The tide begins to turn on civil liberties

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2008, 12:00am

Two hundred and seventy people convicted of no crime languish in Guantanamo, and the British Parliament has just voted to extend detention without trial to 42 days. In both the US and Britain, governments that attack civil liberties in the name of security still rule. But, in the past week, the tide has turned in both countries.

In the US, the Supreme Court has ruled for the third time in four years that the people detained in Guantanamo can challenge their imprisonment in US civilian courts. When the court made the same ruling in 2004 and 2006, an obedient Congress passed legislation overruling it, but that will not happen this time.

With Democratic majorities almost certain in both houses of Congress after the November elections, and both presidential candidates committed to shutting Guantanamo, the ruling will stick.

The rule of law is returning in the US after years of abuse. In Britain, it is still under attack, but the fightback has started in earnest. After Prime Minister Gordon Brown forced through the 42-day detention law last Wednesday, despite the resistance of both major opposition parties and 36 rebels from his own Labour Party, something unprecedented happened.

David Davis, the Conservative MP who serves as shadow home secretary, resigned the following day. He declared that he would run for re-election on a platform of opposition to the 'monstrosity' of 42-day detention and to the 'government's slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms'.

Former prime minister Tony Blair began the attack on civil liberties even before 9/11. British citizens, who could previously be held by the police for only two days before being charged or released, found that period raised to seven days by the Terrorism Act of 2000, and to 14 days by the Criminal Justice Act of 2003.

A large Labour minority rebelled when Mr Blair tried to extend it again, to 90 days in 2005 and, after much haggling, it was fixed at 28 days. So what possessed Mr Brown to want to lengthen it again?

Political expediency, of course. His unchallenged succession to Mr Blair is already seen as Labour's great mistake, and it is assumed that the Conservatives will win the next election in less than two years' time. So Mr Brown cast around for something to wrong-foot the Tories, and came up with 42 days: paint himself as tough on security, and force the Conservatives to choose between defending civil liberties or playing me-too.

That was stupid. The Conservatives decided to oppose the legislation, although with some misgivings. (Indeed, Mr Davis' spectacular action is partly intended to nail his own party to its commitment to kill the 42 days when it comes to power.)

The law squeaked through last Wednesday by a majority of only nine votes. Mr Brown is weakened by this, not strengthened, and the ugly law he has pushed through will almost certainly die in the House of Lords (as he knew all along).

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries