Beware the march of draconian counter-terrorism laws in Europe

By Julia Hall, Amnesty International

“Our lives have been turned upside down,” says Nadia, holding her two young daughters close. “I try to be both mother and father to my children but it is very hard. We miss Ahmed and we are scared for him.”

Ahmed has not set foot in their Cyprus home for nearly a year-and-a-half. Instead he is languishing in a Hungarian jail having been sentenced to 10 years in jail on absurd and far-fetched “terrorism” charges.

Hard-won protections - the human rights mechanisms and checks and balances carefully built over many decades - are being dismantled
Julia Hall, Amnesty International

In August 2015 he had received a phone call from his elderly parents in Syria. There had been as a lull in the bombing of their town and they were leaving to try and come to Europe with his brother, sister-in-law and his nieces and nephews. Ahmed set off to Turkey to help them navigate their journey. But following clashes with border guards in Hungary, during which Ahmed spoke through a megaphone and threw some stones, he was arrested and charged with an “act of terror”.

Ahmed’s case highlights the impact of draconian counter-terrorism legislation that have been introduced at break-neck speed in Hungary. New laws provide for sweeping executive powers in the event of a proclaimed emergency including the banning of public assemblies, severe restrictions on freedom of movement and the freezing of assets. Vaguely defined provisions grant powers to suspend laws and fast-track new ones and deploy the army with live firearms to quell disturbances.

But it is not just Hungary that has introduced such measures. Indeed, a new report by Amnesty International looking at 14 EU countries, finds that over the last two years sweeping new laws are driving Europe into a deep and dangerous state of permanent securitization. Hard-won protections - the human rights mechanisms and checks and balances carefully built over many decades - are being dismantled.

Following the horrific Paris attacks, France declared a state of emergency. At the time, it was a temporary measure to ensure public safety. But it has now been renewed five times with a range of intrusive measures now embedded in French law. These include powers to ban demonstrations and conduct searches without judicial warrants and severely restrict the movement of people. French police have been misusing these powers, for example putting environmental activists under house arrest ahead of the UN Climate Conference in Paris in 2015.

Poland’s new counter-terrorism law permanently cements draconian powers – which include discriminatory targeting of foreign nationals- and many EU countries have joined the ranks of “surveillance states”. Many countries have passed new laws allowing indiscriminate mass surveillance giving intrusive powers to security and intelligence services.

The issue here is not just about saving lives but it is also about safeguarding our way of life
Julia Hall, Amnesty International

Discriminatory measures have had a disproportionate and profoundly negative impact on Muslims, foreign nationals or people perceived to be Muslim or foreign. Discriminatory action by the state and its agents is increasingly seen as “acceptable” in the national security context.

Migrants and refugees, human rights defenders, activists and minority groups have been particularly targeted by new powers, with profiling, often based on stereotyping, leading to the outright misuse of laws that define terrorism very loosely. Just last week Hungary called for the automatic detention of asylum-seekers due to "increased terror threat & security risk".

Whilst our security forces must have the powers to seek out those who commit criminal acts and bring them to justice, measures taken to counter terrorism must be proportionate. They must respect everyone’s rights and they must not be discriminatory. They must be based on targeted and suspicion-based police work rather than overbroad surveillance and discriminatory operations.

The role of governments is to provide security so that people can enjoy their rights, not take rights away under the guise of defending them
Julia Hall

There is a tendency in some quarters to see rights as obstacles to combating security threats. In reality human rights serve two fundamental purposes which have never been more important. Firstly to preserve individual rights and secondly to act as a guarantor of social cohesion in societies comprised of a multiplicity of identities and differences.

It is clear that the threat posed by terrorism leads to people having genuine fears, but we should be mindful not to sacrifice vast swathes of our rights and freedoms in the fight against terrorism. The issue here is not just about saving lives but it is also about safeguarding our way of life. And the role of governments is to provide security so that people can enjoy their rights, not take rights away under the guise of defending them.

Days after his wife was killed in the Bataclan theatre in Paris, Antoine Leiris wrote an open letter to the killers. “You want me to be scared, to see my fellow citizens through suspicious eyes, to sacrifice my freedom for security,” he wrote “You have failed. I will not change.”

It takes great strength to respond to violence and hatred in such a way, but Antoine Leiris’ response is a timely reminder that a society that does not respect and protect rights is a society that has given in to fear. As Ahmed, Nadia and their children have found to their cost, the consequences when this happens, can be dire.

This piece was first published by Newsweek here.