United Kingdom Home Secretary Dr. John Reid

As part of the Ambassadors Roundtable Series on International Collaboration to Combat Terrorism and Insurgencies, the Homeland Security Policy Institute hosted United Kingdom Home Secretary Dr. John Reid on June 18, 2007. Below are his remarks in their entirety.

Facing a Common Threat with International Partnership

I needn’t rehearse for an audience as well versed as this one, the central features of the conflict in which we are engaged, at home and abroad. Suffice it’s sufficient to identify three features in very broad political terms.

We face a common threat, which will only be countered by a common response. Which is why our partnership, and that of our friends and allies throughout the world is not only of continuing relevance, but also a continuing imperative. In today’s struggle, in today’s world, no one is going to win on his or her own.

Secondly, whatever the medium through which this struggle is being fought out in particular areas at particular times, at heart it is a struggle for values and ideals. That is why, in Britain, we have strengthened our capacity to engage in that argument through the establishment of a new Research Information and Communications Unit as an integral part of the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism in my now refocused Department.

Thirdly, it follows from that, that our willingness to use traditional military forces and security services is a necessary, but never a sufficient means of enduring in this struggle. The importance of the leadership of the G8 and other international Institutions, for instance, in trade and aid, diplomacy and finance, is not just a moral imperative- though it is - it is also the essential concomitant of the traditional counter-terrorist effort.

The Struggle for Values
That central role of the struggle for ideas and values is not just a tactical matter. It is not just a matter of propaganda, though every mistake on our part will be used as propaganda against us. It is a matter of profound strategic importance. It is a matter of the moral legitimacy of our struggle.

I believe in the moral legitimacy of that struggle. But I also believe that we face a constant requirement to explain that values based approach. Of course it is true that our enemies will never afford to anyone else the freedom of speech which we extend to them, and which they use to propagandize against us.

Of course, given power, they would never respect in any way the international or domestic laws and freedoms, which they eagerly use to reduce our operational effectiveness against them. And of course the ruthless intolerance with which they would expunge any critical thought, far less comment, makes a mockery of their critique of any and every mistake or transgression on our part.

But that’s not the point. The point is that we are different from them. We operate, and must operate on a higher, more demanding plane. We must carry the standard of liberty and security. That’s why the pattern of exploitation of our freedoms by the terrorists and their apologists is neither accidental nor merely tactical. It is an essential part of their strategic purpose: to challenge and provoke us into abandoning our commitment to liberty and security: to undermine our legitimacy and our morale.

I have never accepted the implicit assumption - buried away in too much of our debate about politics and international relations - that in times of uncertainty we face a choice between liberty and security. Security is the framework in which liberty flourishes. Liberty is a true product of security. But we do face a challenge in ensuring that the rules which govern both our security and our liberty are appropriate – and measure up to – the nature of today’s conflict.

21st Century Conflict - 20th Century Rules
Several years ago, when I had the honor of serving as British Secretary of State for Defense I delivered a speech entitled 21st Century Conflict, 20th Century Rules , drawing attention to the discord between the nature of inherited legal conventions and the nature of present day war, in particular asymmetric warfare.

More recently my experience as the British Home Secretary, dealing in particular with counter-terrorism, has reinforced that view. The truth is that there is today a disjunction between, on the one hand, aspects of the inherited international legal conventions in relation to both war and peace, and, on the other, the nature of modern conflict.

The body of international law as it has developed distinguishes very clearly between the law of armed conflict (the laws of war), and the body of law which applies to civilian life, including criminal law. International human rights law, even when it covers both law and peace, as the ECHR does, also makes this cut and dried distinction. It’s worth asking whether this accords with today’s realities.

As regards war, our traditional approach is based upon the assumption of a defined conflict, between defined parties, usually sovereign states, over defined objectives or conflicts, over a defined period, after which there is a defined ending and some sort of defined de-engagement arrangements – exchange of prisoners of war for instance. This hardly accords with the predominant reality of much of today’s conflict.

But the same story applies to our laws of peace. One of the most morally impressive endeavors in modern Europe was the attempts to come to terms with – and ensure no repetition of – the terrible experience of European fascism and in particular the terrible consequences of the untrammeled power of the Nazi regime in Germany. The driving desire behind the European Convention on Human Rights was the wish to protect the individual from the imposition of the awful, arbitrary, destructive power of the fascist state.

But today we face new phenomena - unimaginable to those pioneers who framed that worthy Convention. It is the need to protect the whole community, everyone in the civil state from the imposition of the awful, arbitrary, destructive power of fascist individuals, working in small groups or networks.

The New Threat
For the truth is that the level of threat from these relatively small groups of individuals – defined in traditional terms of intention and capability - is of a nature previously envisaged as only applicable at the level of a state.

In terms of intention we are now facing a completely unconstrained enemy. Today’s terrorist accepts no legal or conventional constraints. It is an enemy moreover unfettered by any sense of what we would regard as morality, indeed it is spurred on by a perverse perception of morality to achieve an ever greater extent of civilian carnage.

Now in our history - you will be quick to point out - we have faced enemies before which have embraced some of these attitudes. But – compared to today - they were constrained by the second element of threat – capability. They lacked today’s technological means to embrace them all on such a comprehensive scale. Even the detestable intent of the Nazis in pursuit of wholesale genocide was constrained by the limitations of Zyklon B canisters.

