Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights

Ever since Julie was elected, she has committed to work to promote human rights, and engage in the complex debates of our day in order to bring a perspective of compassion and understanding into our politics.

Julie has engaged with the subject of counter-terrorism and internet surveillance, which are subjects that come within her citizenship portfolio on the European Parliaments Culture and Education Committee, and also as a member of the European Internet Foundation's Steering Committee. A variety of NGOs and publications have asked for Julie's views on the subject, and we thought it would be good to publish them here.



The statement below was first published in Feburary 2015, following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and in Copenhagen.


Balancing Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights: Conference Opening remarks

Growing terrorist threats in the world have been used as a justification for mass surveillance of the public and individual life. Prevention measures implemented by different states reflect control and monitoring of Internet communication, landline or mobile telephone as well as tracking of individuals’ locations or illegal detentions.


Mass surveillance poses a significant challenge to rule of law and human rights. The public has voiced concerns about lack of governmental transparency associated with surveillance policies, laws and practices.

Governments and international bodies sometimes pay most of their attention 'hard' prevention measures and responding to terrorism activities and they ignore essential human rights. Of course citizens' safety and secutiry are important, and terrorist group pose a serious threat that must be met: However, citizens' safety and freedoms must be protected without taking these freedoms away.

Surveillance activities must be made to take place only in accordance with domestic and international law. International and European human rights standards, expressed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the European Charter of Fundamental Rights must be the guiding framework.


Data Privacy, Surveillance and Counter-Terrorism

Speaking out for Human Right in a Connected World


  • The attacks in Copenhagen over the weekend, as with Paris, have brought to us the urgency of the problem of terrorism, and will serve as a catalyst in a fundamental debate that our societies must have.  


  • I will give you some thoughts on the nature of the problem we are facing, its historic scale, and outline key principles in approaching a solution. I’ll then address what the European Union and Parliament have done on this, and address offline, real-world aspects of the issue.


  • How do we respond to a direct attack on our values and way of life? Our response must be resolute and uncompromising: we must stand up, and defend them. We must work together to reinforce and strengthen the rule of law, democracy, human rights, transparency, tolerance, and inclusion. We must avoid the temptation to fall short when we are tested. Comedian and public commentator, Jon Stewart once said “if we give up our values when they are tested, then they are not values, they are hobbies.” To sell out our fundamental rights out of fear is an outright victory for terrorism. We must respond by producing an active public debate, stimulating engaged citizenship, fighting to uphold democratic scrutiny, the rule of law and human rights, and promoting a politics of compassion.


  • This is not to say however, that counter-terrorist measures, and the frameworks in place to implement are not important, or that security is not important in itself. The key issue is that of democratic scrutiny and legal controls.


  • We must also be aware of the scale and significance of the debate: the internet and the information revolution have transformed our lives, and will continue to do so at least as much as the industrial revolutions did in the 19th and early 20th centuries. We must make decisions, as societies, which are absolutely fundamental to our children and grandchildren’s ways of life in the 21st century and beyond.


  • Today, all of us have all of our lives uploaded unto the internet, some of us are probably tweeting right now. All of us live in the digital world through an online persona, and governments or corporations that retain and mine our data have access to more information about us than we do ourselves. As technology accelerates, and our lives become ever more dominated by the digital world, and smart technologies are applied to sectors such as transport or energy, to games and dating, we must draw some clear lines now, or risk losing all of our privacy altogether.


  • As a writer and a poet, I am a great believer in the power of stories to convey messages in public debate. We all know 1984 and A Brave New World as templates for dystopian controlled societies. Suddenly the prospects of mass surveillance leading us down this path seem frightening, with the long-run potential for abuse there will be without clearly drawn lines.


  • This relates to an ongoing general debate on the digital realm: the inventor of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has called for a Bill of Rights for the internet, a foundational Magna Carta moment, which will define digital rights, including privacy, and guarantee them for generations. This is important not only for the issue of counter-terrorism or security, but also for privacy from private corporations, as well as well-known issues of net neutrality, and freedom of access to the internet. This is a citizens’ debate that must be held publicly around the world.


  • The web itself greatly facilitates our ability to have such a citizens’ debate. While our digital personas make us exposed to surveillance, political power is no longer a one way top-down affair. The web has empowered citizens, or at least the tech-savvy amongst them, to have the ability to scrutinise governments like never before. Activists like Julian Assange and Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, or even networks like Anonymous, have shown that they are able to force transparency, even when it is against the law.


  • At the same time, citizens are able to share, communicate, and participate in ways that have never before been possible. The use of social media in the Arab Spring was a testament to this, as initiative as the citizen-drafted proposed constitution in Iceland, or citizen engagement platforms such as GovFaces, that I have worked with.


  • There is no question that governments, intelligence agencies, and big corporations will need to meet the counter-force of citizen-engagement in order to remain in check and impose limits to their powers. The principle of power relations between governments and civil society is a key element in the defence of privacy and fight for transparency. Citizens must be alert and engaged in order to fight for the standards of protection they deserve.


  • The European Court of Justice ruling on the Data Retention Directive, and the Counter-Terrorism Resolution adopted by the European Parliament last week are watershed moments in establishing the standards we need to protect our rights. The ECJ ruled that any act of surveillance must comply with principles of necessity and proportionality, and that the retention of data on individuals indiscriminately without suspicion is a violation of rights. The European Parliament has echoed that opinion, and called for limited mandates for surveillance methods, with oversight, sunset clauses and renewability where necessary. Europe must lead the way in setting that model.


