Does the importance of national security mean that individual rights are no longer as relevant as they once were?

Subject: 🗳️ Politics
Type: Analytical Essay
Pages: 8
Word count: 2149
Topics: Democracy, Human Rights, Terrorism
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Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on World Trade Centre in the United States of America, governments all over the world have strengthened the laws related to counterterrorism. For example, Australia is a liberal democracy in which individual rights, freedom, and liberties are well recognized and protected by the rule of law. Yet, over 40 new laws have been created in the recent past, especially after the 9/11 incident, to prevent criminal offenses. These laws provide new detention and questioning powers for police, security apparatus, and Attorney-General, and new ways to control people’s movement and activities (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2007). Even though most of the people support the counterterrorism measures taken by the governments, many of them have worries about the individual rights violation in the name of counterterrorism laws. According to American Civil Liberties Union (2018), the collection of sensitive information of innocent people by government agencies is an invasion of privacy. Even though people like to have more security for their lives and properties, they dislike the efforts to deny their natural rights or human rights in the name of counterterrorism (Fiaz, 2015). Although it is illogical to argue that individual rights are no longer relevant because of the increasing importance of national security, people should realize that any effort to improve the national security would cause some violations of individual rights even in a liberal democracy like Australia.

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One of the major complaints about the national security policies in Australia at present is about the personal privacy violation. Personal privacy can be defined as the ability of an individual to express himself/herself selectively (Oulasvirta, Suomalainen, Hamari, Lampinen, & Karvonen 2014). As part of the strengthening of national security, it is necessary even for a liberal democratic government like Australia to monitor all private and public activities and communications of people. The government machinery or security agencies cannot segregate between terrorists and innocent people without surveillance. Only after watching or monitoring the activities of the people, the security agencies can make a judgment about whether a person has any criminal tendencies or not.

According to Clarke, Morell, Stone, Sunstein, and Swire (2013), effective surveillance is inevitable for the reduction of crime rates in a country. If the government avoids surveillance in order to honor personal privacy, the very same people who once asked for privacy rights will criticize the government when a terrorist attack happens in the country. In other words, people can change their stands based on circumstances. When the security is in danger, they may allow the government to intrude into their privacy rights. At the same time, when they feel secure, they will not allow the government to violate their personal privacy rights. This argument is well supported by the findings of some of the surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center in recent times. One of the Pew Research Center surveys conducted immediately after the 9/11 attacks yielded 70% support for surveillance measures. On the contrary, another survey conducted by the same agency in 2011 yielded only 40% support for surveillance measures taken by the government. Again, another Pew Research Center survey in 2013 after the Snowden revelations in June yielded 48% support for surveillance. Surprisingly, the support had declined to 40% again in 2014 (Rainie & Maniam, 2016). All these findings support the notion that people are opportunists. They are constantly changing their views and opinions based on the things happening in the external world. The above findings support the claim that people are ready to sacrifice their privacy rights when they are aware of the security threats. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the security agencies or the government have limitations in making the people aware of the threats they faced all the time. Governments do not want to make the people panic. So, they will not inform the people about the security threats most of the time. The governmental machinery will operate behind the curtains all the time for keeping the people well protected from security threats.

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It should be noted that the ultimate aim of any security agencies is to prevent the criminal activities before they actually happen. Since prevention of crime is the major objective, it is necessary for the security agencies to monitor the activities of people all the time irrespective of the increase or decrease in criminal activities in a country. Privacy helps a person hide sensitive information about him/her from public eyes. Such information may be necessary for the surveillance agencies to provide adequate security to all people. An important question that needs to be answered by the people is whether they want privacy or safety. It is evident that most of the people value security more than privacy. Therefore, there is nothing morally wrong in allowing the government or security agencies to collect vital information about all people staying in a country. It is possible for criminals to wear the skin of a sheep and do the acts of a wolf. Proper surveillance measures are necessary for the security agencies to identify those criminals who appear innocent in public spheres and engage in antisocial activities secretly.

