The use of anti-terrorist legislation by HM Treasury in order to freeze the UK based assets of Icelandic bank Landsbanki this week has understandably provoked a lot of anger from the Icelandic people. Whether or not the UK actually declared that the people of Iceland are terrorists is a debatable affair – the act that Alasdair Darling used to freeze Landsbanki’s assets was the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, and there are some commentators who claim that Iceland’s assets were frozen under the “crime” aspect of the Act rather than the “terrorism” aspect. In fact there is no such distinction; the section of the Act that deals with the freezing of assets states that such an action may be taken against any foreign entity that is or is likely to take “action to the detriment of the United Kingdom’s economy”. Perhaps it could be argued that this was the case here. But it’s not the wording of the Act that’s important. It was created, as the Home Office website is happy to proclaim, to “in order to provide stronger powers to allow the Police to investigate and prevent terrorist activity and other serious crime”, and the specific measure that deals with the freezing of assets is intended to “cut off terrorist funding”. Of course, the Act was used by HM Treasury because it was the quickest way to act to secure British funds invested in the bank without having to go through Parliament. They believed, and many UK citizens will no doubt agree, that they were justified in taking such action to protect the UK Economy as the Icelandic bank failed.
The citizens of Iceland however are another matter. It’s not just that the actions of the UK stand to have a devastating impact on their economy and their lives. It’s that the use of legislation designed to be used in exceptional circumstances to protect national security interests against the threat of terrorism has been perceived as a symbolic act of significant hostility against a nation of friendly allies. The title of the Act is important because the absurd juxtaposition it creates brings the desperation of the measure to light. For instance, as I write Landsbanki is still listed on the HM Treasury website as a “regime” with which the UK will not have financial dealings, alongside Zimbabwe, Iraq and Al Qaeda. A very particular insult in a global culture where “terrorist” has come to stand for the most base of evils. Luckily for us their protests haven’t yet escalated to the level of violence; the Icelandic Prime Minister has called the act “quite hostile” and an online petition condemning the “abuse” of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 with regards to Iceland has been hugely successful; over 65,000 people have signed so far, both from Iceland and from elsewhere. However for me the most powerful protests against the action of the UK Government are the postcards that accompany the petition – photos and images made by ordinary Icelandic people that depict their incredulity at being branded “terrorists” by the UK Government. They serve as a powerful visual culture reminder that those who are affected by the actions of the UK are real people, and they are deeply offended.
Images from http://lisa.indefence.is/Postcards