Human rights should not be curtailed to make up for inefficient security, says AI

Human rights should not be curtailed to make up for inefficient security, says AI

Julia Hall, an Amnesty International expert in counterterrorism and human rights, during a press conference at the Press Club in Brussels in January.

(Marta Checa)

The recent Amnesty International (AI) report, Dangerously disproportionate: the ever-expanding national security state in Europe, examining the state of human rights and the fight against terrorism, alerts governments and civil society to the dangerous shift in legislation seen in the continent over the last two years.

The fight against terrorism should be fought with the legal instruments already in place, insists AI, rather than new legislation and administrative measures that restrict human rights and fundamental freedoms (the cornerstones of our societies).

For the report’s author, Julia Hall, from the United States, it is essential that we challenge the establishment of a “new normal” following the triggering and extension of a state of emergency. She also warns against abusive administrative measures, adopted at dizzying speed, that escape judicial scrutiny or consultation with civil society – the biggest loser in this battle, starting with some of its most vulnerable members: migrants, foreigners, human rights defenders, trade unionists, etc.

In an interview with Equal Times, Hall talks about some of the key issues in the report.


Several governments in countries such as Belgium, France, Germany or Spain, have announced the thwarting of more or less imminent terrorist attacks. Would you say, in such cases, that the new counterterrorism measures are worthwhile?

What really saves lives is good police and intelligence work. If you look at the Paris attacks, almost every single person involved had been already under the radar of the intelligence and security apparatus. In other words, they had already been identified as somehow problematic.

After the attacks in Paris and Brussels, there was a general acknowledgement by national level actors that there had been inefficiencies and a degree of ineffectiveness in terms of police operations and, particularly, intelligence sharing. A critical problem across the EU is the inability of member states to effectively communicate information.

The title of the report refers to the danger of “disproportionate” measures. Proportional measures are fantastic, and if lives are saved, we are all for that. But we reject the notion that intelligence and law enforcement saves lives by taking away our rights.

What is reflected in this report is how the misapplication of counterterrorism measures affects people who are in no way related with terrorism.

The question is, do we want to live in a society where the answer to terrorism is to keep curtailing our rights and freedoms rather than focusing on law enforcement and intelligence sharing, with proper safeguards?


The AI report examines the counterterrorism measures adopted by 14 EU member states and in response to UN Security Council Resolution 2178, adopted in 2014, requiring states to enact legislation to deal with "Foreign Terrorist Fighters". Since then, France, Belgium and Germany have suffered a number of terrorist attacks, and the whole world is under alert. In this context, how feasible is a return to the pre-2014 period, as regards – proportionate – security legislation.

Allow me to point out, first of all, that AI is not arguing that governments should not combat terrorism and others forms of violence.

As highlighted in the title of the report, the problem lies in disproportionality: going beyond what is necessary, doing it in a way that is abusive, targeting people who have nothing to do with terrorism, and the report gives many examples of that. Take, for example, the 4,300 house searches in France over the last couple of years that have resulted in a fraction of prosecutions.

European governments have always combatted terrorism, using the criminal justice approach to prevent terrorist acts. What’s different now? The fact that they’re international networks? Well, if they’re international networks, then it’s a matter of intelligence sharing, it’s a matter of better coordination between and among member states.

It remains unclear to us how the formula for combating terrorism is to take peoples rights away.


Would you say it is easier and more cost effective to curtail rights than to improve policing and intelligence capabilities?

As human rights activists, we would never do a cost-benefit analysis (although this may happen at political level). But the reality is that when you are doing 4,300 house searches and you are not doing them based on individual reasonable suspicion, that is, by its very definition, inefficient. Whether it costs more, I would only assume so, but having a huge dragnet capturing all sorts of people who have no business being there is very, very inefficient; it takes a lot of resources.

What is the impact on civil society?

Much of the recent legislation stereotypes people and creates fear. That, in itself, creates a state of insecurity. People are feeling more and more vulnerable and in many ways they are willing to give up their rights, which gives the government more power.

The report is intended to give people a real sense of how little their opinions about these matters are being taken into consideration and to give them a sense of how discriminatory many of these polices and practices are. This discrimination sows discord at societal level.

At some point the public in Europe needs to ask the question: Is this the way we want to live; do we want to live in constant fear, not just of terrorism, but of our governments? Do we want to have solid relations with our Muslim neighbors or do we always want to feel suspicion? The report reflects peoples’ wish to live in a society that is free, that does not discriminate against its people, that it is based on the rule of law.


Given the Orwellian landscape AI denounces in the report, why has there not been greater public outcry?

I am not really sure it is correct to say that the public has been somehow neutralised. You only have to look at what is happening in Poland (people protesting against the counterterrorism laws, or against the undermining of the constitutional court), in France (massive protests against the state of emergency) or the UK.

Governments have put obstacles in their way, such as using counterterrorism laws to ban protests or to restrain activists, as seen during COP21, or with David Miranda, and Ahmed H. [who appears in the report and whose full name cannot be published].

The laws have not only been used in a disproportionate way, but also to target political opponents, human rights defenders, labour activists, environmental activists, refugees and migrants.


If the trend continues, if the message of the Trump administration spills over into Europe or part of the continent, what’s the worst or best that could happen in terms of human rights and fundamental freedoms?

There’s a lot happening now with respect to proposals for administrative detention in Europe - the functional equivalent to what happens in Guantanamo, where people are held without charge or trial, based on suspicion they have committed or might commit a crime. If we go in that direction, we’ll be taking a huge step backwards. And we know that this is in the air in many different countries in Europe.

With respect to the torture and secret detention that happened during the Bush era, Europe unequivocally said ‘no’. Europe was initially complicit in those practices but, having disavowed them, they need to keep their word and urge the world to say ‘no’ to the US government if the Trump administration does implement such polices and practices.

In the best-case scenario, the laws that are abusive (that violate the right to privacy and physical integrity) will be repealed. All laws that violate human rights based on the merest of suspicions should be repealed.

We oppose laws that criminalise speech. It is essential that we return to a very precise and logical definition of “incitement to terrorism”. We are also calling for law enforcement officials to be trained in human rights compliance.

In short, we are not asking them to do anything that they do not know they shouldn’t be doing anyway.


What is AI’s message in the context of the elections in Europe this year (Germany, Netherlands, France)?

Governments should take a deep breath and remember that they have tools at their disposal that don’t necessarily have to violate people’s rights. In the aftermath of the Spanish terrorist’s attack in 2005 we expected a repressive response from the Spanish government, but it didn’t happen. Nor did it happen in Norway, after the terror attack by (Anders Behring) Breivik. Both governments used the tools already available to them, instead of turning to emergency laws or implementing new practices.

After the attack in Belgium, and post-Paris, the Belgian government held a very vigorous and rich debate about what to do and made a logical decision not to implement a state of emergency, although a lot of people wanted it.

To sum it up, there are governments in the region that have thoroughly debated how to respond and have understood they already have the tools required at their disposal, that they don’t need to create reams and reams of ever more repressive legislation.


This article has been translated from Spanish.