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Defining 'extremism' within the context of human rights 

The Joint Committee on Human Rights appointed by the House of Lords and the House of Commons to consider matters relating to human rights in the United Kingdom has reported that there is no workable definition of ‘extremism’ and that for this reason the government must be cautious in its counter-terrorism strategy.

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In combating terrorism, specifically the task of countering ISIL/Daesh-inspired terrorism, there is no consensus; particularly since the government is also under a duty to uphold the democratic and human rights that terrorists so often aim to extinguish. These include the right to freedom of speech, association and religion (123rf/Olexandr Moroz)

The UK Government announced that it would be introducing a new Bill on extremism in the Queen’s Speech of May 2015. It subsequently launched a Counter-Extremism Strategy on October 19, 2015, which sits alongside its longstanding Prevent Strategy (download PDF here), which is part of the Contest counter-terrorism strategy and is designed to prevent extremism). The Joint Committee on Human Rights has heard evidence in relation to that Bill and the report is interesting reading.

As we all would expect the government has a duty to protect the public. But when it comes to how to combat terrorism, specifically the task of countering ISIL/Daesh-inspired terrorism, there is no consensus; particularly since the government is also under a duty to uphold the democratic and human rights that terrorists so often aim to extinguish. These include the right to freedom of speech, association and religion.

If extremism is to be combated through legal mechanisms, such as civil orders, clarity as to the definition of extremism will be essential.

Currently, the government defines extremism as: “The vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

Alternative (and differently focused) advice from the Department for Education to independent schools and academies uses the phrase: “Mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” The difference in wording suggests a degree of confusion and, in either event, these definitions are couched in such general terms that they would be likely to prove unworkable as a legislative definition. In particular, the extent to which lack of “mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs” could, or should, be deemed unlawful is likely to prove deeply contentious.

Many people would argue that it is right to be intolerant of certain aspects of religious belief, for instance where religious belief is used to justify homophobia or the subservience of women. The question then arises, what is extremist: the homophobic and misogynist beliefs, or others’ intolerance of those beliefs? If someone denounces the judiciary for being Islamophobic, is that undermining the rule of law or is it the exercise of free speech? It is difficult to arrive at a more focused definition of extremism and it does not appear that the government so far has been successful in arriving at one. It is far from clear that there is an accepted definition of what constitutes extremism, let alone what legal powers there should be, if any, to combat it.

The report contains a number of conclusions and recommendations relating to: Right-wing extremism and xenophobia; an independent review of the Prevent Strategy; the operation of the Prevent Duty in Schools; the operation of the Prevent Duty in universities; and combating extremism by the way of civil orders.

The full report is available here

Roger Gomm is CRJs Security and Terrorism Correspondent 

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