#PrayForParis: a time for measured response and European solidarity

“O, what men dare do!
What men may do!
What men daily do,
Not knowing what they do!”
Much Ado About Nothing (IV, i, 19-21) ~


The world is shocked by the coordinated and cold-blooded series of terrorist attacks on Paris on the night of 13 November 2015.
No words can do justice to the tragic loss of lives, to the pain and mourning that France is going through.
No words can adequately describe the barbarity of the assailant. All our thoughts and prayers go out to those who have been killed or injured and to their loved ones. #PrayforParis #solidarity #noussommesparis
Credits: Le Monde


This is the second terrorist attack since the Charlie Hebdo incident merely 10 months ago. Disturbing footages and reports abound online and on live TV (a good collection of videos can be found on CNN). The circumstances surrounding the attacks are still quite nebulous at the moment, but a few facts seem to be certain as far as press reports go (see the good summary put together by Le MondeNew York Times and the BBC):

  • Six places in Paris were targeted between 9:20 p.m. and midnight: the Stade de France, the Bataclan Concert Hall, and a number of bars and restaurants (La Casa Nostra, La Belle Equipe bar, Boulevard Voltaire, Petit Cambodge restaurant and Le Carillion bar);
  • The attacks were carried out by 8 suicide bombers and gunmen, all of whom were killed by self-detonation save for one shot by the police;
  • The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, apparently aimed at President Hollande’s involvement in the Syrian conflicts;
  • There are 129 confirmed fatalities, at least 89 of whom were from the attack on Bataclan Concert Hall;
  • Over 352 people were wounded, and at least 99 of them are in critical condition.

An approximate chronology of the attacks are as follows (source: the French Police, quoted by LeJDD news website):

  • 21:20 – First explosion near Stade de France
  • 21:25 – Shooting at Le Carillon bar and Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, rue Bichat
  • 21:29 – More shooting in same area, avenue de la Republique
  • 21:30 – Second explosion near Stade de France
  • 21:38 – Shooting at La Belle Equipe bar, rue de Charonne
  • 21:43 – Explosion at boulevard Voltaire, near Bataclan concert hall
  • 21:49 – Shooting at Bataclan, then explosions
  • 21:53 – Third explosion at Stade de France
  • 22:00 – Shooting at boulevard Beaumarchais, near Bataclan

The headlines of the French newspapers all paint a somber picture, with an undertone of outrage in light of the worst attack on a European country in a decade.

The world has unanimously responded with messages of condolences, sympathy, and solidarity against terrorism – that is, except the Islamic State behind these attacks, praising last night as “a blessed attack on… crusader France“.

As symbolic gestures, monuments around the world have been lit up with the colours of the French tricolore flag: the ingrained symbol of liberty, equality and fraternity since France declared itself a Republic over two centuries ago.


The European Union has responded promptly and robustly to the attacks last night, in a series of statements expressing solidarity with the French people.

In an immediate Joint Declaration by the European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission, “the three institutions condemn the outrageous acts which have shocked them profoundly”.

The President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, promptly issued a statement soon after the attacks took place:

The European Commission, Donald Tusk, also wrote a letter to President Hollande, pleading to stand together with France and the world to overcome the division and hatred that terrorists and extremists seek to sow:

“France is a great, strong and resilient nation. It will overcome this tragedy. Standing in solidarity, the European Union will assist her. We will ensure that the tragic, shameful act of terrorism against Paris fails in its purpose: to divide, to frighten, and to undermine liberty, equality and fraternity, the values that make France a great nation.”

The quote comes from a Joint Statement of the EU heads and EU institutions, which expresses resolve and solidarity in future counter-terrorism efforts:

“The European Union is deeply shocked and in mourning after the terrorist attacks in Paris. It is an attack against us all. We will face this threat together with all necessary means and ruthless determination.”


With France in a state of emergency, the people in terrible shock, and language promising “merciless” and “ruthless” responses to this attack from the highest level, we must pause in all our anger and grief to consider the implications of yesterday night’s attacks. Two main issues come to mind.

First, the attacks came just a few days after the EU Discussion Paper on “Ensuring the respect  for the Rule of Law” was released last week after the meeting on 11 November of the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER), and just before the General Affairs Council is due to meet next week on 17 November. The meetings explore the tension between the rule of law and data protection within the Digital Single Market.

The Discussion Paper highlights that “the term ‘rule of law’ refers to a principle of governance by which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the state itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced, independently adjudicated and consistent with international human rights norms and standards”, enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and reflected in the values protected by the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights (EUCFR). The struggle in Europe is to strike a balance between national security, cybersecurity, data protection and free speech.

The attacks will no doubt throw these issues into sharp relief, making it more difficult for Member States to protect fundamental rights like free speech while stepping up while curbing extremist speech in the age of digitisation. Above all, the issue of surveillance and data protection would face unprecedented tensions within the entire EU, as Member States and European institutions strive to reconcile conflicting interests and policy objectives. This tension was recognised in the Discussion Paper at p. 16:

“One of the most important challenges is the reconciliation of effective law enforcement powers with the protection of fundamental rights. States must fully comply with international human rights obligations in defining cybercrime in any criminal investigation or prosecutions, also in relation to mutual legal assistance and extradition.”

