Tag Archives: Human Rights

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RightsInfo: Free Speech And Why It Matters

The brilliant and essential new website Rights Info, developed by the team behind the equally indispensable UK Human Rights Blog, asked me to write a guest post on the concept of free speech.  The article was part of a week long series on the right to freedom of expression.  In previous weeks the site has focused on other human rights, like privacy.


Freedom of Expression is an ‘enabling right’.  It is the human right that allows people to secure and defend all the other human rights.  Without an unfettered right to speak, how could you complain about ill-treatment at the hands of the state?  Without free speech, how could you organise to associate with others?  Without free speech, how could you express your religious beliefs?  Without free speech, how can journalists hold big business and politicians to account?

Freedom of expression is not just a tool for enforcing other rights.  It enables human flourishing and is therefore an end in itself. This is because freedom of expression is more than just the right to speak freely.  It includes other kinds of activity too. The freedom to write, to publish, to paint and to perform. The freedom to record voice, music and song and to disseminate the recordings. Crucially, freedom of expression also includes the right to receive information too: the freedom to read, to watch and to listen. In the Internet age, freedom of expression includes the freedom to share, too.

Finally, freedom of expression includes the right not speak, if you disagree with the words that others want you to say.  Together, these activities we call ‘expression’ drive human interaction.  Any interference in freedom of expression curtails culture and postpones politics.

Debate me, argue with me

There is inherent value in human discussion, debate and argument. The progress of our cultures and our species depends on it. The suppression of ideas causes complacency and stagnation. It is always better for ideas to be out in the open where they can be developed, or discredited, as the case may be. Bottle up a bad idea and it usually develops, unchallenged, into an even worse one.  Far better to keep the bad ideas out in the open, where criticism and ridicule will cause them to wither.

 Many people like to claim they support freedom of expression, and then go on to say ‘but’… They place caveats on the idea, and say that with freedom of expression comes ‘responsibilities’.  That is a confused approach, because we have plenty of other laws that place responsibilities upon us.  Human rights are a special type of law, because they govern how the state behaves towards its citizens, not how citizens must behave towards each other. 

Free speech must include the right say things that other people may not wish to hear, and free speech with conditions is no free speech at all. Words that shock are very often essential: they might be the only way to make people listen or to understand the importance of what is being said. Whether or not you use offensive language is a matter of manners and style: the law has no place in regulating insulting speech. Laws that regulate offensive speech give veto power to those with the thinnest skins. Paradoxically, it is often those in positions of political or religious power who are the quickest to take offence.

Counter-speech

Freedom of expression also includes ‘counter-speech’ – the right to answer back.  What many people label ‘political correctness’ is in fact the emboldened voices of previously silenced groups, telling those in positions of traditional power why they are wrong. When privileged people are challenged, they mistakenly believe that they are being censored. They are not. Instead, they are merely being told that they are wrong!  Free speech means no-one gets to have the last word.

Counter-speech is an important concept, because it provides an answer to the perennial free speech conundrum: what do we do about people who use their freedom of expression to spout racist or bigoted views? The answer to unpleasant free speech can only be more free speech! Those who value their freedom of expression can take advantage of that right, to challenge and counter harmful ideologies. This might mean signing a petition, attending a protest, sharing a link on Facebook… or simply, writing: a tweet, a blog, a book. 

All of these acts are free expression in action, which is why in authoritarian countries, such activities will very often land you in trouble… or even in prison. Dictators do not like to be challenged.  For over ninety years, English PEN activists have exercised their own freedom of expression in support of people who have been imprisoned or attacked because of what they have written.

As a literary charity, English PEN does more than campaign. It also runs events, giving a platform to diverse authors; outreach workshops, bringing literature to marginalised communities; and a translation programme, funding the publication of new literature from other languages.  Not only do these activities enrich our culture, but they build bridges and bonds between communities.  And they are all enabled by the right to freedom of expression.

Find out more about Freedom of Speech on Rights Info

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How Gay Marriage Persuaded Me To Get A Straight Marriage*

Hooray for five ninths of the Supreme Court of the United States of America!  Today the Court ruled that bans on same sex marriage are unconstitutional.  Same-sex marriage, which was already legal in many states, is now legal throughout the USA.

Blogger and gay marriage advocate Andrew Sullivan has returned to blogging to welcome the news.  He’s been agitating for this since 1989.

