Monday, January 31, 2011

The truth about terror

What is the first image that pops into your head when you hear the word “terrorist”? Does he have a bushy beard and a swarthy complexion? Is he Muslim?

Statistics do not prop up this stereotype. According to Europol, only 0.4% of “terrorist attacks” either carried out or thwarted in the EU between 2006 and 2008 could be attributed to “Islamists”. Most of the 500-per-year such incidents considered by the EU’s police office were the work of “separatist” groups in France and Spain. (The data was collated before the Basque organisation ETA announced a ceasefire in September last year).

If the problem is so confined to pockets of Europe, why do our politicians misrepresent it as a global threat? And why has it become synonymous with Islam, when most of its practitioners in this continent come from a Christian background?

More to the point, what is terrorism? It wasn’t until 2002 that the EU had a collective definition of the concept. Activities deemed as “terrorist” included those with the objective of “seriously intimidating a population” and “seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a society.”

While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – both supported by all or many EU governments – fulfil all those criteria, the definition had a condition attached. Actions by a state or its army could not be considered as terrorist, it said.

So the official position of the EU is that terrorism is violence by the powerless, not the powerful. Given that the EU’s aversion to violence is so selective, it can be no great surprise that the Union is not only unwilling to tackle the root causes of “terrorism” but is tacitly eager to sustain the problem.

In July 2010, the European Commission issued a paper celebrating the “main achievements” of its “counter-terrorism policy”. Several of the “achievements” listed have little to do with terrorism as it is defined by the EU. These included the introduction of the European arrest warrant, which largely facilitates extradition for offences of a non-political nature. Poland, the top user of the arrest warrant system, has even invoked it in cases of petty theft.

But there is a more sinister side to the story than an effort to claim credit where it is not due. The same paper intimates that the “war on terror” can yield new business opportunities for European firms through “public-private partnerships”. Moreover, it trumpets how €1.7 billion has been allocated to “security” projects between 2007 and 2013 under the EU’s “framework programme” for scientific research. As I document in my book Europe’s Alliance With Israel, many of these research grants involve surveillance equipment that is being tested in illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. (Israel is the main foreign beneficiary of the Union’s research activities).

Later this week the Commission will take new steps to make sure we are all spied on. The EU’s executive is scheduled to approve new measures on the transfer of data for airline passengers flying into the Union. This will be the newest addition to a process initiated not in Europe but in Washington. Following the atrocities of 11 September 2011, George W Bush demanded that the EU hand over details about each person who travels to America.

Like lackeys, our governments and institutions are constantly repackaging the Passenger Name Record (PNR) dossier, despite how it was struck down by the European Court of Justice in 2006. The deficiencies in America’s data protection regime have not been remedied since then. Indeed, Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, protested in December about “an apparent lack of interest on the US side to talk seriously about data protection”.

That tantrum aside, Reding has a track record of capitulating to Big Brother when the going gets tough. During 2010, she first expressed misgivings about the bulk transfer of bank account data for European citizens to the US, then gave her blessing to that transfer, after some minor concessions were granted. The concessions did nothing to address how America’s privacy legislation only offers protection against unlawful data processing to US citizens, not to foreigners.

Her colleague Cecilia Malmström, the home affairs commissioner, has a comparable reputation for flip-flopping. When she was a humble MEP in 2005, Malmström spoke eloquently of how liberty should not be sacrificed in the name of security. She opposed another law – it, too, demanded by Bush – forcing phone and internet companies to retain records on each call made or email sent by their customers. Developing extensive systems for such espionage “would be a very major encroachment on privacy, with a high risk of the systems being abused in many ways,” she said, adding: “The fact is that most of us, after all, are not criminals.”

Now that she has been promoted, Malmström has declared the exact same measures as “useful for fighting crime”. She has become so wedded to power that she tramples on the civil liberties she used to defend.

Privacy is recognised as a basic entitlement by the European Convention on Human Rights. This continent’s not-too-distant history should remind us how dangerous it is to deny that right. The former military dictatorship in Greece, for example, used to monitor the population’s political leanings by checking what newspapers they read.

If our politicians want to interfere with privacy, they need solid reasons to do so. The “war on terror” is a lousy excuse.

·First published by New Europe (, 30 January – 5 February 2011.

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