In Depth

Human rights laws: Do they protect us or undermine our security?

With Theresa May threatening to 'rip up' the act, The Week examines what the laws mean for the UK

Prime Minister Theresa May has declared she wants to "rip up" human rights laws if they "stop us" from tackling terrorism.

Her statement has been criticised as a crass attempt to deflect criticism away from Tory-led cuts to policing and security oversights in the run-up to Saturday's London Bridge attack.

But do human rights laws prevent the capture and prosecution of terrorists, as May suggests?

What are the human rights laws in the UK?

The UK is a member of several international treaties designed to respect and promote human rights. These include the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which emerged after World War II.

Under the Human Rights Act 1998, rights protected under the ECHR must be respected by the UK government and are enforceable in our courts.

As well as a range of issues such as the right to marry and to enjoy a family life, the ECHR also covers core civil liberties, including the rights to liberty and to a fair trial "within a reasonable time". It also bans torture and degrading treatment and protects against unlawful arrest and detention.

Article 15 of the ECHR allows the UK to depart from parts of the convention in "time of emergency" in respect of Article 5, the right to liberty and security, writes BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman.

What does this all have to do with terrorism?

The UK has a long history of tensions between human rights law and counter-terrorism laws, which usually restrict an individual's freedoms.

Following the 9/11 attacks in New York, the UK introduced a series of counter-terrorism measures to ensure suspected militants could be easily detained.

However, they were deemed unlawfully discriminatory by the courts for only targeting non-UK citizens.

As home secretary, May faced a stand-off with the courts over the deportation of radical cleric Abu Qatada overs concerns about whether he would receive a fair trial in his home country of Jordan.

What has Theresa May said?

May is proposing to introduce tougher sentences for those convicted of terror offences, to make it easier to deport foreign suspects and, reports The Sun, to allow suspects to be held by the police without charge for 28 days, double the current 14.

"If our human rights laws stop us from doing [this], we'll change the laws so we can do it", she said.

According to The Guardian, this is likely to mean seeking further derogations from the ECHR.

While the Tory manifesto commits the party to remaining in the convention for the whole of the next parliament, May's rhetoric has cast a shadow over its long-term future.

Dominic Casciani of the BBC says her speech signals a return to the days of tighter control orders, emphasising the need to restrict freedoms of suspects who "present a threat, but [against whom we] do not have enough evidence to prosecute".

What has the reaction been?

Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg called it a "rather crass" last-ditch attempt to divert attention from Tory cuts.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said: "There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that human rights laws are the reasons why these murderous acts happened in Manchester and London."

He added that since 2014, the policy has been to "deport first, appeal later", meaning it is easier to get foreign suspects out of the country.

Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, said the Human Rights Act had never "got in the way" of prosecuting serious crime.

He added: "If we start throwing away our adherence to human rights in response to what has happened in the last three months, we are throwing away the values at the heart of the democracy, everything that we say we believe in."

Civil liberty groups such as Amnesty International and Liberty also argue that undermining human rights law is giving in to terrorism.

And lawyer and Financial Times columnist David Allen Green said tearing up human rights law "would mean UK joining those few countries without rights protection. Countries which still have terrorism".


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