A delicate balance between liberty and security

Coming so soon after the Christchurch shootings, radicalisation and counter-terrorism expert Gabe Mythen’s public lecture in the Provost Lecture Series at Victoria University of Wellington could not have been timelier. It was, however, arranged months earlier.

Mythen, Professor of Criminology at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, had been concerned about how relevant his knowledge would be to a New Zealand audience. The shootings on March 15 dispelled such doubts and affirmed the view that the threat of terrorism is increasingly global and can impact anywhere and at any time.

“This has, unfortunately, happened before,” said Mythen. “I visited Norway and was speaking at a cultural festival about counter-terrorism and the idea that we live in a risk society. In the question and answer session afterwards a gentleman in the audience boldly stood up and asked the question: ‘If risk society is the thesis, what is the antithesis?’ I replied: ‘Well, I presume the opposite of the risk society must be the safe society.’ The gentleman responded: ‘Yes, we have it, it’s called Norway. So why are you here talking to us about the risk of terrorism?’” 

Some months later, on 22 July 2011, attacks in Oslo and on the island of Utøya by a white supremacist claimed the lives of 77 people.

According to the Global Terrorism Database – probably the most accurate gauge of the number of terrorist incidents a year – there were 18,814 deaths recorded in 67 countries in 2017. 

While this indicates how the risk of terrorism is now universal, Mythen pointed out that the risk is greater in certain regions and countries than others – with Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Nigeria especially susceptible.

If 9/11 and al-Qaeda showed how terrorism had changed since the eras of more national-based organisations such as ETA in Spain and the IRA in the UK, the years after 2001 have seen the threat evolve still further, including the growth of far right and white supremacist terrorists.

In fact, said Mythen: “It’s notable that three quarters of extremist and terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11 have been conducted by individuals claiming to be inspired by the far right and white supremacist ideology. This then begs the question: ‘Why has the focus been so strongly concentrated on Islamist extremism?’ Not just in the US but also in Australia, the UK, Canada and elsewhere. This is not a new threat. This is a threat that has been there for a long time and perhaps has been overlooked at the level of intelligence and national security.”

It is, however, a threat increasingly recognised in the UK, with a higher level of far right and white supremacist cases being referred to the country’s Prevent counter-terrorism programme, said Mythen. 

Nevertheless, he suggested, Prevent is the kind of response to terrorism New Zealand might want to avoid in the wake of the Christchurch shootings. 

Although the programme existed under the radar before the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005 – which killed 52 people and injured 770 – it was publicly launched as a government strategy afterwards.

The stated intent of Prevent is “to respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat we face from those who promote it”; “to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support”; and “to work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation”.

Despite these intentions, widespread concerns have been expressed about the negative impacts and effects of Prevent, particularly on Muslim minority groups largely targeted by the programme. 

This led the former director of human rights organisation Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, to describe Prevent as “the biggest spying programme in Britain in modern times and an affront to civil liberties”.

The programme has many flaws, said Mythen. These include being over-focused on the risk of Islamist extremism and empowering people that may lack specific expertise and adequate training to make referrals. 

“The original version of the Prevent strategy refers to Islamist extremism and Muslims over 100 times, yet only makes mention of far-right extremism a handful of times,” he said, adding that a concentration on Islamist extremism drove policy in a particular direction, with funding for Prevent initiatives in cities directly related to their concentration of Muslim populations.

Mythen believes Prevent’s working definition of ‘extremism’ is too loose, saying as it does that: “Extremism is vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

“If you mobilise large sections of the population to identify and report these kinds of things,” said Mythen, “and you make this the basis for labelling someone as an extremist, I think your number of referrals is going to be quite high.

“What constitutes fundamental British values? Is it okay to be oppositional? What about being critical about the operation of democracy and the way in which formal politics functions? What, indeed, about the rule of law? In the UK, we’ve had several forms of counter-terrorism regulation hastily imposed in the wake of attacks that have been subsequently declared illegal. These are, in effect, counter laws that run against, not with, the principles of democracy. Does the definition of extremism make people who work in law departments in universities such as this ‘extremist’ simply because they are critical of particular forms of regulation?”

In 2015, the UK government issued a Prevent ‘Duty Guidance’ strategy that made professionals in areas with a high risk of radicalisation occurring – including lecturers, teachers, youth workers, carers and health professionals – legally responsible for reporting signs of extremism.

“Now on the one hand you might say that’s sensible: the intelligence services and police can’t do everything. It’s logical we all share responsibility for trying to reduce the risk of extremism and radicalisation. However, when you look at what has happened in practice – just over 1500 referrals in 2013–14 before the guidance was introduced and well over 7500 in 2015-16 directly after – you can see that there has been a huge spike in reporting. Now, it may be the case that the climate in the UK became very much more risky over a year or so, or it it may be the case that once people are made responsible for seeking out signs of radicalisation – and indeed their professional judgements are potentially put under the microscope – elements of unjust overreporting are happening.” 

Since Prevent’s inception, over 70 percent of referrals have been of Muslims and related to Islamist extremism, said Mythen, with the vast majority dismissed without further action being necessary. False referrals include a 12-year-old reported by a teacher for wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ badge and a child that drew a cucumber his carer wrongly thought had been referred to as a ‘cooker pot’ or bomb-making device.

In 2016, the then United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, Maina Kiai, said: “It appears that Prevent is having the opposite of its intended effect: by dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population. Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it.”

Mythen stressed the importance of taking time to reflect after terrorist attacks and the need to avoid hasty law and order measures “that may actually end up producing negative effects”. It is important, he said, “to achieve some kind of balance between security and liberty. That is the most difficult thing: making sure that rights and freedoms are protected, while also making sure that security is optimised”.

He compared the British government’s response after 7/7 with the more “measured” approach of the Norwegian government after the 2011 attacks. “When asked for a response, directly after the attacks, the Norwegian Prime Minster said: ‘We have to show that our open society can pass this test and that the answer to violence is even more democracy, even more humanity … we must fight for freedom and tolerance.’”

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