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The Fine Line Between Security and Liberty

Georg Matthes, DW.WORLD.DE (tkw)December 22, 2004

European civil rights activists have long been asking just how far a nation can go in the name of combating terrorism. Britain's highest court recently ruled that Tony Blair's answer exceeds the acceptable.

Some say British anti-terror law goes too farImage: AP

Prime Minister Blair is well-known for his hard-line approach to fighting terrorism, both at home and abroad. In the wake of the World Trade Center attacks in New York, he quickly forced through a far-reaching anti-terror law, under which suspicious foreigners can be locked away without charge of trial, for an indefinite period of time.

Tony Blair im Unterhaus
British Prime Minister Tony BlairImage: AP

Now, Britain's highest court, the House of Lords, has deemed the legislation a fundamental violation of democratic norms and the European human rights convention. Although not binding, the verdict could change the fate of the nine foreign prisoners who have been serving time in British prisons without legal proceedings for the past three years. It puts the onus on parliament to amend the law and bring it in line with the European charter.

"The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these," Lord Leonard Hoffmann wrote.

The civilian case

Governments across Europe responded to the Sept. 11 attacks by restricting their citizens' basic civil liberties. Conor Gearty, a legal expert for terrorism and civil rights at the London School of Economics, believes England was particularly hard hit. "Liberal freedom in our country is slowly but surely being undermined by unscrupulous bugging and surveillance methods," Gearty said.

The storing of biometric data could become standard in BritainImage: AP

Unlike Germany, Britain doesn't currently have a system of national identity cards, although Tony Blair sees their reintroduction into UK society as a key weapon in his anti-terror campaign. On Monday, the prime minister won resounding support for his plans when 385 members of parliament voted in favor, compared to 93 against, of resurrecting the cards, which were abolished under Winston Churchill more than fifty years ago.

But the plans, which opponents in the parliamentary ranks say would lead to the creation of a "Big Brother" state, go further than national ID cards. From 2007, the government also wants to implement a system of storing biometric data, such as fingerprints and photographic images of the iris, on all British citizens.

Holes in security

Such a data bank is but a distant dream for Wolfgang Speck, head of the German Police Union. "Compared to England, we are at the start of the fight against terrorism, and we have a lot of catching up to do," Speck said. He added that an anti-terror law such as Britian's controversial offering would be inconceivable in Germany, where it is impossible to hold a suspected terrorist for longer than 48 hours without a judicial ruling.

Speck said he believes that Germans underestimate the threat of terror, adding that there is currently no legal basis for data exchange between regional criminal investigation departments or the federal criminal investigators and public prosecutors. "With regards to easy terrorist targets, we don't have the situation under control at the moment," Speck said.

As for London, some argue that the tough measures currently in place are precisely what has spared the city the horrors of a terrorist attack, but legal expert Gearty sees it differently.

"The prophecies of the police and the secret service have been proved wrong, which is why the judges are speaking out against the way in which terrorism is being fought at the expense of civil liberty," Gearty said. He believes that if there had been a wave of terrorist violence, the decision at the House of Lords would have been different.