Skip to main content

Countering Terrorism Overseas

Volume 558: debated on Thursday 14 February 2013

I would like to update the House on the main principles underlying the Government’s approach to countering terrorism overseas.

The Threat

The greatest source of the terrorist threat to the United Kingdom remains al-Qaeda and other organisations who subscribe to an ideology of violent jihad. But the nature of the threat has changed, in three principal ways:

It has become geographically more diverse;

It is more fragmented;

It is based even more closely on the exploitation of local and regional issues.

Our Response

In the United Kingdom we have a long experience of confronting terrorism. Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies continue to work tirelessly to protect the British public from terrorist attack.

But unless our foreign policy addresses the circumstances in which terrorism thrives overseas, we will always fight a rearguard action against it. This means ensuring a comprehensive approach designed: to deny terrorist groups the space to operate, to help vulnerable countries develop their law enforcement capabilities, to address the injustice and conflict which terrorist exploit, and to combat their ideology.

In standing up for freedom, human rights and the rule of law ourselves, we must never use methods that undermine them. I am determined that as a democracy we must hold ourselves accountable to the highest standards. This includes being absolutely clear that torture and mistreatment are repugnant, unacceptable and counter-productive.

In order to confront the threat we must strengthen the ability of states to counter terrorism, while protecting human rights, as called for by the UN. This is difficult and challenging work, since the threat from terrorism is greatest in the countries where the rule of law and human rights are weakest. This is why I wish to set out the clear direction the Government will follow over the coming years.

When we detect a terrorist plot originating in a third country, we want to be in a position to share information to stop that planning, and do it in a way that leads to the lawful arrest, investigation and prosecution of the individuals concerned in accordance with our own legal obligations, and with their human rights respected at every stage.

In many cases we are able to obtain credible assurances from our foreign partners on issues such as detainee treatment and legal processes that give us the safeguards we need and the confidence that we can share information in this way.

Where this is not the case we face a stark choice. We could disengage, or we can choose to co-operate with them in a carefully controlled way while developing a more comprehensive approach to human rights adherence. This approach brings risk, but I am clear that the risks of the first option, of stepping back are greater still, placing our citizens at risk of terrorist attack.

How we go about this will have to vary from country to country depending on the scale and nature of the challenge. But we will seek justice and human rights partnerships with countries where there is both a threat to the United Kingdom’s security, and weaknesses in the law enforcement, human rights and criminal justice architecture. These are not one-off initiatives or stand-alone agreements, but rather a systematic process of working with authorities in question to identify shortcomings in capability, and to address these through the provision of UK assistance and expertise, over many months or years.

The sorts of measures we will take include:

Building up the capacity of overseas security services to improve compliance with the law and human rights and to make them more effective.

Working with local investigators to improve the ability to build cases based on evidence.

Supporting prosecutors and judges to ensure that they are capable of processing terrorism cases through the court systems, ensuring they are handled effectively, fairly and in line with the rule of law.

Working to improve and where appropriate monitor conditions in detention facilities so that convicted terrorists can be held securely and their treatment meets with international standards.

Crucially we are creating a strong and systematic framework for this work, with strong safeguards:

We will only engage in such efforts where there is serious and potentially long-running threat to the UK or UK interests, such as that flowing from terrorist networks in south Asia, Yemen, and parts of north and west Africa.

All our capacity building work will be carefully considered in line with our overseas security and justice assistance guidance in order to assess and to mitigate human rights risks, and specifically designed to improve human rights standards and strengthen the rule of law in that country.

It will not be carried out in isolation, but will be part of UK and international diplomatic and development efforts in that country.

The intelligence dimension will be subject to the same robust scrutiny and oversight that exists in other areas of intelligence-related activity and always be in accordance with the law.

Every aspect of this work requires ministerial oversight and approval. If I or another responsible Minister see any credible evidence that our support is being misused we will take immediate action. Any work that would involve breaking our legal obligations simply would not go ahead.

This is a framework of accountability and human rights to ensure that our counter-terrorism work support justice and the rule of law as well as our security, with the goal of creating the long-term conditions for better observance of human rights in countries that have a poor record and where the threat from terrorism is strong.