Hearings CONDUCTED by the Eminent Jurists Panel, set up to examine legal measures introduced in response to terrorism, were concluded on 17 March 2006. Evidence led by government officials suggested there was a “substantial terrorist threat to Australia, given that Australians have been victims of terrorist acts abroad”.
Officials told the panel that new counter-terrorism laws were required in order to bring the powers of intelligence and law enforcement authorities up to a level that would enable them to prevent terrorist acts. According to information recently disseminated by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in relation to the hearing, officials said they were “conscious of the need for checks and balances and mechanisms of oversight to ensure that human rights are respected”.
However, evidence led from members of the public and the legal community questioned “whether many of the new laws were indeed required”. They focused on the need to ensure that new counter-terrorism laws were compliant with international human rights documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Civil society groups cited amendments to ASIO powers as being of particular concern, as they allowed for unprecedented question and detain privileges, even when the persons involved were not accused of any crime. Judicial control in relation to Australia’s compliance with these “preventative detention” measures was stated as being paramount to the safe and democratic implementation of counter-terrorist legislative regimes. The panel observed this is of particular importance in Australia, where no federal laws have yet been adopted to facilitate the incorporation of international standards into national law.
The hearings concluded weeks of intense scrutiny of the Federal Government’s new measures. At a Senate hearing on 15 March, President of the Law Council, John North, denounced proposed new surveillance laws as having “huge implications” beyond merely opposing terrorism.
On 20 March, Justice Marcus Einfeld led a conference at the University of Western Sydney, which inquired into whether Australia was becoming a police state. His focus was the shape of human rights in an age in which the Federal Government is inexorably increasing its capacity to divest its own citizens of fundamental liberal rights. Justice Einfeld and others, including Justice Michael Kirby, have led the debate on human rights and counter-terrorism measures since 2001, when the Bush administration introduced its controversial ‘War on Terror’ slogan.