Human Rights with Shami Chakrabarti

"These rights belong to the people... we’re not going to give them up without a fight."

Shami Chakrabarti CBE is the Chancellor of the University of Essex and Director of Liberty, which campaigns for civil freedoms in the UK. A former Home Office barrister, Shami joined Liberty on 10 September 2001 and subsequently became heavily involved in its engagement work on terrorism and protecting individual freedom. More recently, she was one of six independent assessors advising Lord Justice Leveson during his Public Inquiry into press standards.

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As this year marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, a milestone for civil liberties in Britain, the topic of human rights seems appropriate. It’s also very much a live issue, as the government is considering scrapping the Human Rights Act in favour of a new British Bill of Rights, a move which Liberty is campaigning against.

Yet despite the historical resonance, Shami believes we shouldn’t rest on our laurels: “You are right to talk about Magna Carta as a milestone but it’s a perfectly good milestone for 1215. There’s not a lot of protection in Magna Carta for women, for Jews, for free speech, for the right against torture.”

Instead, her mind is firmly fixed on the present: “The Human Rights Act is the one law that guarantees the rights and freedoms of everyone in the United Kingdom, regardless of where they are in the kingdom, what their gender, age, race or nationality is. It protects our basic human rights: the right to life, not to be tortured or enslaved, the right against arbitrary detention, the right to a fair trial, personal privacy, freedom of conscience and association, expression and equal treatment under the law.

“I think the Human Rights Act has done more for victims of crime than any other single instrument in our legal history. It has protected women who used to be cross-examined by their rapists for days and days at the Old Bailey. It has protected women who were raped within marriage, and that wasn’t considered a criminal offence until the European Court of Human Rights stepped in. It has protected children from beatings that put them in hospital when before the Human Rights Act and European Convention that was thought to be ‘reasonable chastisement’ under English law. So it has done so much to protect the vulnerable from the powerful. And that, I’m afraid, is sometimes why the powerful don’t like the Human Rights Act very much.”

Passed in 1998, the Human Rights Act allows British citizens to rely on rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights before domestic courts. It has not, however, been a universally popular piece of legislation, with some branding it a ‘criminals’ charter’ after accusations were made that the law was being abused. Critics point to cases such as that of Abu Qatada, who was deported from the UK in 2013 after a lengthy legal battle.

Shami does not accept the criticism: “The happy ending in the Abu Qatada case was that because he couldn’t be deported to a place of torture, the UK government had to persuade the government of the Kingdom of Jordan to change its constitution to outlaw torture. That is the right result. That’s an ethical foreign policy as well as human rights working close to home. It’s a shame that the government didn’t think of that as a victory rather than a limitation.

“There are very few people who can’t be deported from this country because of human rights laws” she continues, “but at the end of the day, if you don’t believe in torture you can’t believe in sending people to torture.”

The War on Terror has exposed a whole new battleground for civil liberties campaigners. In a move which divided opinion, the UK carried out its first targeted drone strike in August, killing two British men fighting for Isis in Syria. Shami’s opinion is clear, however: “I think targeted assassination… is contrary to human rights law and to international law. It’s a terrible scandal that no doubt will one day come home to roost. The problem with great democracies like Britain and the US violating human rights law is that it is ultimately counter-productive. Democrats seem hypocritical if they dishonour their values in this way. Ultimately, it only foments terrorism; it doesn’t prevent it.”

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq have left vast numbers of people displaced, many of whom have fled to Europe seeking asylum. Under these circumstances, Britain’s role has come under increasing public scrutiny with some commentators, like Shami, arguing that we should do more to help.

“The Refugee Convention [part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights] was the world’s apology for the Holocaust, and the fact that Britain is not prepared to take its fair share of these most desperate people, and that our Home Secretary is talking about diluting even the Refugee Convention is a source of great embarrassment and great shame.

“We want people to join Liberty. We want people to lobby their MPs. We want people to show those in power that these rights belong to the people, not to the politicians and the media moguls. They were hard won and we hold them in trust for future generations and we’re not going to give them up without a fight.”

Writer: Jeremy Swan

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