Indeed, the French intelligence itself is now facing intense scrutiny, as the public argues that the plots should have been pre-empted, and there will no doubt be pressure for new counter-terrorism legislation and measures, if not a complete overhaul of the intelligence and surveillance powers. The problems are real, and the challenge unprecedented. Nevertheless, the fundamental principle, should be tolerably clear:

“Internet governance principles stress the need to apply public international law and international human rights law equally both online and offline. They also emphasize the need to respect the rule of law and democracy on the Internet. These principles recognize and promote the multiple stakeholders in Internet governance and, most importantly, urge all public and private actors to uphold human rights in all their operations and activities, including the design of new technologies, services and applications.” (Discussion paper, p. 12)

It is noteworthy that the Discussion Paper indicated a strong commitment to push forward data protection reforms. The attacks will make the negotiations an even greater challenge than it already was, and no doubt the EU will be walking a tight rope over the next months:

“The Luxembourg Presidency aims to finalize the EU data protection reform by the end of the year. The completion and the success of the DSM will largely depend on the trust that citizens and companies have in cross-border flow of data. The EU can be seen as a model for a high level of data protection. This heritage must be strengthened by the adoption of the new regulatory framework. Citizens’ rights need to be protected while taking into account the competitiveness of the European economy need to be protected.” (Discussion Paper, p. 13)

Second, the influx of Syrian refugees into the EU has dominated the headlines and the EU agenda over the past few months, and the attacks last night would only aggravate the crisis. Earlier this week, Sweden reintroduced border checks and put further strain on Schengen, while negotiations between the EU and African states in the Valletta summit in Malta achieved little success on Wednesday due to the failure to agree on the actual aids/funding to be given to Africa in exchange for the repatriation of refugees. An action plan has notably been reached to cooperate and prevent irregular migration, but no concrete solutions have yet been agreed.

As reports now suggest that at least one of the attackers in Paris passed through Greece and entered the EU last month on the refugee route, and a Syrian passport was found near one of the attackers (authenticity unconfirmed), there is the very real risk that islamophobic sentiments would surge in the coming days, with aggravating hostility towards migrants and refugees in a society already torn by divisions and deep-seated prejudice. This may prove to be the most deleterious effect of the aftermath – arguably the very motive of the terrorists who planned this atrocity.

Not surprisingly, the incidents have been politicised by some European leaders who seek to link the attacks to the refugee crisis. Poland was quick to capitalise on this by performing the burial rites for EU’s open-door policy, which has been championed by Germany all this time. More countries are likely to join the bandwagon over the coming weeks, following in the footsteps of Hungary who has taken a highly intolerant stance towards refugees since the beginning.

Now is really not the time for politicisation and polarisation in Europe. That is what fuels extremism. That is what terrorism seeks to incite. We will grieve, for the casualties of terrorism, for such inhumanity in a modern age. We have anger, but our anger is directed at the root of extremism, not the masses of victims fleeing from it. And what is that root? Marginalisation and alienation in a hostile society. The war against terror is really the war against segregation of minorities in our society. If we are declaring war on the assailants, we must first declare peace everywhere.

This tweet from an Imperial College student sums it up perfectly:

As the G20 Summit opens in Antalya, world leaders will be discussing the threat of terrorist infiltration among EU refugees, but President Juncker of the European Commission has rightly set the tone in his opening remarks:

“We should not mix the different categories of people coming to Europe. The one responsible for the attacks in Paris … he is a criminal and not a refugee and not an asylum seeker… I would invite those in Europe who try to change the migration agenda we have adopted – I would like to remind them to be serious about this and not to give in to these basic reactions that I do not like. I see the difficulty but I don’t see the need to change our general approach.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also made a robust statement at the press conference for the G20 Summit, saying that “terrorism is a threat to all humankind… no country, and no city, nobody is immune. In the past four days alone, horrendous terrorist bombings have also killed dozens of people in Beirut and Baghdad”:

“I will stress to world leaders that our response needs to be robust, but always within the rule of law and with respect for human rights. Otherwise, we will only fan the fire we are trying to put out… At this time of heightened tensions, I caution against actions that would only perpetuate the cycle of hatred and violence. I again offer condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims and to all the people of France.”

It is important therefore that we resist the temptation of pointing fingers at refugees and migrants, who themselves are victims of the same terrorism like the people of Europe. We must stand in solidarity, for those are the values that Europe must defend, the very values that set us apart from the terrorist assailants. Member States must avoid disproportionate and over-defensive responses and legislations against refugees, foreigners and religious minorities. As Lord Kerr rightly stressed in the recent case of Beghal v DPP [2015] UKSC 49 at [125]:

“Of course it is true that the threat of terrorism is substantial and should not be downplayed. But that undoubted truth should not mask or distort the obligation to dispassionately examine the aptness of measures taken to deal with it.”

The rule of law and respect for fundamental rights is humanity’s last bastion in the fight against terrorism. Otherwise, we risk playing into the hands of terrorism, by alienating those who are indeed our allies, and waging war on those whom we are meant to assist and protect. A vicious cycle of “hate begetting hate” is the very last thing we should trigger. Solidarity across borders and ethnicities is the banner of the day.

 «Les grands périls ont cela de beau qu’ils mettent en lumière la fraternité des inconnus.»

“Great perils have this beauty, that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers.”

~ Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Book XII ~

#PrayforParis #Solidarity #NousSommesParis

Credits: EPA

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