Leading article: Fight for our liberties

Tuesday 17 February 2009 01:00

It is a plain fact that, over the past decade, civil liberties in the United Kingdom have been seriously undermined. We now live under a government that detains its citizens for long periods without trial; uses covert surveillance techniques to spy on everyone from organised criminals to litter louts; seeks to record every electronic communication we undertake, and that will, eventually, compel us to register for identity cards.

These measures continue to be pursued to address a "terrorist threat" which emerged with the destruction of the World Trade Centre in 2001. And while their success in containing that threat has been mixed, the effect on our freedoms has been devastating. So a report by the International Commission of Jurists, published yesterday, examining the changes to the worldwide legal landscape which have flowed from 9/11, is welcome. It concludes that "the international legal order based on respect for human rights is in jeopardy", noting that some states have used the fear of terrorism to pass laws which "lack basic safeguards" and "encroach on fundamental freedoms" – reference, of course, to the US and UK.

Welcome though it is, the Jurists' call for "action by governments to repair the damage"seems optimistic. The Brown government is unlikely to undertake an immediate reversal of a long-standing policy approach. What must be addressed is the logic behind that approach. We live, so ministers say, in an age of new dangers which can only be addressed by ever-more repressive and intrusive legislation. This is incorrect. Terrorists pose a loosely connected international threat of the kind that national policy, however invasive, can never effectively address. So instead of blanching at the strictures of international law, our government should embrace international co-operation and in so doing show a respect for our hard-won freedoms.

Of course, ministers calculate that the public care little for liberty and have acted accordingly. This misconception must too be corrected. Individuals must speak up for their rights, and the Convention on Modern Liberty, which holds an inaugural meeting at the end of the month, aims to help them. It is time to restore those liberties that should never have been taken.

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