Even many ardent anti-capitalist, feminist and/or anti-racist activists will concede, quietly, to like-minded friends, that Western institutions and political systems, whilst not ‘superior’ per se, certainly have a comparatively greater focus on the protection of our most basic freedoms and rights. In the West, human freedoms are at historical highs, whilst rights abuses are at all time lows. Obviously the situation is not utopian, but we can give credit where it is due - by historical and contemporary standards of how the proverbial ‘little guy’ has been treated by the political elite, it is a great time to be Western.
The reason many of these (usually) leftist academics might be even remotely comfortable uttering this kind of statement is because they are also aware of the “but…” which immediately follows it: that just because things are good (or even better) here and now, does not mean the situation cannot change drastically and quickly if we’re not careful. Power’s ceaseless drive to consolidate itself will often come into direct conflict with the freedoms our predecessors fought so hard to secure. Like a virus, it seeks to reproduce itself at the expense of anything which gets in the way - fundamental civil rights included. In the face of national security threats played out on a global scale the likes of which we have never seen before; and of an unethical and harmful rapprochement of Big Business and Government characterised most recently by the Panama Paper scandal, it is more important than ever to consider what rights we hold dear enough to fight for, should they ever be threatened. The West is not, by its own virtue, precluded from committing rights abuses. One particular right, or group of rights, I would like to focus on is our freedom of assembly which, along with our right to privacy, is one of the most at-risk liberties in the West.
The War on Terror has gone on for over a decade, cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and yet the situation only seems to have been exacerbated since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since then, opportunistic legislation like the United States’ 2001 PATRIOT Act has threatened to infringe on the civil liberties of its citizens. The juxtaposition of security issues and civil rights are, it can be argued, a natural phenomenon - for many people, sacrificing certain rights for the assurance of safety from a threat does not seem like a problem. Which is why issues of security are so prone to lead to rights reductions. If a co-conspiratorial government and media can whip up enough fear among the public through selective reporting, misleading statistics and - in some cases - outright lies, it makes it easier to justify sweeping legal reform over a distracted population.
We already have myriad of evidence in the West to demonstrate the ways the police use excessive force when dealing with protesters. The events which transpired at Occupy Wall Street are only one such example. Increasingly sweeping police powers are consistently abused. But more legislation in the last 2 years threaten to go even further.
Most notably, France and the UK have both recently introduced legislation threatening freedom of assembly. UN Special rapporteur on the rights of freedom of assembly and of association Maina Kiai, as part of a group of experts, criticised the French anti-terrorism bill’s “lack of clarity and precision of several provisions of the state of emergency and surveillance laws, related to the nature and scope of restrictions to the legitimate exercise of right to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association and the right to privacy.” His team believed the law, implemented in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, had insufficiently catered to the principles of necessity and proportionality. After the second Paris attacks, France went into a state of emergency, handing over more powers to security forces, at the expense of constitutionally protected freedoms.
In the UK, recent and proposed legislation, including the controversial 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, ‘Prevent’, were condemned as the “closing of space for civil society in the UK” by the UN. The 2015 Investigatory Powers Bill had earlier been criticised by David Kaye, a colleague of Kiai’s, for a lack of transparency which would stifle people’s legitimate expression of their rights. On a visit to the UK last week, Mr. Kiai expressed concern about the growing list of statutes which together suggested that “the Government has a negative view of civil society”.
“These moves have, in many instances, been subtle and gradual, but they are unmistakable and alarming.”
Both countries have been the victims of terrorist attacks, and its population is justifiably fearful for their own safety. However, to let politicians capitalise on this fear in order to advance disproportionately aggressive legislation is naive of us. Unfortunately, seeking to protect our most fundamental rights against opportunistic government could be an uphill battle. A November 2015 poll in the French right-of-centre newspaper Le Figaro showed that 84% of respondents were willing to sacrifice certain rights for added security.
This would be more understandable if the bills were in any way effective. In May 2015, the FBI were unable to point to a single case that had been cracked by the added snooping powers of the Patriot Act. It’s difficult to imagine that the “French Patriot Act” - as it is known in some circles - would be much different. The tradeoff we are thus given is less rights in exchange for the illusion of security. In actual fact, the best way to improve security in Europe is to reconsider certain foreign policy decisions. So obvious are the policies in question that everyone reading this is already perfectly aware of those I am referring to. Along with meaningful efforts to facilitate social and economic integration, our safety will only ever be improved by rational and humane politics, not bigger walls (the metaphorical and physical kind).
Finally, and perhaps more importantly, it is unlikely that any of these acts will be repealed come the conclusion of the War on Terror, whenever that might be. The bureaucratic factor aside, states will have grown accustomed to these powers and will be rather reluctant to give them up. This has serious implications for the future of our rights to free expression, association and assembly. In a genuine democracy, the right to freely protest must be preserved at all times.
The horrific events of Tiananmen Square do not need to be reproduced in Central London for our rights to be threatened. Inflated police powers have been felt by British protesters since before the 2010 tuition fee protests, through kettling, arbitrary arrests and more. These powers have only increased since then, under the guise of security. It is difficult enough in Western Europe to organise large scale protests without the added burden of having to fight all over again for our basic liberties. We must all do ourselves a favour and loudly refuse to let fear-mongering dictate our access to fundamental human rights.