“We need the powers and the resources to expose the truth”
March 27, 2014 Leave a comment
On Wednesday, March 26, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) convened on Westminster with the heaviest agenda of the parliamentary year so far – scrutiny of human rights compliance with counter-terrorism laws, protocols and their application. Following just a week after another committee (Home Affairs) took great paints to summon Sir Mark Waller over GCHQ activities – and concluded that the little if any scrutiny granted to intelligence activity and data collection was far below a democratic threshold – the JCHR intended to make an inventory of the most pressing issues facing the human rights community in regards to counter-terrorism laws in the UK, enforced domestically and abroad. Present where David Anderson QC, an amicable, straight-forward and honest reviewer aware of his possibilities and difficulties as independent reviewer of terrorism legislation; and the both ubiquitous and far too rare Ben Emmerson QC, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights while Countering Terrorism.
As the UK slowly emerges from the deep slumber induced by the shock of the Snowden revelations, and intends to bring forward a semblance of a healthy democratic debate surrounding the overwhelming powers granted under its anti-terrorism legislation – from Parliament-embraced measures to unchecked use of executive power – this hearing was more formal that the Home Affairs’ submission to Sir Mark sought to be. Anderson and Emmerson, both tasked with a position that requires more than annual reports and evidence submission, highlighted not only the domestic inconsistencies of counter-terrorism legislation both in regards to constitutional safeguards but European legal compliance, but the international implications of the UK armed forces abroad – and even more to the point, the UK collusion with the US drone war.
Both Anderson and Emmerson were asked, as a preamble, to identify three key issues arising from abuses of counter-terrorism legislation – and both agreed on all three, their pressing need to be addressed, and the importance of a legislative scrutiny. Not respecting their own order, this write-up of the hearing seeks to re-affirm the basic principles of human rights compliance in counter-terrorism activities. Despite the current climate and the domestic policies seemingly asserting that the two are mutually exclusive, that conditions of necessity and proportionality involve derogations, and that national security imperatives supersede all – Anderson and Emmerson were both unequivocal in the belief that unless regular scrutiny, legislative and judicial review, and transparency prevail in a democratic country seeking to combat the extremely real of terrorism, abuses would be just as well shared by the nation-state violating the principles it had originally vowed to uphold.
Definition of terrorism
The question arose in the context of the Miranda v Home Secretary ruling in February, in which it had been effectively denounced and illustrated that section 40 (1) (b) of the ATCSA was too broad, too vague and unchecked to be efficient and free of possible discretionary, discriminatory abuses. As Emmerson remarked, the UK’s situation in defining terrorism – or failing to appropriately do so – is hardly unique. Many states, most of them being western democracies grappling with more or less open conflict in MENA or South East Asia, have definitions of what constitutes terrorism that are adaptable, subjected to interpretation, often not legislative. Anderson noted that he intended to revisit the definition incorporated into the ATCSA, if only in the light of the Miranda verdict – although the High Court ruling only emphasized that this became necessary, as opposed to shedding a light on an issue no one addressed. Continuing, “in the old days, terrorism was simple”, referring to the usual and perhaps now obsolete decision that terrorism was an act of violence perpetrated in order to achieve a certain political aim. The definition of ethnopolitical terrorism, a type of conflict Northern Ireland declared for decades, may no longer fit such a clear-cut bill: what has become a political means to achieve? Is the goal of the political action the strict act of self-determination, or can wanton destruction (of both property and persons) be considered terrorism? Should it be foreign or domestic? Should be carried by an organisation or an isolated individual? In the attempt to cover all bases, 40 (1) (b) covered, in fact, all bases, even those that perhaps should never be criminalized to the full extent of the overreaching powers of couter-terrorism legislation.
Maybe more to the point – and this was said as an aside, despite its importance – a broad definition of terrorism could apply to state actors as well as it could to organisations and individuals. Emmerson:
This definition (…) criminalises conduct too broadly. The purported safeguards against abuses can’t be used against executive orders, that remain unchallenged. If you apply this definition, it could apply to British armed forces overseas.
