Sunday, December 19, 2004

Cutting England's laws flat

The British government is ignoring its own highest court and is refusing to release the nine men it has detained without trial. On friday, the Britain's Law Lords ruled that the indefinite imprisonment without trial of foreign terrorism suspects was discriminatory and violated the UK's obligations under the ECHR and ICCPR. The government has since denounced the decision as "wrong" and announced its intention to continue holding the men until the law has been reviewed. I think this, more than anything else, proves Lord Hoffmann’s point that

The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these

And to that, we should add from governments who are so afraid of the threat of terrorism that they would sacrifice not only human rights, but the very rule of law on which their authority is based. The dangers of this were pointed out in the famous exchange between Sir Thomas More and William Roper in A Man For All Seasons:

Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast - man's laws, not God's - and if you cut them down - and you're just the man to do it - d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

Terrorism may have replaced the Devil as the bogeyman, but the same principle applies. The rule of law is the foundation of organised society and governmental authority. Without it, none of us are safe. The British government would do well to remember that.