While arguing for the individual rights or privacy rights, one should not forget that such arguments can make the jobs of the terrorists or jihadists easier (Albrechtsen, 2007). Terrorists always like to have surveillance on their activities. They will provoke people for protesting against surveillance laws. It is not necessary that the ordinary people realize the real intentions of those who force them to protest against the surveillance laws. Therefore, it is necessary for the public to think twice before conducting agitations against a government that tries to strengthen the security.

The Australian Human Rights Equal Opportunity Commission has always supported the government for its effort to introduce counter-terrorism measures without violating country’s human rights obligations to United Nations Resolution 1373 which requires Governments to take actions based on international human rights, humanitarian and refugee laws (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2007). The International human rights law is capable of balancing the national security with individual rights. It fixes the boundaries up to which the security agencies and the government can intrude into the privacy matters of people. As long as the government stays away from things like the restriction of freedom of thought, censoring of information, and the torture of people in the name of security, surveillance can be justified. These are the basic rights of people in a democratic country. The rights for a free trial, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, privacy, non-discrimination, not to be subjected to arbitrary detention, freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment are some of the basic rights of people (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2013). If these rights are violated, the country can no longer assume the mask of a liberal democracy.

The Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) sets out the human rights that may be justifiably infringed by States when an emergency occurs in a country. These rights include the right to liberty and the right to freedom of association (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2007). No governments can allow the freedom of people to get in touch with the prohibited organizations in the country. For example, Al-Qaeda is a prohibited organization in Australia. Therefore, the country can definitely take actions against those who are in touch with this organization. In such cases, the freedom of association rights may not be valid.

At the same time, it is necessary for a liberal democracy like Australia to make sure that the personal information collected from the citizens are well protected and used properly. The possibility of misuse of personal information is the major reason for the objections against surveillance. If the government is capable of protecting the personal data properly, the objections against surveillance can be reduced considerably. Recently, the Indian government has introduced a personal identification system called Aadhar.  The Aadhar provides a unique number to all citizens after collecting their personal data including fingerprints. However, recent reports show that the Aadhar data have been leaked or hacked by some antisocial elements in the country. According to The Times of India dated 5 January 2018, a First Information Report (FIR) has already been filed by the police to investigate the Aadhar data leak case (The Times of India, 2018). Such incidents can happen in Australia also. It is the duty of the governments to make sure that the personal information collected from the people in the name of security is well protected.

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According to Greg Barns, an Australian Lawyers Alliance spokesperson and barrister, Australia the strengthening of the national security apparatus in the country must be accompanied with an associated strengthening of Australian human rights protections similar to those enjoyed by Australia’s allies such as USA, UK, Canada, and New Zealand (Australian Lawyers Alliance, 2017). In all these countries, robust measures are in place for the protection of human rights despite the permission given for the intelligence agencies for surveillance. However, such measures are extremely weak in Australia and that is why people have many concerns about the new counterterrorism laws (Rix, 2008).

Many of the members of the civil society in Australia are skeptical about the too much new laws enforced in the country for the fight against terrorism. They have expressed doubts about the validity of these laws in accordance with the norms prescribed by the international human rights standards. They argue that the broad nature of these laws are capable of retrospective application (International Commission of Jurists, 2006). In other words, it is possible for the security agencies in the country to misuse these laws against a particular community or group of people in the country. For example, the 2003 Australian Security Intelligence Organization Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act (the ASIO Act) gives ASIO the power to get a warrant for detaining and questioning a person who may have information important to the gathering of intelligence in relation to a terrorist activity (Australian National Security, N.d). The warrant issuing authority will be a person appointed by the Minister who is looking after the matters related to national security. Moreover, it is possible for the ASIO to detain people without a judicial warrant for up to seven days and interrogate them for up to 24 hours (Michaelson, 2005). It is possible for ASIO to detain anybody in the name of this act and the court cannot interfere in such matters properly. In other words, the government or the executive will get additional powers if these laws are enforced in Australia. In a liberal democratic country, it is desirable for the executive, legislature and the judiciary to have equal powers.

