Peace and Security Cluster, 7 Sept. 2004 Asia-Europe People's Forum - Hanoi, Vietnam


The "war on terror" as a "war on freedom and democracy" *

by Ben Hayes (Statewatch)


This paper focuses on the security, rather than the military aspects of the "war on terrorism", and people's responses to them. This begins with a distinction between the war on "rogue states" - on which there are very different opinions among governments around the world - and the "war on terror" from a national security or law enforcement perspective - on which there is very little difference of opinion.

In fact, so similar have been domestic policy responses in liberal democracies to the inflated threat from international terrorism, that we can now recognise seven global themes - what we might call the "terrorising" of global security. Rights, freedoms and democracy, a true source of human security, are being restricted and undermined at a frightening pace.

i) The terrorisation of policing

Police are being new powers to deal with terrorism, and the threat of terrorism. The problem is that these powers then seep into normal policing. In London, the entire city has officially been on "emergency" alert since 11 September 2001, giving all police powers extended powers to stop, search and detain people. During the widespread demonstrations and direct actions against the Iraq War, anti-terrorism legislation was used in public order situations and to detain activists. [There has also been a deliberate attempt by some in authority to equate protestors with terrorists.] In addition there are new investigative techniques, introduced to combat terrorism, then extended into normal policing, and a new role for the military in domestic policing.

ii) The institutionalisation of anti-Muslim racism

The War on Terror has re-cast Arab and Muslim populations as a "suspect population". Thus, the new police powers are used disproportionately against their communities. For example, stop-and-search of Asian people in the UK increased by 285 % in the last year [for which figures are available, 2002/3]. This, of course, has the effect of fuelling resentment in already alienated communities. State racism, or "institutional racism", both promotes and feeds off popular racism. Muslims around the world are demonised in the media as an enemy within and a global threat, further polarising society and fuelling racist notions about a "clash of civilisations". And in Europe, we are witnessing a dramatic shift, away from the multiculturalism gained from anti-racist struggle, towards a "monoculturalism" typified by George Bush's assertion that "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists".

iii) Detention without trial and proscription without process

We all know about the legal black-holes that are Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib, and the kind of punishments that are being meted out there. Some of us also know about similar US prisons and interrogation centres in Bagram and Kandaha in Afghanistan, and in Diego Garcia in the South Pacific. But while we may think of these as horrific "exceptions" on the legal landscape, this type of "justice", guilt by association, and the punishment of those we believe to be "dangerous", is fast being normalised.

The UK too has detained 16 people without charge or trial since "September 11", in Belmarsh prison. Canada and Russia also "intern" people they believe may be connected to terrorism - that's four of the eight G8 countries, the most developed countries in the world? And now, through the G8 and in its international relations, the US is lobbying for the introduction of "pre-terrorist" offences in jurisdictions across the world, allowing people to be locked-up by state-run courts on the basis of secret intelligence from the intelligence services. And where does some of this "intelligence" come from? From the global gulag that is developing across Guantanamo, Bagram and Belmarsh and the like, and from cooperation between some of the world's least trusted and most ruthless intelligence agencies.

And then we have the "proscribed lists of terrorist organisations", originating from the UN "Taleban sanctions committee", adopted as a UN Security Council Resolution, then enshrined into law across the world. Thus, the EU has now banned over 50 groups and individuals connected with "terrorism" outside the EU. It is now illegal to support those listed in anyway, and there is no mechanism of appeal for the groups included on the list. There has been no democratic input into the adoption of the terrorist lists. No debate. Only a few in authority have even questioned whether these 50 groups are terrorists rather than, in certain instances, liberation struggles, or legitimate resistance to occupation or state repression? These very concepts are casualties of the propaganda "war on terror".

iv) The contamination of migration and development policy

The "war on terror" is also contaminating a host of other state functions, policy issues and social relations. Primarily, it has greatly reinforced the repressive immigration control paradigm long pursued by the EU - so-called "Fortress Europe" - Australia and others. Terrorists, like "illegal immigrants", need to be kept out. But legal migrants could be terrorists, and so could asylum-seekers& and so the boundary between terrorists and migrants and refugees is blurred in the public conscious - reinforcing the popular and institutional racism discussed above.

