New ECtHR judgment on terrorism legislation and respect for private life: is Beghal v UK the conclusion to an old chapter, or the beginning of a new one?

On 28 February 2019, the European Court of Human Rights gave its judgment in Beghal v United Kingdom, in which it unanimously held that there had been a violation of Sylvie Beghal’s right to respect for private and family life, enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”).

The case concerns the power of police to stop and question travellers at ports and airports in Britain without the requirement for reasonable suspicion.

This post will provide a short description of the facts of the case and briefly set out the legal arguments put forward by both sides. It will then argue that, as some areas of the current terrorism legislation remain largely untested (e.g. power to seize sensitive electronic information outside the journalistic context), and with the introduction of new powers in the recent Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019, Beghal is unlikely to be the end of the story on no-suspicion stop and question powers.

The facts in Beghal

The applicant, Sylvie Beghal, is a French national living in Leicester, United Kingdom. On 4 January 2011, she arrived at East Midlands Airport following a visit to her husband, Djamel Beghal, who is in prison in France for terrorism offences. Upon arrival, she was stopped under the infamous Schedule 7 of the UK Terrorism Act 2000, a piece of counter-terrorism legislation which gives British police and immigration officers the power to stop, search and question passengers at international points of border-crossing (ports, airports and international rail terminals).

Such powers are to be exercised for the purpose of determining whether the person “appears to be concerned or to have been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism” – and can be exercised without any suspicion of involvement of terrorism. If someone fails to co-operate he or she is deemed to have committed a criminal offence and could face up to three months in prison, a fine or both.

After being stopped, Sylvie Beghal was taken to an interrogation room and given the opportunity to call a lawyer. She was searched, and her luggage was searched too. She was told that she was not under arrest, but would be questioned under Section 7. She told the officers that she would only answer questions after her lawyer arrived, but the lawyer took a few hours to arrive and the officers started the examination. Thereafter, she was asked a number of questions about her family, her financial circumstances and her recent visit to France. She refused to answer most of those questions. She was later charged with wilfully failing to comply with a duty under Schedule 7.

Legal arguments: was the interference ‘in accordance with the law’?

The fact that there had been an interference with Ms Beghal’s right to respect for private life was not contested by the UK Government. The question, therefore, was whether such an interference was “in accordance with the law”.

The applicant argued that it was not in accordance in the law, because the powers under Schedule 7 were not sufficiently circumscribed and did not provide adequate safeguards against abuse:

  • The absence of any requirement for objective grounds for suspicion, or even subjective suspicion, meant that an officer could exercise powers based on no more than a hunch, which in turn gave considerable scope for extraneous factors and motives – such as biases and ingrained stereotypes – to influence how an officer selected individuals to stop and question.
  • In Gillan and Quinton v UK, sections 44 and 45 of the 2000 Act (which set out a power to stop and search exercisable in relation to any person anywhere in the street), had already been held not to be in accordance with the law despite having a narrower purpose and scope of application, and despite not allowing as intrusive a search as the one permitted under Schedule 7.
  • The Code of practice in force at the time of the applicant’s examination did not tell examining officers how to determine whether the exercise of Schedule 7 powers was proportionate, nor did it require them to keep to a minimum all interferences with fundamental rights.
  • Although individuals were entitled to consult a solicitor, that did not prevent arbitrary selection in the first place, and in any case officers were permitted to interrogate a person in the absence of their solicitor anyway (which is what happened to Sylvie Beghal).
  • There was no requirement for officers to explain the reasons why a particular individual has been selected for examination, and no obligation to record such reasoning either.
  • Because the lawful exercise of the powers was not conditional on any suspicion (reasonable or otherwise), the scope for using judicial review proceedings to challenge the decision was extremely limited.

The Government argued the following:

  • The power was focussed on entry and exit points to the United Kingdom, which were the first line of defence against the entry and exit of terrorists, and as such they provided a unique opportunity to target checks where they were likely to be the most effective.
  • There were sufficient effective safeguards in the operation of the scheme to meet the requirements of legality. The Government cited a list of factors demonstrating the existence of such safeguards, such as the restriction on the duration of the interview and on the type of search, the availability of judicial review, and the continuous supervision of the scheme by an Independent Reviewer.
  • There was no evidence that the powers had been used in a racially discriminatory fashion, and such a use was expressly prohibited by the Code of Practice.

The Court found that the legislation in force at that time had not been sufficiently circumscribed, nor were there adequate legal safeguards against abuse. In particular, people could be subjected to examination for up to nine hours and compelled to answer questions without being formally detained or having access to a lawyer.

To reach this conclusion, the Court considered the following factors:

  1. Geographic and temporal scope of the powers: The Court found that the wide scope of application of Schedule 7 (applying at all ports and border controls) did not in itself run contrary to the principle of legality. Consideration was also given to “the very real threat that Contracting States face on account of international terrorism” and the need to control international movement of terrorists.
  2. Discretion afforded to the authorities in deciding if and when to exercise the powers: The existence of a requirement of reasonable suspicion is an important factor in assessing the lawfulness of a power to stop and question or search a person, but the lack of such a requirement does not in itself render the exercise of the power unlawful. The Court gives Member States a wide margin of appreciation in matters relating to national security, and noted that there was clear evidence that the Schedule 7 powers have been “of real value in protecting national security”. Interestingly, the Court seemed to make a case against the requirement for reasonable suspicion, by pointing out that such a requirement could actually lead to terrorists avoiding the deterrent threat of Schedule 7 “by using people who had not previously attracted the attention of the police (“clean skins”)” and noting that “the mere fact of a stop could alert a person to the existence of surveillance”.
  3. Any curtailment on the interference occasioned by the exercise of the powers: Individuals could be subjected to examination for up to 9 hours, without any requirement of reasonable suspicion, without being formally detained, and without having access to a lawyer. The only ‘curtailment’ at the time of the applicant’s examination was therefore this 9-hour time limit.
  4. Possibility of judicial review: The Court found that the absence of a requirement of suspicion made it difficult to challenge the lawfulness of the decision to exercise Schedule 7 powers.
  5. Independent oversight of the use of the powers: The use of the powers is subject to independent oversight by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. Although the Court noted the Reviewer’s important role in providing unbiased, scrutinised oversight, it found that such oversight was not capable of compensating for the otherwise insufficient safeguards applicable to the operation of the Schedule 7 regime (noting, for example, that a number of important recommendations had not been implemented by the UK Government).

Do recent changes to Schedule 7 powers make Beghal v United Kingdom moot?

The writing had been on the wall for the most extended of Schedule 7 powers long before the Court’s judgment in Beghal v United Kingdom. The powers were facing a number of legal challenges and, in 2013, the UK Supreme Court raised serious concerns about the potential for “serious invasions of personal liberty” due to a lack of safeguards.

As a result, in 2014 significant changes were made to Schedule 7 with the aim of reducing the potential scope for interference with individuals’ rights while retaining operational effectiveness. This included limiting the maximum period of interview from 9 hours to 6 hours, providing for specific training for officers, and providing for specific protection for information benefiting from attorney-client privilege or journalistic material.

In the 2016 Miranda judgment, although the exercise of the Schedule 7 stop power in relation to Mr Miranda was deemed lawful, the Court of Appeal found that the stop power, if used in respect of journalistic information or material, was incompatible with Article 10 of the ECHR (freedom of expression) as it was not prescribed by law.  Again, judges warned that Schedule 7 appeared too arbitrary and lacked safeguards.

It would be easy to dismiss Beghal v United Kingdom as moot: Britain has changed its law since the relevant events occurred, hasn’t it? Indeed, throughout the judgment, the Court confirms it has only had regard to the Schedule 7 power to examine “as it was at the time the applicant was stopped” (see paragraph 110).

