British Home Secretary Charles Clarke, speaking on behalf of the current EU presidency, told the European Parliament today that the way the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) is applied must be reviewed in the wake of the London attacks.
In the aftermath of the 7 July bombings, which killed at least 52 people, Clarke and other British ministers have talked of the need to “rebalance” the right of society for security and the traditional rights of individuals.
Today, Clarke said the ECHR, created 50 years ago, must be “developed” in the light of the terrorist experience.
“I believe that in developing these human rights, it really is necessary to balance very important rights for individuals against the collective right for security against those who attack us through terrorist violence. Our strengthening of human rights needs to acknowledge a truth which we should all accept -- that the right to be protected from torture and ill-treatment must be considered side-by-side with the right to be protected from the death and destruction caused by indiscriminate terrorism sometimes caused, instigated, or fomented by nationals from countries outside the European Union,” Clarke said.
Clarke was referring to the wish of the British government to circumvent Article 3 of the convention, which says no one must be subjected to degrading or inhuman treatment. The article rules out the deportation of terrorist suspects to countries where torture and capital punishment could be used.
However, earlier this month, Clarke said expulsions of Muslim extremists could start within days to countries from which Britain has extracted bilateral assurances that they will not be maltreated.
Another major British objective is to establish an EU-wide obligation on mobile- and fixed-telephone operators, as well as Internet service providers, to retain data relating to communication for at least a year. This has drawn accusations from civil rights groups who say the right to privacy is in danger.
Britain’s insistence that mobile operators retain information on unanswered calls has provoked criticism among operators and some member states which object to the costs. However, Clarke on Wednesday said access to such records had been of immense value in the investigation of the 7 July bombings in London.
EU justice and interior ministers are expected to discuss these and other issues relating to Muslims in Europe during a two-day meeting that kicks off tomorrow in the northern English city of Newcastle.
In the European Parliament today, Clarke had the clear support of the largest, conservative faction. The Socialists, the second-biggest group, were also supportive, but insisted on greater joint EU powers.
The main faction to come out on the side of individual rights was the relatively small Liberal group. Their leader, Graham Watson, quoted British-American thinker Thomas Paine, who said everyone who values their own liberty must defend that of even their enemies.
Watson argued the EU must not lower its standards or make exceptions. “Much as the public may dislike it, suspected terrorists have rights," he said. "They have the right to a fair trial; they have the right to be interrogated, not tortured, by the police; they have the right to legal counsel and to representation in a court of law. And, if convicted, they have the right to be imprisoned in a European jail. There should be no exception for third-country nationals. There is a worrying tendency in member states to deport people considered to be threatening public order, or national security, or the rule of law to countries where they may face torture, or worse.”
Watson said that by curtailing rights, the EU risks further alienating its immigrant communities, as well as placing its citizens under intensive surveillance “as a result of the actions of a handful of fanatics.”
Watson drew fire from British Conservatives. Their leader in the European Parliament, Timothy Kirkhope, a former junior home affairs minister, called Watson’s comments “sanctimonious twaddle.” Kirkhope insisted terrorists do not deserve standard justice.
“Of course, each terrorist deserves justice," he said. "Justice has to determine innocence and guilt. But I really do believe that we have to understand that the nature of justice as it is meted out to terrorists and the standard of justice that is available to protect the innocent [citizen] must be of a different level.”
EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini said the European Commission will bring out proposals for extensive EU-wide antiterrorist legislation on 21 September, having first listened to the ministers meeting in Newcastle.
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