Although it remains quite unsure as to how many eyebrows were effectively raised following this statement, Emmerson continued on the difficulties of applying a terrorism charge ex post facto. “This is not consistent with our constitutional principles”, he concluded, which will later be raised once more in the evolution of the legal context of counter-terrorism.
What was at the core of the Miranda case, indeed, was the extension of counter terrorism legislation to journalism – and the fact that carrying material that could be deemed harmful to national security; knowing, carrying, transporting, or transferring information deemed harmful; and publishing said information is now subjected to a terrorism charge. If journalists have now become a preferred target for outlandish counter terrorism laws that are only a front for clearly criminalizing dissent, the goal of extending these powers – which include prolonged detention, seizure of property, prolonged interrogation often as a result of long standing surveillance – to journalists, protected by the ECHR, the ICCPR and domestic mechanisms of press freedom, has a dangerous aspect that has forced one member of the JCHR to ask both barristers if journalism, and being a journalist, should be defined in order to create a framework that would escape the claws of counter-terrorism legislation. But being a journalist is not simply a profession on a card, not simply a career; it is the act of researching information and publishing it. In the digital era, an individual that may not necessarily be a career journalist, would not necessarily identify as such, or would not be hired full time and under contract by a newspaper organisation, can indeed act as a journalist and publish as such. Those individuals also deserve the protection of Article 10, and hold the right to a public interest defense.
Emmerson did not mention the Johannesburg Principles; instead, he referred to a more recent convention – principles laid out that goes through both domestic and comparative law in order to provide the best media protection possible, as well as enriching the legal mechanisms and recourses for whistleblowers… including those engaging in unauthorized disclosures. It is of Emmerson’s “robust view”, as he puts it – which may be robust in a vacuum, but necessary in the context – to foster and favour an environment in which the media plays a role of governing accountability and providing a healthy debate in the name of public interest. If the question of transparency has popped in a few times during the short hearing, it has however made a lasting impact – Westminster has now effectively held two parliamentary hearings during which observers, national, domestic workers in different fields, have assessed the Snowden disclosures not only as being in the public interest of the United Kingdom, but also having a much broader, international scope – which forces the national government in this situation, not only to address its own population in regards to the domestic spying apparatus in place, but to answer to the duties and responsibilities each nation has toward the others with which it engages.
(If the Snowden revelations damaged more than two governments’ abilities to be trusted by their own population, we may not know in the immediate; US journalist Jason Leopold, who has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a DIA document supposedly reporting on the “grave damage” the Guardian publication would have caused has been met with an “exceptional circumstances” excuse, seeking additional time to process his request. Considering the discourse on the so-called lethal effects of the NSA disclosures at home and abroad, one would be under the belief that the DIA would want this report out there, for everyone to stop considering Snowden a hero. Alas, this is not the case; and the notion of public interest in the face of grave human rights violations remain.)
Anderson, who has had first hand experience in observing press freedom and its restrictions elsewhere while on a mission for the Council of Europe (CoE), has reported that instances of restrictive definitions of what constitutes journalism and who can be considered a journalist, with the legal protections attributed to the title, more than often led to press freedom violations. He referred to the Levison case, another ominous jurisprudence for the United Kingdom. Although Anderson’s point was brief, if his intent was to suggest press freedom ought not to be restricted on matters of principle to avoid civil liberties violations (as opposed to restricting them for opaque national security matters), it was very well conveyed. The concerns raised by the JCHR was not in the strict and immediate future of the Miranda ruling, which is still under ongoing litigation, but just as dangerous and pervasive chilling effect it has on freedom of expression, opinion, and access to information. Emmerson, who never sought to wax poetic and engage in rhetorical battles of sorts on political linguistics, stated that national security was in fact used as an excuse to intimidate and silence the press. This goes hand in hand with recent declarations by UN Rapporteur Frank La Rue on the chilling effects of prosecution of whistleblowers. Anderson, who explained that national security was “notoriously undefined”, took issue with unquestionable, unchallenged and unscrutinized executive orders – as well as the Royal Prerogative – which, as a terrorism reviewer, leaves those unilateral decisions outside of his purview. It became clear at this point of the hearing that a legislative review of counter-terrorism, powers granted by Parliament and possibility to curtail, democratically, exceptional powers granted to the executive, could be what the UK – and by extension, the US – need.