Opponents of same sex marriage often claim that it will somehow undermine straight marriage.  That’s nonsense.  In fact, I think the opposite is true.  Here’s why. Continue reading How Gay Marriage Persuaded Me To Get A Straight Marriage*

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Human Rights as a Thought Process

Last week I was invited to attend a speech by Rt. Hon. Harriet Harman MP, interim Leader of the Labour Party, entitled ‘In Defence of Human Rights‘.  She gave a robust defence of the Human Rights Act 1998, which the Conservative Party seeks to repeal.  She called the Government’s plans ‘politically and constitutionally destabilising’ and made important points about how the proposals would give authoritarian countries the ‘green light’  to start defining human rights in ways that suit those in power, rather than their citizens. Continue reading Human Rights as a Thought Process

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Revenge porn: A law introduced to protect women is already being used to prosecute one

An article by yrstrly for Independent Voices, on unintended consequences with revenge porn laws. The issue of gender blind laws (and principles) is relevant to my earlier post about apparently misandrist, racist tweeting.


Last year, when campaigners pushed for a new law to prevent ‘revenge porn’, it was clear who they were hoping to protect: women.

Introducing the campaign to parliament in June last year, Maria Miller categorised the issue as a form of violence against women.  All the case studies invoked by campaigners involved women being humiliated by their ex-partners, and MPs discussed the exposure of celebrities like Rhianna and Jennifer Lawrence.  The charity Women’s Aid presented examples where women were forced into posing for photographs by abusive partners, saying that “perpetrators of domestic violence use revenge porn as a tool to control, humiliate, and traumatise their victims.”

It is surprising, then, to hear that one of the first prosecutions under the new law will be the ‘tabloid personality’ Josie Cunningham.  A law introduced as a way of protecting women is already being used to prosecute a woman. Continue reading Revenge porn: A law introduced to protect women is already being used to prosecute one

A Grim Future for our Unions and our Rights

Crikey. I’m dismayed by the result of the general election.

First, I should note just how wrong my own perception of the election campaign turned out to be!  After the leaders debates I said I expected Ed Miliband to be Prime Minister in May. That is clearly not going to happen.  And earlier this week I said I perceived a decline in the influence of the mainstream media on election campaigns.  After the apparent last minute shift in voters’ intentions, that appears to be incorrect.

However, my dismay comes not from the injury to my pride which results from making poor predictions.  Rather, it’s the prospect of what comes next for our unions (yes, unions plural) and our rights as citizens.

First, the fact that David Cameron will attempt to govern alone with a minority government, or a slender majority, will mean that the more Euroskeptic elements to the the right of the Conservative party will be able to hold him to ransom—just as the SNP would have apparently held a Labour government hostage.  The Conservatives have already promised that we will have a referendum on our membership of the European Union.  We now face the prospect of leaving the EU, sundering and cauterising our cultural and economic links with the continent.  This isolation will not be good for the UK.

A ‘Brexit’ will further strengthen the already jubilant Scottish National Party.  Despite the slightly skewed results that our ‘first past the post’ system delivers I just do not see how another referendum on Scottish Independence can still be ‘off the table’. For goodness sake—all but three MPs in Scotland are from the SNP!   If the UK leaves the EU, and with the other parties’ reduced political presence, another plebiscite on Independence would probably yield a ‘Yes’ vote.  Bye bye Scotland.

Finally, the Conservatives have also promised to scrap the Human Rights Act, a pledge that lawyers think is ‘legally illiterate’.  The so-called ‘British Bill of Rights’ will water down the rights that we currently enjoy.  And since the Tories gutted legal aid provision and squeezed the judicial review process, it will be harder than ever for citizens to hold the government to account when it deploys discriminatory policies against us.  

So by the time of the next general election in 2020, there is a very good chance that those of us living in rUK will have lost the political protections of the EU, will have lost the guarantee that out human rights will be protected, and will have lost a progressive political counter-weight to the Tories that may be found in Scotland. And the right-wing media will cheer it all.

Grim, grim grim.

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Discussing free speech and freedom of religion on TWR

Last month I was pleased to be invited by Trans World Radio, the Christian broadcaster, to take part in their TWR Today programme. I spoke to presenter Lauren Herd about free speech in the context of blasphemy, offence and freedom of religion.

During the discussion I tried to articulate something that has been bothering me about the debate we have been having about free speech, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre:

… So when even free speech campaigners are making the case for offence, I find those arguments frustrating because I feel that argument has been settled, in favour of free speech.

To be clear: I’m not knocking those campaigners who write think-pieces that defend the right to offend.  I’ve published such pieces myself in the past few weeks, as have my colleagues at English PEN.  Rather, my frustration is over how much of the debate is still focussed on whether there is any legitimacy in censoring for reasons of religious offence.  There is none.

Moreover, it is unfettered free speech that enables the freedom of religion.  Lauren Herd gave a pithy and poetic summing up that I predict will become a staple of my rhetoric on this issue:

We may not like hearing attacks on what we believe, but it is that same freedom for one person to express, that allows us to profess what we believe.

