The argument that the “War on Terror” and counter-terrorist measures are a threat to civil liberties is not a new one. In the current climate of austerity, it is not surprising that the enjoyment of social rights and hence human security is limited to the few. Within this contemporary global context, Conor Gearty’s new book provides a timely critique of the ideas of liberty and security.
He offers a refreshingly radical approach, providing a highly critical assessment of the current understanding of those subjects. Through an examination of the historical development of liberty and security and their roles in “democracy”, he tackles head-on the “reconfiguration” of the concepts by those in power by asking: what do we mean by liberty and security, and for whom are they available? Gearty argues that the dominant understanding of liberty is based upon limiting its enjoyment to the few at the expense of liberty for all. The key point here is that the idea of universal liberty is lost in a trade-off with security: the liberty of “others” is sacrificed in favour of the security of the nation. In a similar vein, Gearty asserts that the concept of security has become reduced to “national security” rather than the deeper and more meaningful conception of human security.
Gearty draws together evidence to illustrate that the global response to the events of 11 September 2001 led by the United Nations Security Council was a pivotal moment in changing the parameters of what are deemed to be acceptable limitations on liberty. He uses concrete examples, such as the UN’s targeted sanctions based on blacklists, to illustrate how these counter-terrorist measures have been enforced through international law and further reinforced at the national level, with little regard for due process. The result has been restrictions upon the civil liberties of many, particularly those belonging to ethnic or religious minorities (especially Muslims) in the name of maintaining security and defending democracy.
Universal liberty is lost in a trade-off with security: the liberty of ‘others’ is sacrificed in favour of the security of the nation
So what’s new, I hear you ask? Many authors and civil society actors have documented the threat to civil liberties posed by counter-terrorism. What is original and significant about Gearty’s approach is that he convincingly and skilfully argues that the emergence of this assault on liberty is taking place under the guise of democracy and security - so- called democratic states acting through the “cipher” of the UN to legitimise their actions. This emerging global phenomenon he calls “neo- democracy”: “a system in which liberty is enjoyed by the few and security in its fullest sense is available only to the elite but is occurring in a plausible framework that appears to guarantee not only democracy and the rule of law but (also) protection for fundamental freedoms as well”.
These neo-democracies are thus legitimised by their willingness to accept external supervision and gain credibility through acting under the auspices of the UN Security Council. The result, he says, is a world where both the old and the newly emerging democracies talk the talk of liberty and human rights but don’t walk the walk: in practice, universal human rights, liberty and security are a far-off reality.
In conclusion, Gearty argues that there is a need to confront this neo- democratic guise, to challenge existing inequality, and to argue for truly egalitarian and universal liberty and human security as defined in the deepest and broadest sense. Significantly, he urges those working within the field to take a more radical stance, or risk contributing to embedding such neo-democracy as legitimate. As international lawyers we need to reclaim the agenda rather than working within it.
Conventional lawyers in particular may see Gearty’s book as controversial, but this is precisely what makes it essential and compelling reading. He succeeds in reconceptualising ideas of liberty and security, arguing for a return to a truly empowering model of democracy, freedom and human rights. Only then can liberty and security be truly attainable for all.