According to Aharon Barak, former President of the Israeli Supreme Court, there is no security without law (Kirby, 2005). In other words, the Rule of Law is necessary for protecting individuals from the evil activities of the state. A citizen of Australia can definitely challenge the activities of the government if he/she feels that the count-terrorism laws are applied to him/her without genuine reasons. It should be noted that judiciary is one of the major pillars of a liberal democratic country like Australia. If the government misuses its power for political gains or some other purposes, the citizens can challenge the government in courts. It should be noted that the judiciary, executive, and the legislature have equal power in a democratic country. If the government travels in the wrong direction, it is possible for the judiciary to direct the government towards the right path. In fact, judiciary interprets whether the government crosses the limits or not when cases against privacy or human right violation arise. In short, the Rule of Law in a country is capable of protecting the human rights and the unfair intrusions of the administration in personal matters.

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To conclude, both privacy and national security are important subjects even for ordinary people in Australia. It is the duty of the government to make sure that the people are protected properly and their human rights are not violated in the name of security. At the same time, there are instances in which the government will be forced to monitor the activities of the people and collect some personal information. There is nothing wrong in allowing the government to do so since security is more important than privacy. At the same time, the government should not cross the limits in the name of security and counter-terrorism. Too many laws are in place in Australia for the fight against terrorism. It is necessary for the government to make sure that none of these laws are misused and the human rights of the people are well protected in the country.

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  1. Australian Human Rights Commission. (2007, October 17). Incorporating human rights principles into national security measures. Retrieved from https://www.humanrights.gov.au/news/speeches/incorporating-human-rights-principles-national-security-measures
  2. Australian Human Rights Commission. (2013, September 30). Counter-terrorism and human rights. Retrieved from http://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/rights-and-freedoms/projects/counter-terrorism-and-human-rights
  3. Albrechtsen, J. (2007, August 8). ‘Jihadists owe Kirby a thank you’, The Australian (Sydney), 8 August 2007.
  4. American Civil Liberties Union. (2018, February). Privacy and surveillance. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/issues/national-security/privacy-and-surveillance
  5. Australian Lawyers Alliance. (2017, July 21). Human rights protections must be part of national security review. Retrieved from https://www.lawyersalliance.com.au/news/human-rights-protections-must-be-part-of-national-security-review
  6. Australian National Security. (N.d.). Laws to Combat Terrorism Retrieved from https://www.nationalsecurity.gov.au/WhatAustraliaisdoing/Pages/Laws-to-combat-terrorism.aspx
  7. Clarke, R.A., Morell, M.J., Stone, G.R., Sunstein, C.R., and Swire, P.P. (2013, December 19). Protecting citizens, and their privacy. The New York Times. 19 December 2013.
  8. Fiaz, N. (2015). Counter-Terrorism Measures: the Balance between National Security and Civil Liberties in the UK and France “Has the Pendulum Swung Too Far, To the Detriment of Civil Liberties? International Journal of Science and Research (IJSR),6 (10), 426-434.
  9. International Commission of Jurists. (2006, March 17). Eminent Jurists Panel concludes Australia hearing on counter-terrorism law, practices and policies. Retrieved from http://www.icj-aust.org.au/
  10. Kirby, M J. (2005). Terrorism and the Democratic Response. University of New South Wales Law Journal, 28(1).
  11. Michaelson, C. (2005). Antiterrorism Legislation in Australia: A Proportionate Response to the Terrorist Threat? Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 28(4).
  12. Oulasvirta, A., Suomalainen, T., Hamari, J., Lampinen, A., & Karvonen, K. (2014). Transparency of intentions decreases privacy concerns in ubiquitous surveillance. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17(10), 633-38.
  13. Rainie, L. & Maniam, S. (2016, February 19). Americans feel the tensions between privacy and security concerns. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/19/americans-feel-the-tensions-between-privacy-and-security-concerns/
  14. Rix, M. D. (2008). Australia and the ”War against Terrorism”: terrorism, national security and human rights. Crimes and Misdemeanours: deviance and the law in historical perspective, 2 (1), 40-59.
  15. The Times of India. (2018, January 5). FIR filed in Aadhar data leak case; all info safe, says UIDAI. Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/fir-filed-in-aadhaar-data-leak-case-all-info-safe-says-uidai/articleshow/62373114.cms
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