European Court rules against UK government in a landmark case
In September 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK government’s surveillance activities acted against the human rights of its citizens. It said the ‘UK mass surveillance programme violated human rights and had no real safeguards in place’. British intelligence agencies – principally GCHQ – violated the right to a private and family life because there was insufficient oversight over which communications were chosen for examination.
As the Independent newspaper puts it:
Under the guise of counter terrorism the UK had adopted the most authoritarian surveillance regime in Europe corroding democracy itself and the rights of the British public. 13 September
A number of human rights organisations, including Amnesty and Liberty, have been pursuing this case and the result is to be welcomed. Amnesty were particularly concerned because they themselves were penetrated by GCHQ. In view of the sensitivity of Amnesty’s work and the contacts with vulnerable people around the world, to find that a government agency was calmly monitoring its work is alarming. The wholesale nature of the Tempora programme was a shock to many.
What is also alarming is the lack of oversight of the agencies. Despite, as the New Statesman puts it, an ‘alphabet soup’ of organisations which are meant to be overseeing and monitoring what they are up to, it was the work of journalists and human rights organisations which finally brought the government to account.
For many people this is a matter of little interest. People often say they are unconcerned if their emails are being monitored and their movements tracked. ‘If I have done nothing wrong, so what?’ is a common response. Likewise, the discovery that people were being manipulated using Facebook over the Brexit vote has evoked little real interest.
For those who have lived in an authoritarian state on the other hand, and have experienced first hand what it’s like to be subject to constant and intrusive surveillance, the reaction is likely to be different.
When Britain leaves the EU, the current government was determined to remove us from the aegis of the court and to abolish the Human Rights Act. This was a manifesto promise. That position has shifted during the Brexit negotiations and we will continue to be subject to its jurisdiction. This has infuriated that section of the Conservative party who do not wish to be controlled by ‘foreign courts’ as they put it.
This ruling emphasises how important it is that we stay within the ECHR. Clearly, parliament, MPs and various oversight agencies failed in their basic duty of oversight. There is a legitimate desire to detect terrorists and those who wish to do harm to the country or individuals within it. This is written in Salisbury where the attempted murder of two Russians by agents of the GRU is a case in point. We rely on the various state agencies to keep watch over individuals with malign intent. But is has to be targeted and subject to oversight. We give up a bit of our liberty and freedom because we want to be safe. It does not mean giving a free hand to collect any information that GCHQ feels it needs in a kind of fishing expedition. We also rely on parliament to keep and eye on the executive and its agencies to see that they are properly monitored and behaving responsibly. They fail in that.
This ruling is welcomed and we now need to hear from government what measures they are going to adopt to put matters right. We also rely on the opposition to ask questions of the government and to keep their feet to the fire.
Sources: the Independent; the New Statesman; the Guardian; Amnesty International