Post-Woolwich arrests violate human rights principles

While we don't yet know what those arrested in reaction the Woolwich atrocity have said, it is concerning how police acting on words can serve to assist the Islamists' end goal

Aaron Rhodes
On 31 May 2013 11:36

We do not know what words British citizens used in reaction to the Woolwich terror murder to warrant their being charged with crimes under the Public Order Act and the Communications Act. But anyone who spends time surfing blogs and social media on the Internet would conclude that those ten people are only a fraction of those who have used similar “malicious” or “anti-religious” language in their online effusions.

Those arrested were simply unlucky enough to be informed upon by snitches, and to be held up as examples of the need to tone down expressions of outrage. In the words of one local authority, “the consequences could be serious” should citizens fail to heed these warnings.  

These arbitrary arrests, some of which occurred in the dead of night, raise serious freedom of speech concerns, questions which are, nevertheless being ignored by a human rights community neutered by multiculturalism and an embrace of censorship in the name of promoting tolerance.  

Both laws contain vague language, putting citizens at risk of expansive legal interpretations and political exploitation. They are emblematic of bad legislation that, while aimed at dealing with the tragic dangers faced by minority populations, in fact creates more hostility by stifling free speech.

In the public mind, charges against terrorists can become conflated and equated with those against citizens for their outraged reactions. The actions of the authorities blur the distinction between a horrific, politically and religiously motivated crime and textual reactions to it.  

What is worse, enforcement of the laws appears to accomplish precisely what Islamist terrorists, including the Woolwich murderers, themselves seek by their acts:  to shut off criticism of extremist Islamist violence for fear of punishment. The arrests, like terrorism itself, create a dynamic of fear in which citizens may feel more secure in joining, rather than forthrightly rejecting, their violent creed.

It is also responsible for an ugly backlash washing over the Western world, against Muslims, against efforts to integrate and protect the rights of minorities, against asylum speakers, and indeed against the concept of human rights, which testifies to the failure of such laws, and to the need to review and repeal their dysfunctional and unprincipled provisions. Criminalising outrage will stop neither prejudice nor terrorism, but may encourage them.

Another deeply troubling aspect of the arrests is what they say about the allocation of scare public security resources. British law-enforcement authorities have barely stayed ahead of terrorist plots, but manage to waste time prosecuting people for their expressions when those efforts fail.

At the international level, the arrests will presumably encourage the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to push harder against free speech, as those states find confirmation that hate speech laws, not toothless resolutions on defaming religion, hold the key to criminalising criticism of Islam.

Europe has to realise that those laws, promoted during the Cold War by totalitarian Communist states, are now being used by other unfree states to weaken international human rights standards protecting fundamental freedoms.

The arrests can also have a chilling effect on moderate Muslims who need freedom to criticise certain tenets of Islam. They face not only threats from many in their own communities, but concerns about how state authorities might judge their words as well.     

The United Kingdom and other European states need urgently to rethink their approach toward protecting fundamental human rights in pluralistic societies. Even absent ethnic or religiously motivated violence, casting aspersions on other groups is inevitable in such societies, and efforts to stamp it out by force of law weaken the power of moral self-rule in civil society to ensure that it remains benign.

Fear of legal sanctions corrals reactions into a cage of tortured silence, where they can only exist as an un-governed internal voice, with no interlocutors and no critics to reject what exceeds decency and safety.  In such a restricted atmosphere, some responses to terror can only be expressed in private settings where only the like-minded hear them. 

We are criminalising the expression of anxieties about existential threats, anxieties that need to be expressed, understood, and addressed, not repressed. And we are weakening our capacity to address vital public issues intelligently and honestly. 

As a recent book about the impact of “politically correct” speech rules on American college campuses explained, censorship weakens discourse, and divides societies into insular ideological enclaves. Indeed, censorship works against the goal of integration and social peace.

Human rights have been restricted in a range of cases during the long “war against terrorism,” a few with justification, and many gratuitously. Human rights principles should now be invoked to ensure that acts of terrorism do not result in the loss of freedom to express moral outrage against politically and religiously motivated carnage.  

Aaron Rhodes is a co-founder of the Freedom Rights Project.   He was previously executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and a founder of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

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