CIA rendition program
A long-lasting thorn in Ben Emmerson’s side, the release of the Gibson Inquiry echoes the current theater drama on the other side of the Atlantic, as Sen. Feinstein struggles with the CIA, her own demons, and getting the votes to hypothetically release the CIA torture report. The Gibson Inquiry, named after Sir Peter Gibson, tasked to investigate the role of British intelligence forces into the CIA torture program, has notoriously been stalling for years. Then transferred to the Intelligence Services Committee (ISC), David Cameron, as a campaign promise, sought to take it away from Lord Gibson and handing it out to the ISC. He famously said, in 2010:
I do not think for a moment that we should believe that the ISC should be doing this piece of work. For public confidence, and for independence from parliament, party and government, it is right to have a judge-led inquiry. That is what we need to get to the bottom of the case. The fact that it is led by a judge will help ensure that we get it done properly.
A statement made on December 19, 2013 and released to David Cameron said the report concluded that matters needed “further investigation”. However, the ISC has been heavily criticized for failing to conduct proper oversight into the activities of intelligence services; in this case, the only released information concerned the MI-6 collusion with Gaddafi, which resulted in the rendition and torture of two Libyan opposition leaders in 2004. Handing the Gibson inquiry to a committee that lacks powers and resources to conduct a truly independent and thorough inquiry has been perceived by members of human rights groups as a willingness to whitewash the activities of the MI-5 and MI-6. As the ISC reviewer himself, Sir Mark, proved at his own hearing last week, the reviewer has little to no power over GCHQ; is massively understaffed; does not possess the power to compel evidence or summon witnesses; any evidence provided will be heavily redacted if ever possibly released at all. Emmerson, who expressed his frustration over the procedural limitations of the inquiry over and over again, re-affirmed the need to absolutely lift any roadblocks standing before the ISC “so the Committee can do its job”:
Individuals concerned by the inquiry boycotted it – but those who committed crimes need to be exposed. The Committee needs to have the powers and resources to expose the truth.
When asked if the ISC would ever face a conflict of interest in the conduct of a review that is neither legislative nor judicial, Emmerson expressed a commitment to oversight that is refreshing in an era of hyper-classification and constant executive-led belittling of calls for transparency. The Rapporteur then made a statement that sounds like stating the obvious, a truth that many democratic regimes may have held as self-evident, that is, until someone blows the whistle on works behind the scenes: that oversight is a traditional mechanism in advanced democracies. It is the one tool of accountability that can be relied upon especially when exercised by the very representatives of the people (legislative) and/or by an absolute separate branch of government (judicial). Only a lack of oversight, or a demonstration of powerless or virtually pointless oversight can reveal that separation of powers or excessive executive control has undermined the constitutional principles of society. As to whether any inquiry, inquiry report or conclusions should lead to prosecution, Emmerson believes that a strong judicial component to an inquiry could be an asset to conducting an investigation into intelligence services – as the judicial hand might be seen as stronger and less subjected to influence.
In light of Sir Mark’s testimony – which, again, he performed extremely reluctantly – the issue of transparency not only in intelligence itself, but in the conduct of oversight was raised. Although both Emmerson and Anderson mentioned the concept of “responsible journalism” earlier in the hearing, the necessity for information and the right to truth was once again made in front of a legislative body (emphasis mine):
It is always difficult to decide [ on release ] when dealing with sensitive information, to decide if privacy is justified. But what the committee is tasked with, parts are capable of being held in public. All that can be safely in the public domain should be in the public domain.
