UK government threatens judiciary with regime change over human rights

By Aine Gallagher writing in Reuters AltertNet

European Union states may have to accept an erosion of some civil liberties if their citizens are to be protected from organised crime and terrorism, EU president Britain told the European Parliament on Wednesday.

Interior Minister Charles Clarke told EU lawmakers the right to life outweighed concerns over invasion of privacy and warned judges in European courts that if they failed to recognise this, the European Convention of Human Rights may need to be changed.

“It seems to me we have to give the same rights to those humans who want to travel without being blown up on an underground train,” Clarke earlier told reporters in London.

“If the judges don’t understand that message and don’t take decisions which reflect where the people of the continent want to be, then the conclusion will be that politicians … will be saying we have got to have a change in this regime.”

Clarke hosts a two-day meeting of justice and home affairs ministers from the 25 EU states on Thursday. They will discuss proposals to log and keep records of telephone calls, email and Internet use to help police track down terrorists.

Ministers will also meet telecommunications industry and law enforcement officials to find a way to reconcile concerns about the cost of the proposed measures, which industry sources in Germany say could run into hundreds of millions of euro.

Since al Qaeda militants attacked the United States in 2001, bombers have hit transport systems in two European capitals, killing 191 commuters in Madrid last year and 52 in London in July.


Clarke’s tough stance on human rights drew criticism from the EU assembly’s Liberal Democrats and Greens.

“We do not agree … that the human rights of the victims are more important than the human rights of the terrorists,” said Graham Watson, British leader of the Liberal Democrats.

“Human rights are indivisible. Freedom and security are not alternatives, they go hand-in-hand … Much as the public may dislike it, suspected terrorists have rights.”

Watson qouted criticism by human rights lawyer Cherie Booth — wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair — of Britain’s hardline anti-terror measures.

“To … invoke a form of summary justice would in the words of the lawyer Cherie Booth cheapen our right to call ourselves a civilised society,” he said.

EU lawmakers, sticklers for civil rights, have strongly criticised Britain’s drive for a quick deal among EU governments on the data retention plans because it would deprive them of a say on the measures, with some threatening a legal challenge.

Earlier, Clarke told reporters in London there was an impression the EU was not doing enough to tackle some of its citizens’ main concerns over serious organised crime, illegal immigration and terrorism.

He said Britain’s presidency would seek to redress the balance between an individual’s rights and national security by giving authorities more access to information for intelligence.

Law-enforcement agencies needed surveillance cameras, passports and visas should include internationally consistent biometric data, and phone companies should retain details of all calls made for a year, including unanswered ones.

“I say the doubts about civil liberties of a person who’s being photographed on a CCTV camera … or a person who has made a phone call to another person are small civil liberties in comparison with the overall civil liberty of the right not to be blown up,” he said.

Clarke’s comments reflect a frustration felt by the British government that the rights of suspects and defendants, backed by UK courts, were hindering the fight against terrorism and were taking precedence over the rights of ordinary citizens.

“The judges both in my country and in the European Court need to understand that the people of Europe … will not for a long time accept that action cannot be taken against people who are offering a real threat to our way of life because of human rights considerations,” he said.