Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
CHRI Home   Contact Us
Volume 13 Number 1
New Delhi, Spring 2006

A Sad Time for People’s Liberty Indeed!

Mandeep Tiwana
Consultant, Access to Justice Programme, CHRI

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), guarantees everyone the right to liberty and security of person, including freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention. The European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms stipulates that persons arrested or detained are entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release pending trial.

In November 2005, the British Parliament voted to double the time a person suspected of terrorism can be detained without charge to 28 days. In contrast, a murder suspect can be detained by the police for a maximum of four days without charges being framed. Restricting the period in which the police must frame charges against a detainee ensures that police do not use evidence gathering as a smokescreen for detention. It also reduces the likelihood of an innocent person spending an inordinately long time in custody.

Rather than limiting the scope for arbitrary detention, the present trend in the British Government is leaning towards clothing the police with more powers, much to the detriment of hard won civil liberties and fundamental freedoms. Effective January 2004, the length of detention without charge was increased from 7 to 14 days for those suspected of involvement in terrorist acts. Now the period has been further increased to 28 days. The original proposal under the Terrorism Bill which was spearheaded by the Prime Minister, attempted to empower the police to detain suspected persons for up to 90 days without having to frame charges. It fell through due to bitter opposition by Members of Parliament cutting across party lines. A compromise was later struck to extend the period to the present level. Amnesty International’s response to this outcome was, “let us not be mistaken – this is not a good result for human rights. It is a sad day when Britain’s three major political parties are publicly bartering over people’s liberty”.

Extension of the pre-charge detention period is only one of the aspects of the proposed Terrorism Bill that is being debated in the British Parliament. The acceptance of too wide a definition of what constitutes terrorist acts could throttle the right to free speech and legitimate dissent in the country. Dilution of legal safeguards in the United Kingdom does not portend well for civil liberties in the Commonwealth. British laws are often cited as best practice by human rights defenders in their advocacy with governments traditionally less respectful of individual rights and fundamental freedoms. The point was poignantly made by Shami Chakrabati of Liberty, when she said, “things have come to a pretty pass when the country that once defined justice for the rest of world seeks to win a race to the bottom in fair trial standards”.

Undoubtedly, the threat from terrorists and their networks is real, and governments must be resolute in countering it. However, the response cannot come at the price of undoing rights guarantees in national and international law. Otherwise we may end up throwing the baby out with the bath water.

CHRI Newsletter, Spring 2006

Editors: Mary Rendell & Clare Doube , CHRI;
Print: Chenthil Paramasivam ,
Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

Copyright Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

Published by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, B-117, 1st Floor, Sarvodaya Enclave, New Delhi - 110017, India
Tel: +91-11-26850523, 26864678; Fax: +91-11-26864688; Email:

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.