Security quest curtailing vital freedoms

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — Since 9/11, the United States and other democratic countries have given priority to security, often at the expense of freedom, justice and human rights. Governments reckon that if they fail to take all possible steps to defend their citizens they will be rightly accused of dereliction of duty. But to some observers there is now a serious imbalance between security and freedom.

Leaders such as U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair no doubt believe passionately in democracy and the rule of law, but after the failure of intelligence related to the mistaken suspicion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, the launching of the attack on the Hussein regime without specific U.N. approval, the botching of the occupation, and the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, many people in the U.S. and in Britain no longer trust the judgment of their leaders.

Attention has rightly been focused on the right of all those detained in U.S. prisons at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib to a fair trial. Of course, whom to admit to U.S. soil is solely a matter for the U.S. government to decide, but many Americans think that the obstacles to entering the U.S. are harming U.S. interests by reducing the number of foreign students at American universities and by deterring business visitors and tourists. Terrorism threatens the lives and liberty of all, but the response must be proportionate to the risk. If we let the risk become an excuse for repressive measures, we play into the hands of terrorists.

London has faced criticisms over some of the policies it has adopted following 9/11, although the scale of the problems in Britain is much smaller than in the U.S. The main controversy in recent weeks has been over the detention and treatment of a small number of foreigners suspected of plotting terrorist acts. Toward the end of last year Britain’s highest court of justice declared that the act under which some 10 foreign suspects were being held without trial — suspects who cannot be deported to their home countries for fear that they might be tortured — was discriminatory and that the prisoners should either be released or tried.

The government was forced to review the terms of the antiterrorism act and, shortly before the act was due to expire, proposed that the home secretary be empowered to issue restraining orders against specific individuals — British as well as foreign. These orders might amount to house arrest, electronic tagging or a ban on a suspect’s use of mobile phones or e-mail. After strong protests from human rights activists, opposition parties and members of the ruling Labour Party, the government reluctantly agreed that the orders could be issued only after a judge had reviewed the evidence and ruled that the orders were needed to protect the security of the realm. There was controversy over the definition and review of what evidence was considered sufficient to get the orders renewed. Even the current arrangements represent derogations from the basic principles of habeas corpus, as the persons subject to the orders cannot dispute the evidence in a court of law.

Judges may not always be as objective as they should be, but there is a good deal more faith in their judgment than in that of politicians. It is most unlikely that, as long as the judiciary is independent, the press remains free and members of Parliament are prepared to stand up for the rights of their constituents, the act will be seriously misused, but it sets a bad precedent and, in the hands of irresponsible leaders, could be used in ways that undermine democracy.

In other European jurisdictions where investigative judges can interrogate accused persons, evidence from phone tapping can be used against those accused of plotting terrorism. The British government has adamantly refused to allow such evidence in trials of terrorist suspects because they said that it would compromise intelligence sources. Many observers remain unconvinced.

The British government and the Conservative opposition are in danger of making mistakes similar to those of the U.S. administration over immigration and visas. British visa requirements for foreign students are seen by many institutions of higher education as damaging to their interests and consequently to the interests of the country as a whole.

Questions of law and order are going to be one of the central issues in the forthcoming general election. Both the government and the Conservative opposition portray themselves as tough on crime as well as on immigration and asylum. For anyone with liberal sympathies, the parties’ competition on these issues is unpalatable and suggests that, in the view of the parties’ managers, the British public is becoming increasingly reactionary.

There is little doubt that the criminal justice system in Britain is overloaded and British prisons are overcrowded and fail to do their job of trying to rehabilitate criminals. But yielding to populist pressures without thinking through the implication could undermine democratic freedoms and human rights.

The criminal justice system in other democratic countries, as well as the balance between freedom and security in those countries, is probably no better than in Britain, but in every democratic country, including Japan, the systems need to be subject to constant review and reform to ensure that the rights of the individual are not unnecessarily restricted or jeopardized by arbitrary decisions of politicians and bureaucrats.