Fear must not change us
Hundreds have been killed and wounded in a spate of terror attacks across Europe in the past two years. These callous crimes have not just targeted individuals, they are also attacks on our societies, our freedoms and our way of life. The need to protect people from such wanton violence is clear, but this is not something that can be achieved by any means. Crucially, it neither should nor can be achieved by riding roughshod over the very rights that governments are supposed to uphold.
The last two years have seen a profound shift across Europe: a move from the view that it is the role of governments to provide security so that people can enjoy their rights, to the view that governments must restrict people’s rights in order to provide security. The result has been an insidious redrawing of the boundaries between the powers of the state and the rights of individuals. In the weeks after the horrific Paris attacks in November 2015, for example, France declared a state of emergency and set about introducing a series of new counter-terrorism measures. Other countries quickly followed suit, passing draconian new laws of their own: a ripple effect spreading across Europe and resulting in an ever-deeper state of permanent securitisation.
Terrorism cannot be countered by riding roughshod over the very rights that governments are supposed to uphold
Individual EU countries and regional bodies have responded to the attacks by proposing, adopting and implementing wave after wave of counter-terrorism measures that have eroded the rule of law, enhanced executive powers, peeled away judicial controls, restricted freedom of expression and exposed everyone to government surveillance. Brick by brick, the edifice of rights protection that was so carefully constructed after the second world war is being dismantled.
In a report published today, Amnesty International reveals how a deluge of new laws and amendments rushed through by individual EU states are corroding the rule of law and undermining fundamental freedoms. The recent wave of counter-terrorism measures has often proved to be discriminatory both on paper and in practice, and has had a disproportionate and profoundly negative impact, particularly on Muslims, foreign nationals or people perceived to be Muslim or foreign.
Men, women and children have been verbally and physically abused. Passengers have been removed from planes because they “looked like a terrorist”. Women have been banned from wearing a full-body swimsuit on the beach in France. Refugee children in Greece have been arrested for playing with plastic guns.
One of the most alarming developments across the EU is the effort by states to make it easier to invoke and prolong a “state of emergency” as a response to terrorism or the threat of violent attacks. In a number of countries, emergency measures that are supposed to be temporary have become embedded in ordinary law. Powers intended to be exceptional are appearing more and more as permanent features of national law.
Given the febrile state of European politics, people should be extremely wary of the range of powers and extent of control over their lives that they are prepared to hand over to their governments. The rise of far-right political discourse, anti-refugee sentiment, stereotyping and discrimination against Muslims and intolerance of free speech or other forms of expression increase the risk that these emergency powers will target certain people for reasons that have nothing at all to do with a genuine threat to national security. Indeed, this is happening in Europe already.
The threshold for the triggering and extension of emergency measures has been lowered – and runs the risk of being reduced even further in coming years. While international human rights law is clear that exceptional measures should only be applied in genuinely exceptional circumstances – namely “in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation” – the disturbing and corrosive idea that Europe faces a perpetual emergency is beginning to take hold.
There are many countries in Europe, particularly those with little history of terrorism, in which hardline governments of whatever political persuasion will be tempted to impose states of emergency in response to the first serious terrorism-related attack they face. These governments will enjoy a range of sweeping powers whose use is unlikely to be restricted to those involved in the committing of such acts.
If we are to avoid creating societies in which liberty becomes the exception and fear the rule, we must not allow fear to change us
Ultimately, however, the threat to the life of a nation – to social cohesion, to the proper functioning of institutions, to respect for human rights and the rule of law – does not come from the isolated acts of a violent criminal fringe, however much they may wish to destroy these institutions and undermine these principles. It comes from governments and societies that are prepared to abandon their own values in confronting them.
On 15 November 2015, two days after his wife was killed in the Bataclan theatre in Paris, Antoine Leiris wrote an open letter to the killers. “On Friday night, you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hate…You want me to be scared, to see my fellow citizens through suspicious eyes, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have failed. I will not change.”
If we are to avoid creating societies in which liberty becomes the exception and fear the rule, we must follow Leiris’s example. We must not allow fear to change us.
This article was first published here by the Guardian.