Freed from coalition government, Cameron toughens stance on extremism
Buoyed by a surprise majority won in May’s general election, British Prime Minister David Cameron is introducing an ambitious legislative agenda in which counter-extremism will play a leading role.
A planned counter-extremism bill would give the government additional powers to ban “extremist organisations which seek to undermine democracy”, take action against television channels that broadcast “extremist content” and “restrict people who seek to radicalise young people”.
The draft measure is part of a wider legislative package that includes repeal of Britain’s Human Rights Act. The measures collectively seek to address what Cameron has termed Britain’s “passively tolerant society”, a society unwilling to actively defend its values.
The government’s legislative package is expected to contain a number of Conservative Party platform commitments that the Liberal Democrats, who were previously in a coalition with Cameron’s party, blocked during the previous parliament. Chief among these is repeal of the 1998 Human Rights Act, which enshrined the European Convention of Human Rights into British law. The Human Rights Act has been a long-term source of frustration for Cameron as its provisions prevented the deportation of Islamist extremists to countries where their rights may not be upheld. Perhaps the most high-profile example of what the government considers to be the abuse of human rights legislation by Islamist extremists was the protracted legal battle to deport Jordanian national Abu Qatada. Named by Spanish prosecutors as “the spiritual leader of al-Qaeda in Europe”, Qatada was wanted in Jordan for a string of alleged terrorism offences.
However, Qatada successfully argued over numerous appeals that his deportation would be a breach of the Human Rights Act since he would face trial based on evidence obtained though torture. Qatada eventually agreed to leave Britain after Jordan ratified a treaty that prevents prosecutors from using evidence against him obtained under torture. It took the British government eight years and $2.7 million in legal costs to deport the Jordanian.
In the wake of Qatada’s deportation, British Home Secretary Theresa May expressed the government’s frustration at the way human rights legislation had been interpreted.
“Here was a foreign terror suspect, wanted for the most serious crimes in his home country, and we were told time and time again thanks to human rights law we couldn’t deport him. It’s ridiculous that the British government should have to go to such lengths to get rid of dangerous foreigners,” she said.
Similar cases are ongoing. In May, the Telegraph newspaper reported that an alleged al-Qaeda cleric whose bank accounts have been frozen by the US and British governments, as well as the United Nations, had been successfully using the Human Rights Act to fight deportation to Egypt since 1998.
The cleric, Hani al-Sibai, is reportedly under investigation for alleged links to a West London terror cell in what is believed to have included Mohammed Emwazi, who is known as the notorious Islamic State (ISIS) executioner “Jihadi John”.
Repealing of the Human Rights Act, however, may prove to be difficult. Even though the repeal of the act has been a manifesto commitment of the Conservatives since 2010, few had expected the party to be in a position to implement it. But with a majority of only 12 seats in the House of Commons, Cameron cannot afford any of his MPs opposing the measure.
The constitutional implications of repeal remain unclear, with commentators arguing that agreement of the devolved Scottish Parliament may be necessary. The Scottish National Party (SNP) said it will fight repeal. The SNP heads the Scottish government and holds 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the Westminster parliament. Cameron, therefore, risks a constitutional confrontation in his drive to toughen Britain’s stance on Islamist extremism.
This may be why no mention of repeal was made in the Queen’s speech, which sets out the legislative agenda for the first 100 days of Parliament. The government is instead said to be consulting members of parliament to prevent dissent with a view to introducing repeal next year. The delay raised the ire of the right-wing media, with The Sun labelling it “deeply troubling” that the government “now appears to be stalling for time”.
The counter-extremism bill did feature in the Queen’s speech. While not as contentious as the repeal of the Human Rights Act the bill has attracted widespread criticism even from supporters of the government’s overall approach.
Hannah Stuart, a research fellow at The Henry Jackson Society think-tank, said that while the overall approach of challenging non-violent extremists is a good one, the use of banning orders to clamp down on anti-democratic groups could prove counterproductive.
“You don’t defeat extremism really by banning it,” Stuart said. “You defeat it openly and publicly by taking it on and challenging the ideas. If our British values mean anything then we’re strong enough to assert them openly against extremism and that’s what we should be doing.”