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6 June 2017updated 05 Oct 2023 8:50am

Theresa May’s latest response to terror has shown us how much she detests human rights

The Prime Minister's speech after the London Bridge attack reflects her misguided desire for unbridled security powers.

By Jillian Terry

Theresa May cannot be trusted with our national security. Her ineptitude was evident in her speech following the London Bridge attack, which came across as a campaign speech. Rather than soothing the nation and appealing for calm and caution, May chose to ramp up fear and regurgitate policies from her days as home secretary. Much has already been written about the problems with her appeal to “British values”, the issues with her call for increased regulation of the internet and her record in reducing police numbers – which happened on her watch. But just as important is the veiled attack on Britain’s human rights framework.

May claimed, inexplicably, that this country has been too tolerant of extremism. This is baffling. The UK has a vast counter-terrorism apparatus, much of which is dedicated to fighting extremism. Which begs the question, just what exactly was the Prime Minister talking about? Who in the UK has been tolerant of extremism? The government? The police? The public? What is she pointing the finger at?

The answer lies in May’s intense dislike for the Human Rights Act (HRA).

Scrapping the HRA has been Conservative policy for several years. In March 2011, soon after it came to power, the government set up the Commission on a Bill of Rights, with the duty to research and report on replacing the HRA with a British Bill of Rights. The commission reported its findings in December 2012, with seven out of nine members voting in favour. The promise to repeal the HRA has been part of the Conservative manifesto for several elections now, including a promise in this year’s manifesto to ‘consider our human rights legal framework when the process of leaving the EU concludes’.

Back when she was home secretary, May disliked the HRA for the simple reason that it curtailed her deportation powers. She fought in the courts for years to deport Abu Qatada, blaming human rights for the delays, claiming that a repeal of the HRA – and eventual withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights – were needed to protect national security.

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The United Kingdom Borders Act 2007 provides for the automatic deportation of foreigners who have been sentenced to a minimum of 12 months in prison. A small minority of deportations have been stopped under Article 8 of the HRA, the right to family life. May has fought against this, from as far back as the 2011 Conservative Party Conference when she falsely claimed the deportation of a dangerous immigrant had been stopped due to his cat, to her speech two months before the Brexit vote, when she claimed that Britain should leave the European Convention on Human Rights, rather than the EU. May’s claim that Britain has been too tolerant of extremism was therefore a veiled attack on the HRA, which she has seen for over a decade as a threat to British national security – and as a check on her powers.

May’s troubling views on national security, cultivated during her time as home secretary, have become even more zealous since occupying Number 10. For all her recent rhetoric about the UK’s tolerance of extremism, the Conservative government’s inaction in the wake of last year’s murder of MP Jo Cox by a far-right terrorist speaks volumes about what, and who, May views as extremist. Her unrelenting focus on ‘the single, evil ideology of Islamist extremism’ fails to acknowledge the dangers of the far right and the traction it has gained in an increasingly polarised political climate.

Such a focus echoes the selective attitude of May’s colleague across the pond, Donald Trump, who has repeatedly ignored domestic terror attacks committed by right-wing ideologues (Portland as the most recent example) while providing seemingly endless commentary on the dangers of Isis and its sympathisers. Despite Trump’s recent derision of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who called for calm amid an increased police presence in the hours following Saturday night’s attack, May seems desperate to preserve the so-called “special relationship” and has refused to criticise Trump’s unsolicited interventions. Her silence speaks volumes – by failing to speak out, May continues to align herself with Trump’s hateful and ill-informed rhetoric, suggesting once again that her views on extremist violence likely have much more in common with Trump’s than most Britons would care to admit.

Following the attacks in London Bridge and Borough Market, May’s politicised speech to the nation served as a stark reminder that for her and her Conservative allies, combating extremism means enabling the imprisonment of suspects for longer under an expansive and wide-ranging list of counter-terrorism offences, weakening the protection of privacy online, and engaging in unspecified military interventions in the Middle East. At their worst, these sorts of actions fly in direct opposition to the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the HRA, making its repeal and replacement an unsurprising priority for May should she win another mandate on Thursday.

May would have us believe that human rights are an impediment to national security. But in reality, human rights are fundamental not just for national security, but for a healthy and functioning society. As human rights lawyer Adam Wagner argues, one of the state’s primary duties is to protect us from violence. In a sense, civil liberties protect us from the state. May has wanted more unbridled executive power since her years in the Home Office, and that has not changed. Accumulating power, repeating empty slogans and scrapping human rights protections is not going to make us any safer. Sadly, it seems to be the only thing the Prime Minister has to offer.

Dr Jillian Terry is a Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research in feminist International Relations explores the connections between ethics, political violence, and contemporary war. She tweets as @jillianterry.

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