  • As far as security is concerned, there are existing mechanisms which have proven effective. Information sharing amongst law enforcement and intelligence agencies must be improved, passenger passport data is shared, and where suspected, law enforcement agencies can access all of the suspects’ digital contents with a warrant. The coordination of all these prevention instruments must be optimized before we contemplate lowering our standards for right protection.


  • We must also not forget social realties outside the digital realm: radicalization of young marginalized youths in various communities, Muslim or otherwise, largely because of elements such as poverty, alienation, social exclusion, intolerance, and lack of opportunities. The acute social tensions created by xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia only exacerbate these problems.


  • Such issues must be addressed out in the physical world. Not only do we need to fight the good fight against austerity and inequality, but we must also invest in education for openness and tolerance, work with communities in marginalised areas, and create community programmes of de-radicalisation for young people, to counteract the effect of poisonous Jihadi ideology. As a Socialist, I can say that our commitment to social justice, inclusion, multi-culturalism and a cosmopolitan tolerant society, must be strengthened now more than ever. We must be brave enough to be guided by tolerance, openness, and compassion in tough times.


  • It is clear from all this that the issues are complex, and the scale of decisions immense. My key messages I would like to bring to this debate are the resolve to stand by our human rights through adversity, nurture civic engagement, and to develop a politics of compassion.             


  • As civil society actors, human rights activists have a dual role to play: that of mobilising public opinion, and of influencing policy-makers. It is only by raising public awareness, and defining a narrative that human rights activists will be able to influence policy-makers to move.


  • We must be careful when we frame the question of how to operate as human rights activists: Western intelligence agencies have overstepped red lines in collecting information on citizens, and have sought to prosecute whistle-blowers who have broken laws, like Julian Assange or Edward Snowden. They have not tried to silence human rights NGOs (yet). What we must stop is the slippery slope whereby unaccountable power will eventually be abused.


  • In her work “The Shock Doctrine”, left-wing thinker Naomi Klein identified the phenomenon of governments implementing oppressive control and surveillance methods in the wake of crises and an external threat. The period following the 9/11 attacks is a prime example: with the Bush administration passing the PATRIOT[1], the US government was able to massively compromise on privacy, introduce wiretapping, and wide range of surveillance. It was later found that many of these actions were poorly supervised and excessive. Likewise, many pro-peace and human rights NGOs were harassed by the FBI and security agencies.


  • Closer to here, during the London Riots in the summer of 2011, Louise Mensch, a Conservative Member of Parliament, called on the UK government to shut down social media sites, and the Blackberry Messenger service, as rioting gangs used these to communicate. Although these policies were never put into place, this is a clear illustration of how swiftly discourse can transform in emergency: human rights defenders must be vigilant.


  • The impact of social media networks like Facebook and Twitter on mobilisation of citizens, human rights activism, national and international campaigns has been phenomenal. We have all witnessed the effects of social media on the movements of the Arab Spring, or the Occupy Movement: citizens mobilised using social networks and mobile phone technology.


  • I myself regularly participate in these campaigns: Nabeel Rajab, a prominent Bahraini human rights activist was sentenced for 6 months in prison for a tweet he sent out. I, along with Parliamentarians and activists from around the world, have been engaged in a campaign calling for his release. The internet allows us to raise public awareness, and eventually does produce pressure on distant regimes. The same allows me to raise awareness on diverse human rights topics, such as the situation of women in Iran, or children in Gaza.


  • An interesting example of the kind of spontaneous activism and mobilisation which social networks can produce came about last year, when the New York Police Department began a Twitter campaign asking citizens about their positive experiences with the police. Instead, ordinary people and civil rights activists began to tweet pictures of police violence in New York.[2] Ordinary citizens, without prior coordination, were demanding accountability from arms of their government. Whereas in older times government had unilateral control on communications to citizens, now the balance of power is shifting.


  • Political social media platforms, such as GovFaces, which I have worked with, seeks to provide a direct interface between citizens and politicians, in a way that has never been seen before. As it becomes the norm for politicians to be directly accessible to public scrutiny through the internet, chances of civic engagement may increase. 


  • More collaborative efforts of collective decision-making and engagement from citizens can be seen in the case of the draft Icelandic constitution, written by civil society organisation with citizens and put to an advisory referendum, with a two-third yes vote. This kind of direct democracy that was only a Utopian vision for French revolutionaries in the 18th century, is now a relatively tangible (if still cumbersome) possibility.


  • In a sense it may be easier for human rights organisations to hold their ground in the current wave of attacks in Europe, from Paris to the tragic events in Copenhagen on Saturday. These attacks are directed specifically against Western freedom of speech norms, and ae perceived as a direct attack on Western liberties. While Islamophobes and racists may make the case for hatred and violation of rights, organisations and NGOs who speak out to reinforce these rights will resonate with the public if they act to frame the debate.


  • We can look to previous and concurrent campaigns on similar issues to see where our campaign for internet rights and privacy must go such as the case of ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which threatened internet freedoms and privacy in the EU.[3] Had the agreement been implemented, it would have greatly increased surveillance of the internet in the EU. After massive civil society mobilisation, the European Parliament voted down ACTA in 2012.


  • The same is now happening over TTIP – civil society has mobilised, not over internet rights, but about social rights, social protection, and democratic control. We have been receiving thousands of emails from concerned citizens, and it has kept us busy. The European Commission has heard the message, has increased transparency, and taken some of the controversial material out of the agreement.


  • The message here is simple: human rights activists must be bold and daring in halting the waves of Islamophobia that may roll across the continent if terrorist attacks continue. They must stand up and point out that if we must defend our rights and freedoms from terrorists, we must nurture and cultivate them in our political engagement.

[1] "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001"Act