Unmanned aircrafts, targeted killings and undeclared battlefields
It was surprising to hear members of the JCHR being surprised that the use of drones made Anderson and Emmerson’s top three counter-terrorism issues list. Following an extremely brutal yet absolutely necessary report three weeks ago, which seemingly went half unnoticed even in the list of proposals it laid out in its conclusion, Emmerson provided the committee with what Anderson later referred to as a “masterclass on drones”. No stranger to their use in undeclared battlefields and the massive human rights violations they committed – pre emptive killings, unsanctioned use of military force, civilian killings and the absolute classification over their intelligence collection methods, their trajectory, and little known about their operating bases, it was no wonder that Emmerson’s tenure at the UN would prominently feature his lengthy field research in Pakistan and Yemen in order to amass the information that no one else would release to him, despite his position, that one would assume significant enough to warrant cooperation.
Emmerson identified four key concerns, which he outlined in concise but harsh terms:
1) this is a 21st century weapon designed for asymmetrical armed conflict. As a counter-insurgency tool, which is what it is branded to be, it is of very little use and effect.
2) the Committee was right in saying that with the technology at our disposal, and the capacity to place suspects under 24/7 surveillance, it is in fact possible to protect the right to life closer to a zero-collateral damage than ever before – tools of precise targets, even more surgical strikes, and threat removal. Instead, the use of drones have illustrated reckless endangerment, and have destroyed said right to life.
3) Most of the difficulty that arises from the counter-terrorism and human rights study of the use of drones is that they often operate outside of the theaters of traditional armed conflict. Their constant hovering over Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, nations with no declared war against the US or the UK, force precedence in areas of international law where there is nothing even remotely close to a political or legal consensus.
4) Drones are operated by the CIA.
Presenting this quote without further comment:
I don’t know who originally thought it was a smart idea to hand drones in a campaign of waging war through the air to an organisation bound by the rules of neither-confirm-nor-deny. (…) I’d rather give MI-6 a fleet of aircrafts and let them go off and do whatever they needed to do.
The complete lack of transparency even in answering simple questions from journalists and lawyers is what makes the CIA such an unpractical and dangerous organisation to direct and lead unmanned aircrafts – remotely based pilots distanced and detached from the battlefield, the realities of the insurgency and the bloodshed of the bombs they let off. The historical culture of classification and secrecy held by the CIA, the topic of which is often source of heavy-handed satire and conspiracy theories is an issue in and of itself. Abuses do arise, but in the hands of the CIA, they are effectively removed from any tool of accountability for the civilians affected by their practices; the wounded as well as the killed. The effort to transfer the direction of drones from the CIA to the Department of Justice (DoJ) was a step in the right direction, but hindered. Emmerson however noticed that since John Brennan took over as head of the CIA, Pakistan enjoyed a period of relief from the death machines. (Sadly, this has not proven true for Yemen).
Picking apart Emmerson’s new report draws the eye on his rhetorical questioning on a proposed change of international law (!) and accountability systems of counter-terrorism (!!) to fit the current and evolving framework of the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency methods the US and UK are practising in the name of their endless War on Terror. Reducing it to the simplest possible question due to the nature of the hearing and its limited duration, Emmerson was asked to answer whether war should be redefined. This, however, was not rhetorical. Stating that this is a complex issue – and I would argue, the most complex international criminal issue of our time, one I have been working on for ages – there is no consensus among states, or even among lawyers. The Geneva Conventions are and should remain the guiding principles of the law of warfare; but the nature of conflicts themselves have evolved far away from our traditional and historical definition of what constitutes an international armed conflict. Most of the battle zones, these days, are asymmetrical battlefields – meaning, in broad and simple terms, a nation-state against a more or less borderless organisation. Henceforth, the targeted laws of international humanitarian concepts are harder and harder to apply. Jurisdiction is an ongoing concern in matters of judicial accountability. Classification is the biggest fear in matters of political accountability. If counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism are often confused in media coverage, it is because the definition of what constitutes a legitimate military target not only varies according to the country in which the fight is taking place, but also the rules of engagement (for armed forces); the duty handbook (for private military contractors), and legislation once one policy expires or there is a change in administration. The questions Ben Emmerson asked at the end of the report, which asked states involved in the War on Terror to not only answer his calls for transparency and release of information, will be subjected to a vote at the United Nations shortly, recommending the establishment of a committee that would hear states and their own national, domestic and political vision of counter-terrorism, human rights compliance, and the legal systems of accountability they would recognize.
