“Give to every human being every right that you claim for yourself.“
Today, the seemingly ceaseless battle between British Home Secretary Theresa May and the Human Rights Act reached round two, when it was announced that the Home Secretary would seek to appeal the ruling that blocked the deportation of Abu Qatada (real name Omar Othman), shortly after he allegedly broke the conditions of his bail. UK courts originally blocked the extradition on the grounds that Qatada could suffer torture or even be subjected to the death penalty if sent to Jordan, and this came into conflict with Qatada’s rights, as provided by the Human Rights Act of 1998. The question of extradition- also seen in cases such as that of Abu Hamza, Talha Hasan and Gary McKinnon- has proven to be the most problematic and most importunate since Mrs May took office in 2010.
The rulings favouring Qatada’s continued stay in the UK are overwhelmingly unpopular amongst the British public. After all, Qatada is frequently described as “Osama Bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe”, and given that the wounds from terrorist attacks such as the “7/7” bombings are still sore, it is unsurprising that few British citizens are willing to support the notion of Qatada being their neighbour.
Aside from the issues of public safety and concerns about the proliferation of terrorism in the UK, there are many valid practical arguments to be made against Qatada’s residing in the UK. An article in the Huffington Post places the cost of the UK’s failed attempts to deport Qatada at over £1 million in legal fees, whilst Conservative sources claim that the cost to house Qatada in the UK has cost the taxpayer over £500,000, including accommodation, benefits to his family and other expenses.
So it appears that there is a strong case to be made for Qatada to be given the boot. Therefore, why is he still here? It seems as if he imposes a burden not only on our national security but also on the UK economy, which surely ought to be the priority of the government?
There are two arguments, in the intersection between law and morality, which are at issue here. The first concerns the role of the judiciary. The strength of the judicial branch of UK government has become resonant in recent years with the creation of the Supreme Court, the passing of the Human Rights Act and membership of the European Union. Judges are more important now than they ever used to be, and, as the Qatada case shows, are effectively able to stop a minister in their tracks. This is why appeal judges have been able to block the extradition, despite uproar from the government and the general public alike. But the role of the judiciary isn’t to please ministers and keep the majority happy; it’s to protect the minorities in society, and to prevent the majority or the state from encroaching upon the rights of individuals. So even though the decision is unpopular at best, it is an example of the judiciary exercising its function within a democratic society in an exemplary way.
The second argument is somewhat more slippery, and refers to Britain’s loyalty to democratic principles. We don’t extradite Qatada and others because doing so could subject them to cruel punishment or degrading treatment, which we do not condone in the UK, and go to active efforts to discourage in the international community. If the Home Secretary’s efforts had been successful, and Qatada had been sent back to Jordan, he almost certainly would have been subjected to what human rights organizations such as Amnesty International devote their time to preventing. Knowing his fate in the hands of foreign governments, is it really any better from a moral perspective to extradite him than it would be to carry out such punishment ourselves? Either way, the UK government would have blood on its hands, and a lot of difficult questions to answer.
So as the Qatada question continues, so too does the debate between the moral and practical arguments surrounding extradition. The only certain thing at this point is that the judges hearing the Home Secretary’s most recent appeal are faced with a difficult task.