You can listen to the show on the TWR website, on SoundCloud, or via the player below.

Continue reading Discussing free speech and freedom of religion on TWR

Railing against Saudi Arabia at the vigil for Raif Badawi

On Friday morning, I led a small vigil outside the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in support of Raif Badawi, the blogger convicted of ‘Insulting Islam’ and ‘founding a liberal website.

Continue reading Railing against Saudi Arabia at the vigil for Raif Badawi

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report needs to be converted to HTML, pronto

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has release a shocking report into the CIA use of torture during America’s post-9/11 panic.  The New York Times has a handy 7 point summary, pointing out that the torture was more brutal and extensive than previously supposed, that it was ineffective, and that CIA officials lied to Congress and made exaggerated claims to journalists about the effectiveness of the programme.

Its truly sickening and should not have happened.  The USA is supposed to be better.  It has set a terrible example to brutal human rights abusing regimes like Iran.  Ayatollah Khameni has been pointing out America’s hypocrisy.

It looks like the United Kingdom might have been complicit in the torture programme too.

For those of us who want to read the full report, a 525-page PDF version is available on the webspace of Senator Diane Feinstein.

Plenty of journalists have been writing about the report.  Andrew Sullivan has ‘live-blogged’ his reading of it.  When they do cite a paragraph, they can’t link directly to it.  It strikes me that far more people would be able to read an engae with the report if it were in HTML format.  This is a ‘live’ example of the principle behind my Leveson Report (As It Should Be) project.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report should be converted to HTML as soon as possible, preferably hosted by a civil liberties NGO or a newspaper.  It took me a while to convert the Leveson Report into HTML but a crowdsourced effort could convert this torture report in a matter of days, if not hours.

Is surveillance chilling child abuse whistleblowers?

Earlier this year, two rather shocking examples of over-reach by the security services were revealed. The police have used controversial powers in the Regulation of Invesigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) to bypass the need to get a warrant before accessing phone records. They were therefore able to snoop on journalists in a bid to unmask whistleblowers. This is a threat to free speech and something a judge would never have signed off on.

The two cases both involved political scandals. The first was the hacking of the Mail on Sunday journalists reporting on the Chris Huhne speeding points scandal. The second was spying on the political editor of The Sun who was reporting on the Andrew Mitchell #Plebgate affair (for once, a pleasing use of the ‘-gate’ suffix since the scandal did involve an actual gate).

Both these cases have outraged journalists and human rights campaigners. It’s an invasion of privacy and discourages free speech. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has made a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights. However, I wonder whether these cases persuade the public at large that there is a problem. Journalists and politicians are among the least trusted professions, so I wonder whether they garner much sympathy. These are not scandals that relate to the lives most people are living.

I’ve argued before that campaigners need to ground their defence of human rights principles in stories that are meaningful to ordinary people. Good recent examples of this approach in action: The Labour Campaign for Human Rights (see here and here) and the Daily Mirror (see here and here).

There is another news story bubbling away at the moment that I think may persuade the public of the dangers of unchecked surveillance, and that is the investigations into alleged child abuse by senior establishment figures including, apparently, a former minister. There were apparently two dossiers about alleged pædophiles presented to Home Secretary Leon Brittan in the 1980s, which have since gone missing. And according to Zac Goldsmith MP, detailed records seized from the notorious Elm Guest House disappeared after they were taken as evidence by the police.

Here’s what I reckon. It’s all conjecture and hypothesis, but I think it’s plausible: I think there must be former policemen and civil servants out there with knowledge of a cover-up. I think that some of them would like to ‘blow the whistle’ and tell the country what they know. But since police-officers are likely to be implicated in a cover-up, we run the risk that they will use RIPA and other surveillance powers to track-down and discredit anyone seeking to tell their story to the media, in confidence.

Potential whistleblowers know this. They have seen how people talking to journalists in the public interest are hounded by the security services.

I think that people who should be speaking up about child abuse today are keeping quiet because of the surveillance of journalists. My sad prediction is that we will one day discover this to be true, and that victims were denied a chance at justice.

Politicians like to say that surveillance keeps us safe, but sometimes, too much surveillance can cause irreparable damage, too.

Our Human Rights

Last month, the essential Labour Campaign For Human Rights (LCHR) launched Our Human Rights.  Its a campaign to highlight how the European Convention of Human Rights, and the British Human Rights Act, have helped ordinary citizens get what they need and deserve from the state.

Too often, human rights laws seem distant from the ordinary person.  They are portrayed by those hostile to the concept as being little more than a tool for terrorists and illegal immigrants to game the legal system.  As I have written before, speaking about human rights only in terms of the most extreme cases does not persuade the ordinary voter of their importance. Continue reading Our Human Rights