Banning suspected fighters from returning to the UK from Syria unless they agree to strict controls elevates the power of ‘suspicion’ over the rule of law
We need to talk about the prime minister. Specifically about the company he has been keeping. Faced with election defeat, and the ignominy that would bring, David Cameron turns to Lynton Crosby, the Australian election strategist with a track record of orchestrating election campaignsof which a one-nation Tory might not approve. Such as Michael Howard’s 2005 election campaign, with its infamous anti immigration poster, “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”. Faced with Ukip gnawing at his right flank, and a public – egged on by the security services – hyperventilating about jihadis, the PM heads to Australia, to draw boldness perhaps from its absurdly rightwing prime minister, Tony Abbott. The result we see today; Cameron’s new masterplan for cracking down on Brits who travel to Syria. The conclusion easily reached is that he needs better role models than this.
Addressing the Australian parliament, Cameron said special exclusion orders, which could last two years or more, would ban suspected fighters from entering the UK unless they agreed to strict controls. Thus young men and women with dual nationality would be banned from exercising their rights as citizens; not at the conclusion of any exhaustive judicial process, but on the basis of “suspicion”. For a country that boasts of the thoroughness of its legal system and its commitment to human rights, this would seem counter intuitive.
And who would make these decisions permitting or restricting individuals from exercising their right of free travel. A court? A judge? At present, only the home secretary, Theresa May, under royal prerogative, has the power to ban British citizens from travel. But under this blueprint, relayed to the British people from their leader on the other side of the world, police and border officials would have the right to stop would-be jihadis leaving the UK. Passports could be seized and held for a month subject to magistrate’s review. Is that likely to be a safe, fair system? At the same time as handing police and border officials these discretionary rights to decide who looks guilty and who doesn’t – who should be detained and who should not – the same government has been attempting to curb the official abuse of such powers in relation to the discriminatory use of stop-and-search. Where is the evidence that officers and officials will, in these circumstances, reach a standard of decision making that has previously eluded them?
And what of the third party players? We have previously seen this government attempting to bully doctors and banks into subverting their functions and privacy obligations to aid the fight against terrorism. This new scheme waves a big stick at the airlines. They could be fined if they do not meet the UK’s requirement to screen passengers and stop suspects from boarding planes. So it isn’t just government that will work on the basis of suspicion – co-opted commercial entities would be expected to do so too. The airlines must work with government, but they also have obligations with customers with whom they strike contracts. This arrangement, so obviously subject to legal challenge, would place them in an impossible position. They should call the government’s bluff. They should refuse.
We know there are young British citizens being drawn into the Syrian conflict and that some have ended up in the murderous clutches of the so-called Islamic State (Isis). The security services guess that up to 500 Brits have travelled to Syria at various points and half have returned. The fact of British involvement is deliberately reinforced by Isis itself. The promotion of the so-called Jihadi John, with his James Bond-baddie British accent, seems a ploy designed to spotlight the deep involvement of UK fighters in the atrocities in Syria and Iraq. But our state must resist the temptation to be goaded into tackling complicated issues with simplistic, divisive laws. For every would-be jihadi caught in the net, how many innocent “suspects” wrongly accused? Will we brush them off as collateral damage?
And while we are seeking, Canute-like, to stop “suspects” at the borders, how serious is the attempt to prevent young men and women heading there in the first place? What do we know about why they are going? What are we doing, other than eleventh-hour law enforcement, to stop them? When is the government going to be in a position to fight this malign phenomenon in tandem with equally anxious Muslim communities?
There are many questions to be answered. Presumably the PM will seek to answer them here, though it says much for the consistency of his approach that he chose to reveal his plans to a foreign parliament. Let us hear no more about Westminster being eclipsed by Brussels when the PM himself chooses to address the British parliament on a measure such as this via CNN.