attack” according to an army directive.

The case saw Ireland take the UK to court alleging that it had breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ECHR decided in 1978 that five interrogation techniques inflicted on the men constituted inhuman and degrading treatment and were in breached the convention, but were not torture.

An RTÉ documentary last year that showed that evidence was withheld in the first case prompted the government to bring another case.

O’Gorman adds that it was through the Human Rights Act that the families of the Hillsborough disaster victims were able to seek justice.

“These things do matter and they do have an influence,” he says.

President George W Bush cited the Hooded Men court case ruling when he said that waterboarding wasn’t torture, so it has a huge social impact.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, tough measures were introduced in the ‘war on terror’ which included controversial data collection powers given to the US National Security Agency and the opening of the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

Over 15 years later and the prison is still open and detaining people, despite Barack Obama’s election pledge to close it during his term as US President.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, took aim in particular at remarks May made to supporters on Tuesday questioning limits imposed by human rights laws on tackling violent extremism.

“As if George W Bush never happened, UK promotes the canard of rights abuse protecting from terrorism,” Roth wrote on Twitter.

One of the possible leaders of the next UK government, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, also took aim at May’s response:

We will always keep the law under review, but don’t believe would-be terrorists and suicide bombers will be deterred by longer sentences or restricting our rights at home.

Civil liberties

But Dr Emma Kelly can see a practical side of what May is proposing.

She’s the Irish Criminologist and Programme Director of Criminology, Policing & Investigation and Security Studies at Birmingham City University, and told RTÉ’s Drivetime that she’s no big fan of May, but that people are looking for solutions to these attacks.

“I don’t think she worded it very well and that will come back to haunt her. I think she’s under immense pressure, and if the people are asking for that protection, then they’ll have to sacrifice [some] civil liberties.

“…I think she’s talking about the right to privacy.”

She explained that she would be happy to share her emails because she’s got nothing to hide.

“I don’t mind if [the government] is reading my emails to keep me safe, and I think that’s a happy medium between state power and civil liberties,” she said.

“I’m not going to be free and happy when I fear for my safety and my family’s safety.”

- With reporting from AFP

Read: May says she will change human rights laws to fight terrorism

Read: Amal Clooney is joining the Hooded Men’s legal team

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