Since the “war on terror” began, various policies have been adopted on both sides of the Atlantic that have played on, or exacerbated, our fear of the “Islamic extremist.” Perhaps none has been more pernicious than the recent British practice of stripping citizenship from dozens of people who were considered possible terrorism suspects, as soon as they traveled abroad — which then made it less politically complicated for American agents to hunt them down as dangers.
The power to strip dual citizens of their British rights — habeas corpus and the presumption of innocence included — has been on the books here for decades, but had not often been used until 9/11. Since then, 42 Britons have seen their passports torn up by the home secretary; of these, 40 have been Muslims. Even more troubling, at least some of these people were clearly singled out because the United States had designs on their lives or their liberty. Two Britons who lost their citizenship were killed later in American drone strikes. Another was kidnapped and rendered to the United States.
Last Monday, the House of Lords defeated an effort by the government to go even further — to expand its citizenship-stripping powers to include people who held only British citizenship, a step that could render them not just more vulnerable but also stateless. We can admire the respect that Parliament’s upper chamber showed for the rule of law, but it is small comfort: In January that bill sailed through the House of Commons with only 34 votes in dissent, and now a committee of the two houses will decide what comes next. Clearly, with the London bombings of 2005 in mind, the Commons is still acting on fears that Muslims who might be radicalized abroad will return home to threaten the British Isles. Until those fears recede, we can expect continued maneuvers to quicken our retreat from traditional standards of British justice.
Something similar is being hinted at across the Atlantic; we see suggestions on America’s far-right fringe that dual citizens who fight alongside jihadis in Syria should lose their United States citizenship. But Americans, at least, have limits that prohibit making anyone stateless. In 1958, the Supreme Court decided Trop v. Dulles, a case that clarified the Eighth Amendment’s proscription against “cruel and unusual punishment.” The court was asked whether it was constitutional to deprive people of their citizenship when doing so would leave them stateless. It answered that statelessness was “a form of punishment more primitive than torture.”
But even if statelessness is off the C.I.A.’s table, assassination is not. Bilal al-Berjawi, a dual citizen suspected of ties to Somali jihadists who had been stripped of his British rights, called home to London from Somalia in January 2012 to check on his wife, who had just given birth to their first child. A listener — speculation fell naturally on British intelligence — must have passed along the coordinates of his mobile phone to the C.I.A. while he was still expressing his joy, since he was blown up by a Hellfire missile shortly after hanging up.
Conveniently for both governments, stripping these men of their nationality meant that the obligations on British authorities to stand up for them had dissolved; a noncitizen gets no consular demands for access to him or information on where he has been taken, nor even an inquest into his death. In the House of Lords debate last week, Baroness Helena Kennedy demanded to know whether the purpose of enhancing the citizenship-stripping powers was to ensure “that we might be able to do things that make people vulnerable and deny them their rights, creating yet more black holes where no law obtains.” This was not a question to which the government minister in attendance responded.
I am a dual national, too — half-British, half-American. One concern I have is about both countries’ loss of moral authority around the world when they appear to conspire in a policy of assassination. Yes, we must guard against genuine threats. But this method is not just immoral; it is unwise. The C.I.A. might hit the odd terrorist with its missiles, but the circling drones terrorize hundreds of thousands of innocent Pakistanis, helping to assure that America — a nation that was pitied after 9/11 — will remain among the most widely hated nations on Earth. Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Iraq and now drones — all are experiments in lawlessness that have severely damaged America’s reputation.
Winston Churchill coined the phrase “special relationship” in 1946 to describe Britain and the United States standing against totalitarian dictatorships in the name of Anglo-American democracy and law. To him, as to his wartime partner Franklin D. Roosevelt, these were two countries rooted in a shared idea of citizens with rights: for the British, dating to the limits placed on kings in Magna Carta in 1215, and for Americans to the Bill of Rights, with its protections from excesses of elected governments.
After World War II, close coordination between the two countries was critical to developing United Nations agreements that banned torture and defined fundamental rights for all. Ironically, these included conventions in 1954 and 1961 on preventing and reducing statelessness. Britain signed both when they were concluded. Neither, sadly, has yet been joined by the United States.
So what has become of that “special relationship”? Is it destined to spiral down into a covert conspiracy to knock off Muslims around the world? Such an outcome, to lift a phrase from Roosevelt on another subject, would pay undue homage only to fear itself.
There are two paths from which we must choose. One is to pretend that someone who is not in our club has no rights at all. This was the theory behind Guantánamo, where the George W. Bush administration argued that detainees had no enforceable legal rights. The Supreme Court turned back that interpretation for habeas corpus. But now it reappears in the logic behind Britain’s predilection for “stripping”: If we take away your passport, then it’s just fine for the United States to kill you.
There is an alternative path: to recognize that our true values are expressed in the developing world of human rights, and to give up the notion that even someone we believe we should fear can be stripped of the rights of citizenship so we can deprive him of the most basic human right — the right to life itself.
Last week the House of Lords was able, temporarily, to reject a further turn down the wrong path. Perhaps this will give us all time to remember what the “special relationship” is all about.
Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer and human rights advocate, is the director of Reprieve, an organization that advocates for prisoners’ rights.