Nowadays, science has expanded capability out of all recognition. Al Qaeda who used planes to try to kill thousands will not hesitate to use today’s technology- chemical, radiological, biological weaponry - to kill hundreds of thousands, or millions speedily and with ease. Along with unconstrained intent, today’s world allows potential access to almost unlimited destructive capability.

The Disjunction
So, old assumptions – new realities. So states are having difficulty adapting to this new situation, for which neither the law of war (as previously defined), nor the normal civil law, is particularly designed or well suited. Here in the U.S. you have had to face this problem -what to do with unlawful enemy combatants who are not soldiers of states? That is why Guantanamo Bay was created, and why the legal position there has been so difficult and controversial.

But it is not just a problem for the U.S. The whole international community is potentially challenged. We need to work to strengthen and modernize the law – still protecting human rights, and still providing equity and justice – but doing so in a context that reflects the reality of the conflicts and struggles we now face.

Otherwise, for a struggle centered on values and ideals, the result will be strategically weakening. Because such a disjunction leave us potentially torn between two unacceptable positions: Either adopting arbitrary and expedient remedies to circumvent the constraints of the present laws – which might save the minutes but will assuredly, lose the hours. Or, alternatively, adhering to the letter of the existing outdated conventions, only to find we are overtaken by events and inadequately placed to discharge the first duty of government – providing security for our citizens.

Either approach results in damage to the legitimacy of the values we are seeking to advance. Expediency creates propaganda coups for our adversaries; failure to make laws fit for 21st century conflict, even with fair warning, runs the risk of losing public confidence and serves adversaries by undermining our strategic credibility.

Of course, the challenge and the imperative of updating our conventions to correspond to changing reality is not new. It has been a historically enduring one. Indeed in our own time it was addressed in the mid-1970s, yet 30 years on we have still not achieved that basic purpose.

Re-Focusing the Home Office
But we also need to modernize our security effort and arrangements to correspond more closely with the nature and character of the terrorist threat. As mentioned, terrorists are now unconstrained in their intent. And with such intent comes access to capabilities with potentially unlimited destructive power.

This can combine advanced and old technology in combinations that individuals and networks take-up with alacrity. They are not the monopoly of nation-states, even the most powerful ones.

And all of this made coherent by little more than a toxic doctrine or narrative, the scale of terrorist activity intensifies, accelerating the process of innovation as it spreads with agility that we underestimate at our peril.

These characteristics make the threat sustainable, durable and resilient, on multiple levels - ideological, financial, technological and organizational. This calls for a more coordinated, comprehensive and integrated response on our part, both domestically and internationally.

Today we face a seamless challenge; it is local and global; it crosses the traditional boundaries of foreign, defense and domestic/home affairs. We need to offer a similarly flexible, comprehensive and integrated response. That is precisely why I have recently reformed and re-focussed the British Department of Home Affairs.

In the UK and U.S. our police, military and security services are giving 100% commitment and dedication to countering-terrorism. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice in public service. They embody the struggle for values and ideas in extreme's. Coming to know these fine public servants as well as I now do, I am certain they will be unflagging in their duty.

We all know that no one, no matter how dedicated, can give a 100% guarantee of security. Nonetheless there is always room for improvement. What we have been able to do in the UK of recent is threefold:

Add capacity at the strategic center of UK government to create a more integrated and comprehensive approach to dynamic campaigns on several fronts, and

Begin to recognize the central role of the battle for hearts and minds, of ideals and values, by strengthening our Research, Information and Communications effort.

In doing so, acknowledge that as every community advance and live our values and ideas they deliver security to each other. Their new ideas, businesses and social groups –so called mass innovation- play a vital part in building a tolerant, resilient and progressive society.

We have given careful and detailed consideration of our strategic context before re-focusing the Home Office. In a world where the distinction between defense, foreign and domestic affairs makes little or no sense, I did not flinch from substantially reforming and refocusing a 225 year old department.

I hope that – quite apart from structural change – we are creating a Home Office imbued with a new ethos, focused on security for individuals, communities and the nation where the global and the local are inextricably mixed through increasingly dynamic networks.

Our historical trajectory and what we can anticipate of the future, led us to a British way forward. The re-focused Home Office is neither a U.S. Department of Homeland Security nor a European Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Justice. The new ethos for the Home Office will hopefully blend:

The incorruptible virtues of our Civil Service;

With the British Military’s approach to strategy and analytical rigor; and

The innovative drive that the private sector brings to science and technology.

All of which needs to be politically overseen and made democratically accountable.

In simple terms the British public and many senior officials will get what they have long asked for: A cabinet minister, in support of the Prime Minister, whose waking thought and exclusive concern is national security, and a department fashioned to support that objective. The strategic capacity we are building is but one important step in meeting the demands of the age.

In conclusion, we face a common threat and this requires a common partnership response. The battle for values and ideals is crucial. It is central to all that we do. Security apparatus and military means are necessary but not sufficient means in that struggle, we also need, aid, trade, diplomatic and legal effort.

And all of these must correspond to today’s world not last century.And these challenges are not just for governments they also mark out a future agenda for politics, international security and academia. As I start to look beyond my time in government these are challenges with which I know I will continue to engage.

The Ambassadors Roundtable Series is designed to provide Ambassadors to the United States and their key diplomatic staff with a forum to discuss current and future counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts on a regional or country-specific basis. In an effort to draw upon various insights and experiences, the Ambassadors Roundtable Series builds upon and institutionalizes efforts over the past two years to engage in a dialogue with members of the international community, policy makers, and practitioners.