The UK Government is likely to argue that any flaw in the legislation has been remedied already, but the rest of paragraph 110 tells another story: “[The Court] has not considered the amendments which flowed from the Anti‑Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 and the updated Code of Practice; nor has it considered the power to detain under Schedule 7, which has the potential to result in a much more significant interference with a person’s rights under the Convention” (emphasis added).

This warning wasn’t lost on former Independent Reviewer David Anderson QC, who noted on Twitter: “the end of paragraph 110 contains a significant sting in the tail, flagging for future attention the use of more advanced no-suspicion powers not used in this case, e.g. to detain and to download devices”.

Data mining of electronic devices under Schedule 7 remains largely untested

In 2017, Muhammad Rabbani, the director of campaigning group Cage, was prosecuted after refusing to hand over the passwords of his mobile phone and computer when stopped by police at Heathrow Airport.

The case escalated to the Court of Appeal, with Rabbani’s lawyers relying on the Miranda precedent to argue that the protection owed to journalistic material applied to other categories of protected information. This argument was dismissed by the Court of Appeal, with Lord Justice Irwin noting that the Miranda decision was “expressly and narrowly” centred on Article 10 of the ECHR and freedom of expression for journalism, and that it was “by no means self-evident that identical or (or even similar) considerations arise in respect of other categories of excluded or special procedure information”.

Following the Court of Appeal decision in May 2018, Rabbani said he would appeal the decision at the UK Supreme Court. In an era where phones and computers give individuals the means of carrying a large number of potentially sensitive documents, the case raises important questions regarding the right to privacy and the limits of data mining of electronic devices in the name of counter-terrorism.

Regulating the retention of electronic data downloaded from devices is something that was indeed on the radar of Britain’s terrorism watchdog. In his most recent report dated October 2018, then Independent Reviewer Max Hill QC notes a sharp drop in the number of port stops: from 60,000 in 2012 down to approximately 16,000 in 2017. This remarkable trend is caused no doubt by multiple factors, “which must include better capture of passenger manifest data across the UK, and better use of targeting techniques, even though reasonable suspicion is still not required for a stop”.

But the numbers reveal something else: the proportion of detentions resulting from such examinations is rising. In 2012, around 1% of examinations led to detention. In 2017, a staggering 10.4% of examinations resulted in detention. Although this is not a particularly worrying pattern, and it might in fact simply be a result of rising efficiency in data capturing and targeting, the report nonetheless warns that “important questions remain, including the ongoing issue of satisfactory rules governing the retention of both biometric data taken from individuals and electronic data downloaded from their devices”.

New legislation enacted in February 2019: Schedule 7-type powers for non-terrorist ‘hostile acts’

Finally, one can expect renewed debate over no-suspicion stop and question powers in light of the new Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 (the “2019 Act”), which was signed into law on 12 February 2019.

Defining ‘terrorism’ is always a tricky exercise. The 2018 Novichok poisonings in Salisbury, and the question of the perpetrators and their origin, or the question of state sponsorship, have inflamed the issue of what terrorism means – should counter-terrorism legislation include powers to deal with non-terrorist acts that nevertheless threaten the nation?

In reaction to this, the new 2019 Act provides a separate legal regime to deal with “hostile acts”, i.e. non-terrorist acts which threaten national security, threaten the economic well-being of the United Kingdom in a way relevant to the interests of national security, or constitute an act of serious crime. Schedule 3 of the 2019 Act provides for stop and question powers that the Government explicitly notes are “closely modelled on Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000”.

When it was still only a bill going through the parliamentary process, the 2019 Act was scrutinised by the relevant committee on human rights, which expressed concerns about the stop and search powers at ports and borders:

We expressed concern that Schedule 3 provides for interference with the rights to private life, freedom of expression, and property, yet the powers it gives are dangerously broad. In particular, the definition of ‘hostile act’ is extremely wide and there is no threshold test of suspicion required before a person is detained and examined. In its response, the Government acknowledges that the definition of hostile activity is broad but states that “it is required to encompass the spectrum of threats currently posed to the UK by hostile states, which includes espionage, subversion and assassination”. We would be grateful for more clarity of the Government’s position on the necessity of this ‘no suspicion’ power.

