Secret "justice" is nothing of the sort

Plans for secret courts in Britain would keep abuses secret too.

Judges often look at a person’s intention to understand the true meaning of their actions. A similar approach is needed with the controversial Security and Justice bill, which the House of Lords will begin reviewing on Tuesday (June 19).

The widely criticized bill would widen the use of secret hearings in the civil courts whenever national security grounds are invoked, excluding the person affected and his or her lawyer from the courtroom, thereby undermining a basic principle of justice: the ability to know the case against you. The bill would also prevent disclosure of material showing UK involvement in wrongdoing by other countries.

Notable opponents of the plans include most of the lawyers who act in secret hearings (known as “special advocates”) who are well placed to understand how such hearings undermine fairness. They are barred under current rules from consulting with the person on whose behalf they are supposed to be acting, or that person’s lawyers, about the secret part of the case.

Earlier proposals from the government to permit inquests into suspicious deaths to be held in secret and to allow secret hearings on even broader “public interest” grounds have thankfully been dropped, although opinion is divided on whether their original inclusion was merely a negotiating tactic.

The government’s intentions can be traced back to July 2010, when the Prime Minister first announced the proposals, alongside plans for an inquiry into UK complicity in torture and rendition, and changes to the guidance given to security services about interrogating suspects held outside the UK.

The announcement came after a series of embarrassing revelations under the previous government about UK knowledge and involvement in US and other government’s abuses against British citizens and residents in Guantanamo Bay, Pakistan and elsewhere.

The decision to hold an inquiry made all the headlines, and was welcomed at the time by Human Rights Watch and other NGOs. But when the terms of reference for the inquiry were made public in July 2011 it became clear that the government was not prepared to give the inquiry the independence and authority it needed to get to the truth, leading to a boycott by NGOs and lawyers. In January 2012 it was scrapped, with a commitment to hold a fresh inquiry at a later date.

The secret justice plans drew less attention at the time. The Prime Minister told Parliament that they were needed because the security services being “paralysed by paperwork” and Britain’s intelligence relationship with the US was being put in danger by public disclosure of US intelligence material shared with London.

But set in the context of the government’s efforts to limit its own inquiry and having seen the detail of its plans, it is evident that the government’s intention with the Justice and Security bill is to ensure that if abuses are repeated in future they will never see the light of day in British courts.

Recall how the previous Labour government fought tooth-and-nail for the British courts to prevent the publication of seven paragraphs of a court judgement in a civil case brought against the Foreign Secretary by former Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohammed.

As his lawyers have made clear, the material that the UK sought to block had already been made public in the US courts. When it was published, the real reason for the strength of the government’s objections became clear – the paragraphs showed that the UK knew early on that Binyam Mohammed was being tortured, a deeply embarrassing revelation.

The bill does contain one welcome element. The MPs and Lords who sit on the body that oversees the security services will now be appointed by parliament rather than the Prime Minister as now.

But the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) will otherwise remain toothless, with the Prime Minister able to veto investigations or block publication of material on broad grounds, and without the committee having the power to compel witnesses and evidence as the US Senate Intelligence Committee has. The Lords should use the bill as an opportunity to strengthen the oversight powers of the ISC.

Evidence continues to mount that the UK government was complicity in torture and rendition overseas. Last September, Human Rights Watch found evidence in Tripoli linking the British security services to the rendition of two Libyan men and a woman into the hands of the Gadaffi regime and the likely torture of the two men. Those cases are now rightly the subject of ongoing criminal investigations in the UK (the stated reason for halting the Gibson Inquiry).

The Libya cases are also the subject of civil suits against former UK government officials and the UK government itself. Those cases are an important measure of accountability and bulwark against future abuse. Yet if the government gets its way with this bill, such cases will be held behind closed doors, the victims and their lawyers, journalist and the public excluded. That is no justice at all.

Former Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohammed speaks. With these plans, his story would be depressingly commonplace. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Benjamin Ward is deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division

Getty
Show Hide image

How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.