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“Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government.”

Dr M. Rodwan Abouharb, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, argues that Bentham’s thoughts on secrecy are still relevant today.


Illustration Hanna Melin

When I think about this quote from the social reformer Jeremy Bentham and conspiracies, I tend to think about the different ways people can avoid accountability. Both democratic and authoritarian governments do things to achieve this in different ways. But the most insidious thing – and maybe this is what Bentham was thinking about – is that decision-makers act in strategic ways to make it more difficult for us to make them accountable for their behaviour.

One example that I’ve been pondering for a couple of years is how governments have responded to the strengthening of the international human rights system. As it has become more difficult for them to oppress their citizens, they have changed their violations to ones that are less easily linked back to them. So we find that governments are shifting from the use of extrajudicial killing, which is a public display of force as a means of control, to what we call forced disappearances: when they kill someone in secret and there’s no trace of them after the fact. This makes it difficult for judges, lawyers or NGOs to prove responsibility.

There are more benign examples. In a place such as the UK, where there is a highly democratic system, the government can try to avoid accountability in more subtle ways. For instance, they can put controversial changes through in holiday periods when people aren’t paying attention, make them very quickly so it’s impossible to scrutinise what’s going on, or use language that obfuscates their intentions.

The other thing that may happen is that you get a veneer of transparency and accountability. In the United States you have the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, and something similar has been mooted here. That’s where the secret services have to go to request warrants to install wiretaps or conduct surveillance on individuals. But almost none of these requests have ever been turned down; the court acts more or less as a rubber stamp.

I don’t believe our governments are becoming more accountable. There may be commissioners in charge of information freedom, but they appear conservative in what they think people should have access to. Are they really going to reduce secrecy, or just produce a legitimate cover for governments to continue behaving in their current way?

Challenging this is difficult if you’re outside government. You can trust whichever political party is out of power, but they often tend to change their behaviour as soon as they are elected. Alternatively, you can go through the courts, which means you have to have access to a lot of resources. On average, people who have those means tend to be those who prefer the status quo. And modern technology has meant that Bentham’s fears have come true in ways he could never have envisaged – the suggestion that details of all our emails and telephone calls could be being secretly collated on a daily basis, for example, would blow his mind.

To find out more about Jeremy Bentham, visit www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project/who

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Portico Issue 1. 2014/15