Thursday, November 24, 2005

The End Of Habeas Corpus in Great Britain

Interesting article in Monthly Review on the recent spate of anti-terrorism legislation that has dogged the UK. One thing that I find quite interesting is the relationship between exclusion and emergency within notions of the 'rule of law'. Aside from the numerous problems associated with the formal freedoms guarateed by the 'rule of law' the fact of the matter is that liberal democracies across the world systematically exclude groups of people from the 'rule of law'. This is particularly aided by the notion of the 'state of emergency', when certain protections are necessarily suspended to 'defend' the public.

Thus the 'state of emergency' always serves to justify departures frm 'normal' legality. This is where the position of the Law Lords in the Belmarsh detainees case becomes problematic. Most of the Law Lords didn't question the fact that a 'state of emergency' did exist, they merely decided that the measures used to combat said emergency were disproportionate. Negri and Hardt have noted in Multitude that the state of 'emergency' has become the norm in liberal democratic society. There is a 'permanent exception' that constantly justifies the exclusion of certain people from 'the rule of law'.

The point is though that as this 'emergency' becomes more serious, more generalised, the class of people who are potentially affected by these 'gaps' widens. Witness the terrifyingly indeterminate definition of terrorism in the the Terrorism Act 2000. As the article states:
The most significant part of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill is the fact that it expands the suspension of law to include citizens. It puts an end to a double judicial system: rule of law for citizens and pure violence for foreigners. The suppression of habeas corpus is extended to the whole population. It is now a generalized state of exception. This law, like the American Patriot II project, must be envisaged as the first step in a process intended to extend measures that suspend the law to the entire population, including citizens, within the context of the war on terrorism. The home secretary already revealed this project. He also spoke of the possibility of trying simple suspects in special courts of law. The accused would not have the choice of his or her attorney. The latter would be selected by the executive power, on the basis of a list approved by the secret services.
This is important. Whilst the systematic exclusion of certain persons from the legal system is never something to be taken widely, an increase in its scope is of course worrying. It represents the increasingly overt politicisation of the law, and a continued disintegration of the legal form.

Of course, when one rationally examines the situation there really is no state of emergency to speak of. One wonders just how much threat there truly is from terrorism. Even those 'big' attacks that do succeed in reality kill very few people. If one was to judge states of emergencies from deaths surely the most pressing state of emergency is caused by the impersonal violence of global capitalism, which kills untold numbers of people every day.

But if we have reached an 'emergency', the one wonders when it will ever end. If this is an emergency, then for the foreseeable future we will surely be living through an emergency. This of course has implications for the 'rule of law':
However, this law is no more than formally part of a state of emergency. It gives judicial prerogatives to the home secretary. A person is designated as terrorist not by the decision of a court, but by a certificate issued by a representative of the executive power. At no point does the latter have to justify a decision that is applied to simple suspects. Objective facts, which should be used as the basis of these suspicions, are not even necessary since they remain secret. It suffices that the administrative authority assert that it is detaining the suspects and that this declaration be corroborated by a court. What is the guarantee of a judicial control that is exercised without the possibility for the defense to assert its rights, even to know what it is being charged with? What independence can the judicial power assert in a decision-making process in which it does not have the means to verify the information that is given to it as well as the means of proof?
The Bill may have been defeated in the Commons (in part), it may be delayed and troubled by the Lords, but it represents a trend in liberal democracies towards the overtly political rule of pure violence. Much as notions of the 'law' as non-violence should be derided, it remains true that the law is violence exercised within a specific form, one in which individuals are interpellated as formally equal, and at least have a minimal protection, insofar as 'legal language' goes. This tendency to remove even those slim protections is surely a worrying one.

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