Freedoms and security

Shami ChakrabartiLiberty Director Shami Chakrabarti talks to Peter Cheney about her views on how to deal with terrorism, the current state of civil liberties, and why she thinks the Human Rights Act is worth defending.

Normal policing methods are a better answer to terrorism than giving the state extra powers over its citizens, according to Shami Chakrabarti. She was speaking to agendaNi ahead of a speech for the British Council in Derry.

Liberty was founded in 1934, as the National Council of Civil Liberties. A barrister by background, Chakrabarti has been its Director since September 2003. She has also previously worked as a lawyer in the Home Office.

Civil liberties tend to have a high profile when terrorism, security and police powers are mentioned in the news. However, at other times, they appear to be a low priority for the public.

Asked why citizens should care about them, she replies: “I think at the end of the day human rights, civil liberties are all about protecting individual dignity, about protecting equal treatment under the law and treating people fairly … The bottom line is if we don’t protect those values, democracy itself doesn’t survive very long.”

20th century history shows examples where a “very vibrant democracy” exists one minute but then when people are not vigilant, civil liberties such as free speech, free trials and privacy are threatened. This then quickly leads to a very different form of government, as seen in Nazi Germany or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

Terrorism

Nearly five years have passed since the 7 July bombings in London took 52 lives, with no successful repetition. It was put to her that the UK Government’s antiterrorism powers had therefore helped to keep the country safe since then.

In response, she contends that many of the powers put on the statute book have very little use, and even the police admit that. Section 44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act, for example, allows officers to stop and search anyone in a specific area but the police are now using this less as it is not effective. Young people, peace protestors and ethnic minorities have resented how this power has been used.

Chakrabarti agrees that the police and prosecutors have done some very good work in preventing and prosecuting terrorism, but this success has often been down to traditional policing methods rather than using “exceptional powers”.

Some laws have done far more harm than good, she explains, with the “worst legacy” of the War on Terror being control orders. These allow for suspects to be held under house arrest without charge or trial; some have since absconded. Liberty instead wants these cases taken through the courts, using intercept evidence.

Chakrabarti’s talk focused on how small groups of people can bring about change on the international stage, something which she says has become more and more possible over recent years.

One example is where journalists, lawyers and others put pressure on governments to curb the “worst excesses” of the War on Terror.

Another is climate change, with the Copenhagen conference ultimately having its origins in the environmental movement’s demands. Individual citizens came together and had the foresight to tackle a serious problem that would affect their future.

She continues: “Politicians are sometimes more short-sighted. They sometimes look no further than the next election and for long-term issues, like global warming or rights and freedoms, it takes something more than party politics to put issues on the agenda.”

The current state of civil liberties in the UK, in her view, is a mixed picture.

“I would say that over the last 15 to 20 years, there have been lots of erosions of rights and freedoms that I would have taken for granted when I was a little bit younger,” Chakrabarti explains. She points to restrictions on peaceful protest in Parliament Square, indefinite detention without charge or trial and national identity cards.

Aims

As the UK is the world’s oldest democracy, its citizens have sometimes taken their liberty for granted. She is hopeful, though, that “the pendulum may swing back” and thinks people are “much more vigilant now than they were 10, 20 years ago.”

With the general election approaching, Liberty wants the next government, whatever its political colour, to be “less quick to attempt to legislate its way out of any problem.” There appears to be an urge to constantly introduce new laws to tackle crime and terrorism.

“A lot of this stuff is often just a political gimmick but it often leaves a [legal framework] which is more and more controlling and less respectful of rights and freedoms.”

It also wants to see “less bashing” of the 1998 Human Rights Act, as its contents are “common sense … hard won [and] still struggled for all over the world.” The Act protects rights to life, a fair trial, free and fair elections, free speech, privacy, religious freedom and peaceful protest. Freedoms from torture, slavery, forced labour and discrimination are also included. It also makes clear that a person is innocent until proven guilty. She thinks that when UK politicians criticise the Act, in an established democracy, it sends out a “very, very bad signal” to younger democracies elsewhere.

At present, her organisation’s main priority is to help people understand those rights.

“It’s a tragic twist of history that the Act was only brought into force 11 months before 9/11,” she remarks. “The infancy of the Human Rights Act has been played out during the War on Terror and a lot of people think that human rights are about terror suspects, criminals – and asylum important that people understand what they have to lose.”

The Human Rights Act debate

Back in 1997, New Labour’s manifesto promised to “bring home” rights from Europe to the UK courts. Previously, citizens had to take their cases straight to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg but now they can do this closer to home. The Human Rights Act, passed in 1998, incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law; it went into operation in October 2000.

Several senior Conservatives have criticised the Act for creating a “culture of grievance” which benefits lawyers. Their alternative is to replace it with a British ‘bill of rights and responsibilities’, which also defends human rights but emphasises Parliament’s authority. Supporters say that MPs still have the final say and the Act gives the courts power to protect people from government abuse.

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