Posts Tagged ‘parliament’


Parliament’s concerns are very partial

This week saw parliament reconvene and a major debate take place concerning the attack on chemical weapons facilities in Syria.  These attacks took place in a coordinated way by British, French and American forces and the reason for them was claimed to be the crossing of a ‘red line’ by Assad because of his use of chemical weapons in his latest attack.  This led to calls for parliament to be recalled and considerable debate about whether we should have joined in the bombing.  The Labour leader Jeremy Corbin called for a War Powers Act to be enacted to clarify when a prime minister could and could not engage in military actions.

The death and destruction in Syria is appalling.  The use of barrel bombs dropped on civilian areas has caused terrible damage and thousands of innocent citizens have been killed.  The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that over 217 thousand civilians have been killed; over 13 thousand have been tortured to death and over 27 thousand children have been killed.  Of those, 80% were killed by Syrian forces and 6% by Russians.  These figures have been broadly supported by the Syrian American Medical Society and White Helmets, an aid agency working in the country.  There has been universal condemnation including by the UN’s Secretary General.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, another conflict is underway also causing considerable death and destruction.  As we noted in an earlier post, thousands have died, cholera is widespread, and the country is being steadily bombed back to the stone age.  Millions have been displaced and medical and other humanitarian supplies are prevented from entering the country because of a blockade.  There has not however been much in the way of outrage from parliamentarians about this and no calls to recall parliament.

Another key difference is while Assad is treated as a pariah, the Saudis who are carrying out the Bin Salman sits flanked by Theresa may and Boris John <figcaption> Boris Johnson and Theresa May rolled out the red carpet for the Saudi Crown Prince. c. Getty Images/Bloomberg </figcaption> </figure> son, with members of his entourage and other Government Ministers seated in rows behind bombing of Yemen – including schools, hospitals, civilian facilities and weddings – are feted in the UK, get to meet the Queen and receive visits by Prince Charles and other members of the royal family.  This is because we are major suppliers of weapons to the regime.  RAF personnel are involved in some way helping the Saudis. (Picture: Campaign Against the Arms Trade)

It was claimed that the justification for the bombing of Syria was the crossing of the red line.  This suggested that Assad had used chemical weapons for the second time and we had to send a message to deter him.

One problem: it is not the first or even the second time he has done this.  The SNHR estimate that he has used them on 207 occasions and on 174 occasions since the Ghouta attack.

207 chemical weapons attacks by Assad

The very notion that a red line has been crossed is therefore not tenable as Assad has regularly used these weapons, on average three times a month.  In addition to chlorine he has on occasion used Sarin.

Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives or have lost loved ones in these terrible conflicts.  The destruction of buildings will take decades to do and billions to repair.  In one case we continue to profit from the supply of arms and roll out the red carpet to those who are responsible: in the other case we say a red line has been crossed – which it has on many, many occasions – and bomb the country.

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Parliament debates security Bill

The Investigatory Powers Bill was debated in Parliament on 15 March in a lengthy second reading debate and there were many good quality contributions made by Members on all sides of the House.  Only days after the debate we had a terrible reminder of the terrorist threat with the attacks in Brussels on 22 March.  The need to maintain an intelligence system to find potential terrorists before they take action and to track them down afterwards was recognised by all the speakers in the debate.

There were several concerns about the Bill one of which was what Andy Burnham called the ‘point of balance’ between security and privacy (column 824).  This was occasioned by the concerns about mass surveillance and the desire to collect and store Internet Connection Records (ICR) for 12 months.  Dominic Grieve – although supportive of the Bill – said that it did not ‘include a clear statement on overarching privacy protections’ (836).

A similar point was made by the SNP MP Joanna Cherry who felt the Bill did not go far enough to ‘protect civil liberties’ (839).  The powers sought went beyond those of other western democracies and she worried that they set a dangerous precedent to Commonwealth countries in particular.

One concern in particular was the clause about economic well-being which could be used against trade unions (862).  In past eras, the security services had been found to use the powers and techniques they then had to frustrate trade union activity.

There was a lot of debate about the difference between ‘content’ data and ‘contact’ data (855).  Many say that the security services are mostly interested in the latter to help them track movements and contacts between criminals, they are less interested in the content which may be encrypted anyway.  David Davis pointed out that two law lords had expressed incredulity because the government had sanctioned illegal surveillance of discussions between a lawyer and his client (864).  This highlighted the issue of trust: that the Bill proposed that the sanctioning of interception would be by a minister and ultimately, can they be trusted?

To what extent are Ministers accountable?  One MP said that attempts to find out information are refused either because it is a criminal matter or, the information was a matter of national security.  Hence the argument was ‘misconceived’ (845).

One of the beliefs behind this activity is that bulk collection will help with finding intelligence.  Evidence from the USA concerning the activities of the NSA (American equivalent of GCHQ) was that the bulk collection of data had not led to the discovery of previously unknown terrorist plots or the disruption of a terrorist attack.  It was initially claimed that 50 such plots had been prevented but once they were examined in detail only one money laundering case was found.  In other words there is a lot of false claiming of success going on.

