A senior UN representative last night threatened to cite the British government for violation of human rights over its planned deportations of alleged terrorist sympathisers.
Manfred Novak, the UN human rights commission’s special investigator on torture, told the Guardian he is seeking permission through the Foreign Office to visit Britain to discuss the issue with the home secretary, Charles Clarke.
In a statement on Tuesday night, Prof Novak said that the government’s intention to return radical preachers to their countries of origin, even though some of those countries have a track record of human rights abuses, “reflects a tendency in Europe to circumvent the international obligation not to deport anybody if there is a serious risk that he or she might be subjected to torture”.
His intervention came as Mr Clarke, in response to the London bombings, yesterday introduced a list of “unacceptable behaviour” which would allowing him to deport or exclude foreign citizens for glorifying or encouraging terrorism. Mr Clarke said the first exclusions and deportations would take place within the “next few days”.
He rejected the UN criticism. He said “the human rights of those people who were blown up on the tube in London on July 7 are, to be quite frank, more important than the human rights of the people who committed those acts.”
He added: “I wish the UN would look at human rights in the round, rather than simply focusing all the time on the terrorist.”
But Prof Novak refused to accept the rebuke. “The UN is strongly concerned about terrorism and counter-terrorism. But there are certain standards that have to be observed in the context of counter-terrorism,” he said last night. “We in the western democratic countries, in the fight against terrorism, should not step over these limits by violating international law.”
Prof Novak, whose investigations take him round the world, said he could cite Britain when he reports to the UN general assembly in October but he hoped the issue could be sorted out before then. His main objection is to the government’s policy of seeking memoranda of understanding from countries to which people would be deported that they would not be tortured. He said the memoranda were not an appropriate tool to eradicate the risk of torture.
The new rules were first announced by Tony Blair in the wake of the London bombings. Mr Clarke, in an effort to preserve cross-party unity, yesterday toned down one of Mr Blair’s original suggestions that would have allowed the Home Office to act against people who express “extreme views that are in conflict with the UK’s culture of tolerance”.
The wide-ranging clause alarmed civil liberties groups and was dropped after a two-week consultation that also brought in opposition parties and Muslim groups.
The Home Office is expected in the next fortnight to publish a consultation paper on new anti-terrorist legislation.
Mr Clarke’s announcement yesterday clarifies his existing powers under the 1971 Immigration Act and requires no new legislation. It comes into effect immediately and sets out the sort of behaviour likely to lead him to exclude foreign citizens.
They include expressing views which “foment, justify or glorify terrorist violence”, “seeking to provoke others to terrorist acts”, fomenting “other serious criminal activity”, or encouraging hatred “which might lead to inter-community violence in the UK”.
Mr Clarke argued that the new list of unacceptable behaviour would make it “absolutely clear” where the law stood, but was not intended to “stifle free speech or legitimate debate”.
Although the moves mark a toning down of the government’s original anti-terror intentions, they have caused unease among international observers. A second UN body last night also condemned the deportation proposals, saying Britain would be in breach of the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees if they were enacted.
The UN high commissioner for refugees said the government had failed to reply to a letter expressing its concerns.
Peter Kessler, spokesman for the UNHCR, said: “An application of these proposals, without access to due process, could amount to sending people back to countries where they could be persecuted. That would be in abrogation of the UK’s obligations under the 1951 convention.”
Yesterday both major opposition parties welcomed Mr Clarke’s announcement. But the plans prompted concern from the Muslim Council of Great Britain. It argued that people should be prosecuted in Britain, not deported.
Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, warned that the rules should pass what he called the Mandela test—whether they would have covered African National Congress supporters.