The "Fortress Europe" model has now evolved into one of global migration control. In this model the EU acts increasingly to prevent migration from third countries and return migrants and refugees to them. Before September 11, this migration control agenda was increasingly contaminating development policies to achieve these goals. Now, migration management obligations and security commitments are at the very centre of EU development policy, further undermining the very principles of that agenda. [Development policy has of course always been related to geopolitics, but never before has this relationship been formalised to such an extent.]

v) The globalisation of surveillance and control

In the name of combating terrorism, there are plans to fingerprint the whole world. This is not an exaggeration. A global identification system is being developed, in part through the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO), a UN body that is setting global standards for use of biometric technologies. On the back of US demands for the fingerprints of all entrants to the US, and the ICAO standards, the EU has formally proposed the fingerprinting of all holders of EU passports, residence permits and visas (the EU already fingerprints all asylum-seekers and "illegal" migrants). "Biometrics" also appear in the clamour for ID cards from governments in many countries around the world. The upshot is that hundreds of millions of people will be biometrically profiled in the coming decade, and a wealth of personal information stored in government databases.

More US demands, this time for extensive details on all air passengers to enable both screening and risk profiling (so-called "PNR" data, "passenger name records"), are promoting a second global law enforcement infrastructure - this time for the surveillance of all air travel. Again, the ICAO, is the proposed standard bearer. So advanced are these plans, that US authorities already have direct access to the reservation databases of all European airlines flying into the US. This despite the fact that the European Parliament has voted to reject the relevant EU-US treaty on three occasions. The long term aim is the profiling of all travellers - the logic is that we've got to compile records on people who're innocent - otherwise, how could we confirm they're innocent? The presumption of innocence, the foundation of the common law legal system, is another casualty in the "war against terror".

The surveillance of all telecommunications is a third global initiative, with the law enforcement lobby succeeding in pushing for proposals for the mandatory retention of all communications traffic data. In addition to these global frameworks, there are dedicated domestic powers, such as the US "Patriot Act" and new proposals for "lawful access" to a host of public and private information systems.

vi) Increased government powers

The equation is simple: increased police powers, data collection and surveillance equals greater power for the state in terms of social control. At the same time, domestic legislation is handing "emergency powers" to governments over the state, civil administration and economic and social structures. In the UK, the unprecedented powers planned in the "civil contingencies bill" will mean that in times of "emergency", parliament will simply by by-passed by the government of the day. And of course, the "emergencies" in question, have, like the concept of terrorism, been defined in law as broadly as possible. Proportionality, a cornerstone of democracy, is another casualty of the "war on terror".

vii) The development of the security industrial complex

Quite simply, the "military industrial complex" has spawned a sprawling "security industrial complex". In the same way that multinational arms companies and the global arms trade has been the biggest promoter of war around the world, the security industrial complex has developed quickly and promotes new technologies of control and the militarisation of policing and internal security. The globalisation of security means that technologies of control developed by states in the name of "external security" are being turned inwards.

Pockets of resistance

We are all losing the war on terror, with the exception perhaps of "al Qaeda", so misguided is the conduct of this war. Future effects may be particularly pronounced in less democratic countries, where a failure on the part of established liberal democracies to respect their own human rights standards gives a de facto green light to similar abuses across the world. But there are what we might call "pockets of resistance".

There are local, national and international campaigns against this permanent state of terror, campaigns against ID cards and detention without trial, and a host of critical publications from NGOs and civil society organisations to counter the pro-security stance of the mainstream media. And there is the crucial work of criminal defence and human rights lawyers on individual "terrorist" cases and against the new anti-terrorist legislation.

However, while there have been some small victories, these have barely registered in the face of continual bombardment of visions of terror and insecurity from governments and the media. So what is to be done? We should call on the global peace and social justice movements to defend civil liberties and oppose the non-military aspects of the "war on terror" in the same way they have tried to stop the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. And to tackle the emerging security industrial complex in the same way they campaign against the arms trade. And that is my recommendation to the ASEM V people's forum.

* See also, "The war on freedom and democracy": An essay on the effects of "11 September" on civil liberties and democratic culture in the EU (2002), by Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor. Background: ASEM V

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