The committee suggested the insertion of a threshold of reasonable suspicion and a requirement that the exercise of the power must be necessary and proportionate. This fell on deaf ears, and the suggested amendments were not included in the draft bill (now the 2019 Act).

Conclusion

In conclusion, Beghal v United Kingdom is unlikely to be the end of the story in terms of challenges to counter-terrorism legislation. With the creation of new stop and search powers, and the unresolved question of the legality of the more advanced powers (such as the power to detain and search electronic devices), Britain would benefit from strong, independent oversight of its counter-terrorism legislation. Shame the position of Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation has been vacant since October 2018, with no indication as to when the next ‘terrorism watchdog’ will be appointed and despite repeated calls from former reviewers.

 

 

Trafficking of Human Beings at the ECtHR: The Importance of Using Article 14 to Broaden the Protection of Women and Girls (Part I)

Two Spanish cases currently pending before the European Court of Human Rights illustrate gaping lacunae in the protections extended to victims of trafficking on the continent.  They also, however, offer a unique opportunity to broaden this protection by recognizing, for the first time, that the trafficking of human beings is a form of slavery and violence that constitutes discrimination against women and girls. By linking trafficking and discrimination (in the same way that it linked domestic violence with gender discrimination in cases like Opuz vs. Turkey), and thereby requiring that States appropriately protect victims of trafficking and refrain from further discriminatory treatment against them, the Court would provide much more robust safeguards for some of the most vulnerable women in Europe.

The insufficient protection to trafficked women under the European Convention of Human Rights

The Convention guarantees basic rights and freedoms and recognizes “the inherent dignity of all human beings.” The enjoyment of those rights “shall be secured without discrimination on any ground.” Trafficking, for its part, has been recognized as a humanitarian crisis. Trafficking is the only organized crime expressly prohibited in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Council of the European Union agreed on a Framework Decision on combating trafficking in 2002, adopting an action plan on best practices, standards, and procedures for tackling the phenomenon in 2005. Further plans have been adopted by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Statistics bear out the fact that trafficking is widespread and well entrenched on European soil. European Commission statistics from 2014 indicate that 30,146 victims were found across the 28 Member States. 80 percent of registered victims are female, and approximately 35 percent arrived from outside the EU. More than 1,000 child victims were trafficked for sexual exploitation. Yet the Court has only heard twelve cases involving allegations of trafficking since 2005, eight of which were ruled inadmissible. The result is a legal regime that could do more to protect the high numbers of trafficked persons arriving in Europe. With regards to its trafficking jurisprudence, the Court has explicitly recognized three main positive obligations on States, all derived from Article 4.

The first is an obligation to put into place an appropriate legislative and administrative framework. It requires that States “penalize and prosecute effectively any act aimed at maintaining a person in a situation of slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour,” with additional requirements for effectively preventing trafficking and protecting victims. In Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia, the Court elaborated on Article 4’s requirements, holding that member States must “put in place adequate measures regulating businesses often used as a cover for human trafficking,” and that immigration rules must “address relevant concerns relating to encouragement, facilitation, or tolerance of trafficking.”

The second requirement involves the positive obligation to take operational measures to protect victims and potential victims of trafficking. The obligation only arises, however, if State authorities were aware, or should have been aware, of “circumstances giving rise to a credible suspicion that an identified individual had been, or was at real and immediate risk of being, trafficked or exploited…”. The obligation is tempered, so that the Court will not impose an “impossible or disproportionate burden on the authorities.”

Thirdly, and lastly, the Court has held that Article 4 involves a procedural obligation to investigate where there is a credible suspicion that an individual’s rights . . . have been violated.” Any investigation must be effective, meaning that it must be independent from those implicated in events, and must be capable of leading to the identification and punishment of those responsible. The investigation must also be prompt and reasonably expeditious, with urgency attached where the possibility of removing the individual from the harmful situation is available.