The notion that ‘the more privacy we sacrifice the more security we gain’ was challenged by more than one speaker (843).  This concept underpinned several speakers in favour of further intrusion citing cases of abducted children and paedophile activity in support of their case.

It was clear throughout the debate that members are struggling with the rapid increase in technology which is increasing the number of ways to communicate and the ability to store and sort vast amounts of data.  As the technology advances, so the issue of privacy and civil liberties comes into play because it is some much easier today to intrude into someone’s life.  The point was made that this intrusion can include digital cameras, games consoles and baby monitors (846).

A lack of clarity with some of the wording is a key issue.  The need for precision of language about what and how much can be intercepted was stressed (843).  Trust is an issue and it is important to remember that the debate may not have happened had it not been for the revelations by Edward Snowden.  We were blissfully ignorant of the sheer extent of the penetration of phones, emails and so forth and the relevant committee knew little of it either.

So the key issues appear to be the bulk collection of data and whether this is advisable or even achievable; the conflict between security and privacy and the control mechanisms to ensure that there is suitable oversight.  Linked to the latter is the issue of trust especially in the light of actions by previous governments for example intruding into Doreen Lawrence’s phone.

After the terrible events in Brussels, there will be an understandable desire for ‘something to be done’.  Had the debate taken place after that outrage then it might have taken on a different tone.  Politicians have to reflect the media and since much of our media is already ill-disposed towards the Human Rights Act, it is understandable that human rights and the free movement of people around Europe would be questioned.  It is more than ever necessary to keep a cool head.  Terrorism is about an attack on values and one of our key values is respect for individuals and the rule of law which includes basic rights enshrined in the HRA.

The Bill moves onto the committee stage and it will be interesting to see how the debate on control and oversight is played out.  Peter Curbishley


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Last week, the Government announced that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) #DRIP is to be rushed through Parliament with almost no time for debate.  Various human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have launched a case against the Government to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.

Why the panic?  The need for a law arose because the European Court of Justice in April nullified existing data retention powers.  The obvious question therefore  is why wasn’t something done before?  David Davies MP has called this rush to legislate ‘a theatrical emergency’.  Tom Watson MP said it was a ‘stitch up.’

wire tap imageThe Snowden revelations have shown the extent and reach of interception by the Government to be on an enormous scale.  Over half a million requests for data have been made.  It was revealed that RIPA — the act which is supposed to limit how much snooping can go on — is widely sidestepped because emails, Skype calls, Facebook messages and tweets are routed through American servers and are thus exempt.  Cables which carry traffic across the Atlantic are tapped by GCHQ.

In parallel with this panic legislation, is the scandal concerning alleged child abuse activity in Parliament.  Here, the files have disappeared or have been shredded.  In recent years we have had the expenses scandal, the Leveson enquiry which exposed serious wrongdoing in the Metropolitan police, government and the Murdoch group and now the child abuse allegations. Files possibly revealing extraordinary rendition flights to Diego Garcia are also believed lost.

Yet we are invited to give the government more — or rather reinstate — powers lost because of the CJEU judgement.  It is to be hoped that even at this late stage, parliament will act to prevent further intrusions into personal liberty in the name of catching ‘terrorists, serious and organised crime and paedophiles’.  Interesting that arms dealers were not on the list.

It may be worth recalling the words in a report by the International Commission of Jurists, the Geneva based NGO, which carried out a three global study on the ‘War on Terror’.

In the course of this enquiry, we have been shocked by the extent of the damage done over the past seven years by excessive or abusive counter-terrorism measures in a wide range of countries around the world.  Many governments, ignoring the lessons of history, have allowed themselves to be rushed into hasty responses to terrorism that have undermined cherished values and violated human rights.  The result is a serious threat to the integrity of the international human rights legal framework.’

These words are echoed by Dame Stella Rimington the former head of MI5:

”[the Government] … attempt to pass laws which interfere with people’s privacy … it would be better that the Government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a police state.’

Ray Corrigan, Senior Lecturer in Technology with the Open University, writing in Open Minds said;

I would argue there is no balance to be achieved between ‘individual right to privacy and the collective right to security’ [quoting Malcolm Rifkind, chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee].  The collective right to security requires an individual and collective right to privacy.  It is fundamentally incompatible with the rule of law – and a healthy society – to collect information about every member of the population in the hope of conducting post hoc fishing expeditions to look for evidence of misbehaviour. 

At present, the public are surprisingly relaxed about this continuing and increasing intrusion.  If however, a policeman turned up at someone’s doorstep, without a warrant or any reason or cause, and insisted on searching the house and looking through personal documents, there would be an outcry.  Protestations by the policeman that the person ‘might be a terrorist or paedophile’ would be swept aside in a torrent of media and public fury.  MPs would rush to the airways to express their concern and the prime minister would be challenged about it at PMQ.  Yet the routine interception of emails and the like evince almost no concern.  Only a handful of MPs are likely to vote against the Government.  Yet ultimately, what is the difference between a policeman on the doorstep and the state bugging your phone?

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