Soapbox: Human rights have to remain sacrosanct

October 12, 2001

Academics consider Afghanistan's crisis and responses to the war on terrorism: asylum laws.

It is perfectly natural that, after the tragic events of September 11, politicians call for changes in the law to reassure the population that "something is being done" and that they are not powerless in the face of atrocities.

In the UK, the first proposed change was the call to introduce identity cards, seen as a way of making the UK a less appealing destination to asylum seekers. It is easier for people to get "lost" here than in Continental Europe, where ID cards are required but not considered an infringement of human rights. But when should a person be required to produce his or her card? The misuse of "suss" laws 20 years ago and the subsequent interference with personal liberty indicates the problems that could arise if identity cards had to be produced on demand. It is less than surprising that this proposal has now been moved to the backburner - it needs careful thought.

The changes in asylum and immigration laws, however, are still at the forefront of Home Office policy. Under the proposed reforms, those convicted of terrorist crimes should not be granted asylum - as if this were a new policy. More disconcertingly, the changes propose that lawyers and judges should not use the various appeals and review procedures to undermine the reforms.

Asylum in the UK is granted to those who qualify as refugees under international law. This excludes those who have committed crimes against humanity or peace, serious non-political crimes or acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. But the UK has other international obligations under the UN Convention against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights. The UK is forbidden from sending back any person - no matter what crime he or she may have committed - Jto a country where he or she will be tortured.

This does not, however, imply impunity. The International Criminal Court needs to be brought into operation through the ratification of its statute by 60 countries. The UK already has the legislation in place. Countries also need to assert universal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity for those cases that the ICC cannot deal with.

In the war against terrorism, human rights must not be the first victim. Asylum seekers deserve fair access to fair process and, even if they are found to be "bogus", there are some rights that must never be infringed - the right to life and freedom from torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.

Geoff Gilbert is head of the department of law at the University of Essex.

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