by Peter Watt
I am an internationalist, like the best of them. However two separate, but related, issues have today made me very angry. First, the release from prison of the terrorist Abu Qatada. And second, the on-going slaughter in Syria. Both are examples of the way that perpetrators of evil can all too often be protected by the perverse operation of systems of international law. And both show the dilemma of the apparent impotence and weakness of democratic countries.
To put it into perspective; if I were to go into town this weekend, have a skinful, get into a fight and assault someone, then rightly I would, hopefully, be arrested and prosecuted. If the assault was serious enough, or if I had previous, then my behaviour would justify the prison sentence that I would surely receive. Benefit fraud, robbery, tax evasion, illicit drugs – all would likely see a custodial sentence.
But it seems that you can be a convicted terrorist and the legal system can be used to prevent your imprisonment. Abu Qatada sympathised with Osama Bin Laden, praised the 9/11 bombers, was convicted of plotting murder in Jordan and is apparently a member of al-Qaeda’s “Fatwa Committee”. And yet an on-going legal battle has seen him released, imprisoned and re-released from prison.
In 2004 an immigration appeals committee ruled that he:
“was heavily involved, indeed was at the centre in the United Kingdom of terrorist activities associated with al-Qaeda”.
But he appealed against his imprisonment and was released. A Jordanian court sentenced him to life imprisonment for planning terrorism in his absence, but in the UK he was still playing ping-pong with the immigration authorities. In 2009, UK law lords agreed to his deportation, and within days he was awarded £2,500 by the European court of human rights (ECHR) as he had been detained without trial.
Earlier this year the ECHR ruled that his planned deportation to Jordan would be illegal. And finally, this week a judge has ruled that as he can’t be deported he should be released from prison on bail. So, the home office considers him a risk to national security, he has links to international terrorists, we have invited thousands of international guests to London this summer, for the Queen’s jubilee and the olympics, and we release him on bail. Way to go.
Now I am a strong supporter of human rights legislation, but this surely makes a mockery of all of our human rights? What signal are we sending to people when we are seemingly unable to protect them from such an obvious risk? Far from strengthening human rights, it undermines our collective security, itself a basic human right.
Rightly both the government and opposition have condemned the ruling. But in reality, the UK is powerless unless it can convince the ECHR that Jordan has not and will not use evidence obtained by torture, reassurances that Jordan has already given. So the ECHR, the very institution established to protect human rights, is in effect undermining its own credibility. In doing so it risks strenghtening calls for the suspension of our membership of the European convention on human rights. As the home secretary said, with the support of the Labour benches:
“It is simply isn’t acceptable, that after guarantees from the Jordanians about his treatment, after British courts have found that he is dangerous, after his removal has been approved by the highest courts in our land, we still cannot deport dangerous foreign nationals”.
And then there is Syria. Assad is using his heavy artillery on civilians in order to try and stamp out dissent from those calling for greater freedoms. How many thousands have died no one knows. How many more will die before this is over we can only fear. But if you are sitting in a cellar in Homs with your children trying to avoid shells and bullets; if you are waiting for the arrival of Assad’s troops bent on violence then you can be certain of one thing. The UN cannot and will not help.
You are for all intents and purposes being left to your fate. It doesn’t matter that most of the world wants more action taken to protect you, stronger condemnation and demands for Assad to go. Why? Because those great bastions of democracy and human rights China and Russia will not countenance this on the UN security council. So no action is taken and Assad is given succour.
My daughter was watching the news this evening, and asked about the pictures of broken bodies, crying mothers and frightened children. “Why is no one helping them”? she asked. I didn’t really know what to say. The fact is that we appear to be able to do nothing and it looks and is ridiculous. Not just for the Syrians, but also for the UN itself.
Once again at a time of greatest need it is a block on action not an enabler of consensus. For those who wish to bypass it as an institution it has given further evidence that they are right to do so. And quite frankly, who can blame them? It should be the champion of the oppressed, instead it is protecting a brutal dictator and is mired in controversy over its budgets and the conduct of its peacekeepers.
Of course international law is important and our adherence to it is something that we should be proud of. There is a balance to be struck between security and civil liberties. And obviously it is preferable that any international action is taken in concert with others under the auspices of the UN.
The actions of the ECHR and the UN on Qatada and Syria respectively, are shaming us all. But worst of all they are undermining our ability to provide security for our citizens and prolonging the agony of the Syrian people.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.