Mayor of London Boris Johnson has called for an end to the presumption of innocence for those visiting war zones and powers to remove UK citizenship for those supporting a “terrorist state”.
The target is supposedly the brutal Islamic State militia (also known as ISIL or ISIS), which distorts religion to seek power. However the impact of changing the law would be far more wide-ranging, opening the door to grave abuses of human rights.
“We are going to have to make up our minds very quickly about this ‘caliphate’,” wrote Johnson in the Telegraph, “and how we deal with these Brits who go off and fight in its name.” In his view, this included doing more to stop people travelling to the Middle East via Germany to fight.
“The police can and do interview the returnees, but it is hard to press charges without evidence. The law needs a swift and minor change so that there is a ‘rebuttable presumption’ that all those visiting war areas without notifying the authorities have done so for a terrorist purpose”, he urged.
He also called for re-introduction of control orders and, if those who return “continue to give allegiance to a terrorist state”, the removal of their citizenship. “Do nothing now, and the tide of terror will eventually lap at our own front door,” he warned.
To some people such measures may indeed seem minor. Yet changing fundamental legal principles may seriously damage human rights and democracy in the UK. At first ethnic and religious minorities may be most affected but others too will be at risk.
It is right to try to reduce the numbers of British people who join armies which do not spare civilians, whether these fight for governments or rebels. Yet there are many other reasons why people may end up in countries at war.
The 2011 census recorded about 73,000 people in England and Wales who had been born in Iraq and 9,000 in Syria. Suppose you live in the UK but one of your parents or grandparents overseas is critically ill. You might not want to give a bureaucrat who does not known or care about your family the power to delay or stop you from getting to your loved one’s bedside.
Likewise if you are an engineer working for a firm whose plant is badly damaged, you may be called to fly out at very short notice, even if you are in another part of the world. This does not make you a terrorist but, if you are asked to prove beyond reasonable doubt that you are not, this may be near-impossible.
There are many other countries at war in the world and people with relatives and friends, or professional responsibilities, in these may also find themselves at risk of being condemned without evidence of wrongdoing.
What is more, once such basic rights as being presumed innocent and not being left stateless are no longer guaranteed in UK law, the scope to apply such punishments may be extended. People who are currently keen to see the UK government get tough, assuming any miscarriages of justice will affect others and not themselves, may be in for a rude awakening.
Ultimately justice and equality for all at home, and an ethical foreign policy, will do more to safeguard the UK than draconian measures that can be misused.
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