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Go On! ESIL-ECtHR conference ‘The European Convention on Human Rights and the Crimes of the Past’ (deadline 19 Feb.)

logo2The European Court of Human Rights and the European Society for International Law have organized a one-day conference on “The European Convention on Human Rights and the Crimes of the Past on February 26 in Strasbourg, France. The deadline to register for the program, which will include presentations by ECtHR judges and international law scholars, is February 19. To register, email ESIL-ECHR-Conf2016 [at] echr.coe.int.

Greater clarity on intermediary liability may not be a win for free expression online

The Delfi v. Estonia decision, issued in June of 2015 by the European Court of Human Rights, marked a low point in that court’s caselaw regarding freedom of expression on the Internet. This week, a new European Court ruling slightly qualifies and narrows the scope of Delfi. The outcome of the new decision is not as detrimental as one could have anticipated; however, it looks to be another step toward requiring European Internet intermediaries to monitor user-generated content on their sites.

Background: The Delfi decision of 2015

In Delfi, the Grand Chamber ruled that holding an online news portal liable as the publisher of unlawful comments posted by its users was consistent with the right to freedom of expression enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It distinguished a similar ruling by the First Section of the Court, which upheld the imposition of liability for comments that were deemed defamatory. For the Grand Chamber, the comments rose to the level of hate speech and incitement to violence, which were clearly unlawful and particularly harmful forms of speech.

The Grand Chamber declined to inform its Delfi analysis with caselaw interpreting the EU E-Commerce Directive and other relevant international instruments on the right to freedom of expression. According to these materials, a broad range of intermediaries should be shielded from liability for content that they transmit or host. The E-Commerce Directive and other materials indicate that intermediaries should not have a duty to monitor user-generated content on their sites, and decisions regarding liability should examine whether the intermediary had actual knowledge of unlawful material.

Although the European Court’s jurisdiction is limited to interpreting the European Convention and its protocols, I have argued in a forthcoming piece that the Delfi decision undermines legal certainty regarding intermediary liability in Europe and is problematic for the right to freedom of expression (see similar views here, here and here). The Court specified that its reasoning in Delfi only applied to “a large professionally managed Internet news portal run on a commercial basis which published news articles of its own and invited its readers to comment on them,” excluding most social networking services. Nevertheless, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish intermediaries on the basis of whether they provide or “edit” content.

The Court’s latest decision on the liability of an online intermediary

In Magyar Tartalomszolgaltatok Egyesulete and Index.hu Zrt v. Hungary (MTE), the Fourth Section of the European Court qualified Delfi and explained that Internet content providers will be held to the highest standards of conduct when hate speech or incitement to violence is posted on their sites. Because the comments in question in this case were merely defamatory, Hungary’s decision to hold the applicants – a self-regulatory body of Internet content providers and a major Internet news portal – strictly liable constituted a violation of Article 10 of the European Convention (a welcome contrast to the First Section’s holding in the 2013 Delfi decision).

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The European Court of Human Rights rules on surveillance in Russia

On December 4, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights unanimously ruled that the SORM system of direct access to communications networks in Russia violated the right to privacy enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Zakharov v. Russia is the most recent judgment on the proper limits of communications surveillance powers, and its release at a time when the United Kingdom’s Draft Investigatory Powers Bill is under consideration is not likely to be coincidental.   This post will focus on three noteworthy aspects of the judgment: its clarification of requirements for standing when challenging communications surveillance laws, its treatment of data retention standards, and its conclusions regarding direct access systems.

At the heart of the Zakharov case is the SORM system of surveillance which is present in Russia and several former Soviet states. It allows law enforcement authorities to intercept the content of communications and to obtain non-content data by means of a direct connection to the networks of communications service providers (CSPs). According to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, CSPs should facilitate the transfer of data to authorities when an order for interception is presented, but law enforcement should not have direct access to networks. European telecommunications companies and Privacy International have disclosed that direct access is employed by a range of states beyond the Eurasia region.