As I said, Emmerson’s report was a brutal read; and if some states decided to play the game and submit themselves to Emmerson’s questioning – the future will tell the degree of truthfulness involved – the Rapporteur was quick to point out that the UK was “not terribly keen” to submit themselves to the Human Rights Council. In itself, it is immensely telling.
Citizenship deprivation, executive powers
When mentioning the awfully limited and comically useless powers of Sir Mark Waller, it was unbelievable to conceive that David Anderson would face oversight issues. Indeed, his body of work as a reviewer is comprehensive, transparent, available and accessible. However, in the recent decisions made by the Secretary of State and Home Secretary, regarding immigration, deportation and revoking powers, Anderson admitted he had no review powers – those fell under immigration ministry oversight. However, one concern was a power that had been long lost and was somehow revived in the last twelve months: revoking a passport. Since April 2013, 14 passports have been revoked under powers granted by the Royal Prerogative, another unilateral executive power not subjected to review. (We remember activist Moazzam Begg’s passport being confiscated upon return from a humanitarian trip to Syria, not long before being arrested and detained by the anti-terrorism unit of Birmingham Police).
But again, the bigger picture remains the same: it is an issue of transparency and accountability. Theresa May’s citizenship deprivation scheme, detailed here at length by journalist Aviva Stahl, have obscured motives yet terrifyingly clear results. Left vulnerable, without diplomatic assurance and the protection of the right of abode, statelessness effectively makes individuals vulnerable to gross human rights violations – historical instances in the previous centuries having led to the 1954 Convention on the status of stateless persons. Although the power of revoking citizenship is a prerogative of any member state, the necessity to ensure that the individual is not only entitled to powers of appeal of the decision but also has another citizenship or state willing to grant asylum once the decision made should be a duty incumbent to any state party to that treaty. Emmerson, falling into the footsteps of a House of Lords hearing last week during which the scheme was debated, in the light of two individuals murdered by a drone strike directly following the revoking of their citizenship, reaffirmed that international law had to prevail in a climate of perpetual and ubiquitous conflict during which individuals are not to be left without possibility of refuge. However, the follow-up question was met with concerns for the security of the United Kingdom, not an appreciation of the human rights of individuals, regardless of their alleged or confirmed criminal status. Emmerson, again:
Those singled out for a crime that is wholly public – on notice from the government and the services that watch them – are those posing the least threat. This is a radical power, and it makes one wonder what someone did to deserve such a measure.
Anderson, who has consistently and abundantly worked on TPIMs, was happy to report there were none enforced currently; there should be an emphasis on prosecution in matters of criminal wrongdoing, as opposed to executive orders in matters of security. Are the TPIMs really that efficient in terms of counter-terrorism prevention? Are executive powers a deterrent to criminal activity? What can be a deterrent? Wouldn’t the appropriate behavior to work on the roots of terrorism – explained and detailed in the UN 2006 global counter-terrorism strategy – as opposed to immediately and profusely rely on executive powers, unchallenged and unchecked, to provide national security?
Crux of the matter remained that scrutiny of executive powers and executive services – intelligence and use of military force in matters of counter-terrorism – require that the other branches of government obtain at least equal power to the executive as opposed to being subjected to disclosure exemptions, classification refusals, and clearance denials when accessing material, evidence, and individual that would facilitate the conduct of their work. Anderson suggested that members of Parliament engaged in legislative review should be granted security clearance to access GCHQ / MI-6 material – or at least, be treated as if they did. “It is the only way we can debate information in a meaningful way”, he said, in yet another significant effort by a terrorism specialist to emphasize the necessity for clarity and transparency in the healthy course of democracy. Emmerson concluded that oversight was not working as it well as it should be, but thankfully, we could rely on a momentum, at international level, to create direct obligations upon member-states to abide by human rights provisions in the course of intelligence gatherings and counter-terrorism.
And we hope it doesn’t stop.