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EU Values, Rights Slipping Amid Security Clampdown, Amnesty Warns

  • Lisa Bryant

Rolling states of emergency, blanket surveillance, selective house searches and detentions, and legislation to strip some citizens of their nationality — these are among a raft of counter-terror measures that are threatening cherished European values and freedoms, according to a new report released Tuesday by Amnesty International.

​Terror attacks across the European Union have profoundly changed how security is viewed, it says, from a government tool to protect basic rights, “to the view that governments must restrict people’s rights in order to provide security.”

Looking at 14 member states across the region, the study focuses on the erosion of rights through eight separate themes, from privacy and free expression and movement concerns, to emergency laws and measures to strip citizens of their nationality or send them to countries where they risk torture or other ill-treatment.

“We’re concerned about the deep and lasting securitization of Europe,” says Julia Hall, an expert on counter-terrorism for Amnesty International in Brussels.

Police patrol through the Grand Place, as tourists wander in Brussels, Monday, March, 28, 2016.
Police patrol through the Grand Place, as tourists wander in Brussels, Monday, March, 28, 2016.

Civil liberties

Brussels-based justice and home affairs expert Camino Mortera-Martinez, of the Center for European Reform, said the growing threat of terrorism has forced European governments to make hard choices between tougher security measures and the protection of privacy and individual rights.

“The question for me is, do these measures make sense, are they reasonable?” she says. “It’s not possible in the current context not to have invasive measures on civil liberties in fighting terrorism, because of the exceptional state in which we’re in.”

She noted that governments have been accused of responding inadequately to terror attacks such as the recent massacres in Paris and Brussels. “And whenever they miss [an attack], we criticize them as well.”

FILE - Flowers and messages are placed along the beach of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, southern France, July 20, 2016.
FILE - Flowers and messages are placed along the beach of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, southern France, July 20, 2016.

Alarming trend

French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve defended stronger security measures when he extended a state of emergency in France two months ago, saying it is absolutely necessary to ensure the highest level of protection for French citizens.

“Each of us should bear in mind the reality of the context that we are living in, a particularly high level of terrorist threat,” he said.

Timed ahead of several key elections in countries where populist parties are gaining ground, and new security measures under discussion in others, the report reflects an alarming trend; “the wave in which these counter-terror measures are being passed,” Hall says. “And that is fast-track procedures without any consultation with civil society or other experts.”

France, for example, which has witnessed three major terror attacks over two years, last month extended a state of emergency for the fifth time. Now it goes through July 15, to cover upcoming presidential and legislative elections.

In Belgium, hit by terrorist attacks last March, a new amendment to old codes allowing dual nationality citizens to be stripped of their Belgian nationality has sparked concerns of potentially discriminatory practices, the report says.

In the Netherlands, a draft bill would place freedom of movement and other restrictions on potential terrorist suspects, Amnesty says.

And in Bulgaria, a Turkish national arrested on charges of money laundering was secretly handed over to Turkey last year, it says, despite court rulings that Ankara could not guarantee him a fair trial.

Other governments, Hall says, including Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland, are trying to harden criminal laws, inspired by France, which she describes as “a market leader in emergency laws.”

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