In his application to the European Court, the chair of a civil society organization alleged that the system of covert interception of mobile communications in Russia did not comply with Article 8, despite the fact that judicial authorization of surveillance was required by law. The case reached the Grand Chamber when the First Section relinquished jurisdiction pursuant to Article 30 of the European Convention, which may be applied when a case “raises a serious question affecting the interpretation of the Convention or the protocols thereto.” The Grand Chamber held that several aspects of Russian law were incompatible with the Convention, including that communications surveillance was permitted for a broad range of criminal offenses (including pickpocketing), surveillance was not limited to those suspected of having committed offenses, and robust oversight mechanisms and effective remedies were lacking. Continue reading

Go On! ESIL – European Court of Human Rights Conference, 5 June

A one-day conference entitled The European Convention on Human Rights and General International Law is being organized jointly by the European Court of Human Rights and the European Society for International Law. The programme includes presentations by ten judges from the European Court of Human Rights, as well as presentations by judges from the International Court of Justice, and other judges and international law scholars.

The conference will take place on Friday 5 June at the premises of the Court in Strasbourg.

Program and more information here.

To register for this event, please send an email to Rose During (Rose.During [at] echr.coe.int) with your name and affiliation.

Failing to Face the Gender Challenge – note on the European Court of Human Rights Jurisprudence

The intersection of religion and gender equality in the context of international human rights law has been exceptionally controversial and poignant, touching the very essence of peoples’ personal beliefs and generating intense social and political tensions. Yet, the failure of international law-making institutions to develop substantial legal analysis on this monumental issue is more than a political issue. It is a substantive failure of human rights law to protect women.

Thus far, it can be argued that there is a general rule and agreement in international law by which women’s equality is considered as a higher norm such that freedom of religion and conscience cannot justify discrimination against women. However, even so, there are still several outstanding problems. For instance, it is simply not clear when and how this rule should be applied. What are religious discriminatory practices and how should we identify them? In what circumstances gender equality is really more important than religious freedoms, and under which conditions and exemptions? More generally, how should gender equality be understood in the religious context and what can be a proper balance. Another difficulty is that so far this general rule has been addressed in a binary manner by which gender equality is put against religion while in fact reality brought much complex claims (for instance, by many women who wish to assume their equality within the religious context and within their religious communities). While international law has been useful for obvious and extreme cases (where religion practices aggressively violated women’s rights), it has either avoided the complexity or over simplified the principle of equality in more complicated cases.

The European Court of Human Rights demonstrated these problems in recent case law over the bans on religious garments, much of it surrounding the wearing of veils, headscarves, and other modest garments by Muslim women in public spaces. Very briefly, on one side, proponents of the bans on religious veils have put forward justifications such as preserving state secularism in the public sphere, ensuring state’s religious neutrality, and promoting gender equality (as these garments are often seen as an oppressive practice). On the other side, opponents of the bans have claimed that they violate many aspects of the right to equality and women’s right to manifest their religion, as well as other sets of related rights (such as the right to personal autonomy, the right to privacy, access to public spaces and education, and the right to employment).

In the cases brought before it (most recently in SAS vs France, Dogru, Sahin and Dahlab), the Court dismissed the claims of women who pleaded for the right to manifest their religion and wear headscarves in educational settings or other public places. Generally, the Court ruled that the limitations on religious freedoms were necessary in a democratic society for “… the protection of the rights and freedoms of others” (as prescribed by article 9(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights). In three of the cases, the Court decisions further approved as a legitimate aim the governments’ claim to promote gender equality as these garments were introduced as an oppressive practice towards women and as a threat to democratic values.

However, it is not the results of the rulings that are most concerning. It is the court’s disappointing failure to fully engage in the legal complexity of the debate. In the course of its rulings, the Court avoided confrontation with the competing set of rights, and did not develop any comprehensive legal assessment or methodology on the tension between women’s equality, human rights and religious freedoms, to tackle these conflicts in a systematic manner.

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