Statewatch News Online: Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission criticises government proposal for "home arrests"

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The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has criticised today’s announcement by Home Secretary, Charles Clarke MP, that the detention of foreign terror suspects without trial is to be replaced by a form of house arrest.

His statement to MPs was in response to a decision of the Law Lords, the UK's highest court, when they ruled that indefinite detentions were in breach of human rights laws.

The Commission is firmly against the use of indefinite detention without trial, which is still in place under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 despite being condemned by the Law Lords last month. The Commission calls on the government to put in place alternative measures which are compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights and with the Council of Europe’s guidelines on countering terrorism while protecting human rights. We have suggested the use of intercept evidence, tagging devices and better protection for informers and agents rather than the use of indefinite detention without trial.

The Commission has also expressed its disappointment that the government has laid in Parliament an Order to renew for a further year Part VII of the Terrorism Act 2000. This is the legislation which puts in place special anti-terrorism measures in Northern Ireland over and above those in place for the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Human Rights Commission is of the view that, while some anti-terrorism measures are still justified in Northern Ireland, these do not need to exceed those in place for the rest of the United Kingdom. The Commission will be briefing MPs and peers along these lines, prior to the renewal debates in February.

Speaking on behalf of the Commission, the Chief Commissioner Professor Brice Dickson, said:

“Although we welcome today’s decision by Government that the indefinite detention in prison without trial of terror suspects in Britain breaches human rights laws, the use of controls such as home arrest raises further concerns and may well need a new opt-out for Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights. We believe the Government needs to launch a wider review of its use of anti-terrorism powers and that the experience of Northern Ireland should be closely examined as part of this exercise.

For example, we believe the time has come for Parliament to declare that there is no longer an ‘emergency’ in Northern Ireland that can only be dealt with by special laws over and above those already in existence in the rest of the United Kingdom. We do not think it is necessary to continue with special powers additional to those which are at the disposal of police officers in London or Glasgow.

Recently the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture suggested that the British government had not done enough to justify the continuance of emergency powers in Northern Ireland, and we agree. Nor do we think that Lord Alex Carlile QC, whose review of Part VII of the 2000 Act has prompted the government to lay the renewal Order, has properly considered whether the special powers are really necessary.”

Notes for editors:

1 During Parliamentary debates on what became the Terrorism Act 2000 the Commission provided a number of briefings and proposed various amendments. The Commission was particularly concerned about the Bill’s definition of terrorism.

2 In 2000 the Commission also responded to the UK Government’s review of the juryless Diplock Court system in Northern Ireland. We argued that the time was right to abolish the system. We suggested that all defendants should be tried by a jury unless and until it became clear that the risk of intimidation in a particular trial meant that the trial should take place in the absence of a jury. We put forward ideas for how the security of jurors could be better protected. Unfortunately none of our suggestions was adopted.

3 The Commission was not consulted prior to the UK Government’s announcement of what became the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, passed in the wake of the atrocities of 11 September 2001. We made representations to parliamentarians once we saw a copy of the Bill, but none of our points was accepted.

4 In September 2004 the Commission submitted a detailed response to a discussion paper on countering terrorism issued by the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett. We called it Countering Terrorism and Protecting Human Rights. In that response we again argued for a significant reduction in the number and type of special anti-terrorism powers enacted for this corner of the United Kingdom.

5 As noted in his Report on the Operation in 2004 of Part VII of the Terrorism Act 2000, the Commission meets annually with the reviewer of provisions in the 2000 and 2001 Acts, Lord Carlile of Berriew QC. We have put our views to him as strongly as we can, but to no avail.

6 Part VII is the successor to the anti-terrorism measures created by the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Acts of 1973 to 1996. Its 49 sections deal with issues such as:

· port and border controls;
· special police and army powers to stop, question, arrest, enter, search and seize;
· scheduled offences and juryless (Diplock) courts;
· rules on evidence and inferences from silence.

7 For further comments please contact Peter O’Neill, the Commission’s Head of Information, Education and Development, on 028 9024 3987 or Brice Dickson, Chief Commissioner, on 07901 853005. All of the Commission’s publications are available on our website at

Peter O'Neill, Head of Information, Education and Development

Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission
Temple Court
39, North Street
Belfast BT1 1NA

T: +44 (0)28 9024 3987
F: +44 (0)28 9024 7844

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