Tag Archives: Human Rights

The bureaucracy and the banality of human rights violations

Here’s an interesting and important piece of news that you will not have heard about. Campaigning NGO Privacy International have secured a court decision in their favour against HM Revenue & Customs over the issue of illegal exports on surveillance software to oppressive regimes.

Here’s the issue in a nutshell. British firms create deeply unpleasant surveillance software—spyware—and sell it to brutal dictatorships. Often this is in violation of trade sanctions against the country in question. HMRC are supposed to investigate and fine those businesses who violate trade restrictions. But when Privacy International requested information from HMRC about these investigations, the agency was unco-operative. The Administrative Court has condemned this behaviour. Continue reading

Discussing #BooksForPrisoners on Good Cause TV

Today I was interviewed by Pete Woods for Good Cause TV.  We discussed English PEN’s campaign to reverse the Ministry of Justice’s ridiculous restrictions on sending books into prisons.  We discussed the ‘Catch-22′ aspects to the policy, and the idea that literature should be a human right.

You can watch the video below, or on Spreecast. Continue reading

Malala-Yousafzai

Why I am glad that Malala did not win the Nobel Prize

I’m glad that Malala Yousafzai did not win the Nobel Peace Prize.

This is not because I do not applaud her bravery and support her fantastic campaigning work. Rather, I worry about the effect of thrusting the prize onto someone so young.

Previous Nobel Laureates have reported that winning the prize is incredibly disruptive to their career. Peter Higgs, who was awarded the Chemistry prize last week, tried to escape media inquiries. But they tracked him down eventually,

Our media is full of stories of child prodigies pressurised into excellence and unhappiness. Child actors regularly seem to end up in rehab units, and the career trajectory of child pop-stars like Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus makes everyone uneasy.  We angst over the plight of Royal babies, born into incredible wealth but no privacy. Continue reading

This is how to make human rights a vote winner

In the past couple of months I have been making notes on the Labour Party’s approach to human rights. Here’s a quote from the conference speech given by my MP, the Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan:

What happens when you cut back judicial review? You betray bereaved families, like the Hillsborough campaigners, who can’t challenge terrible decisions.

What’s the outcome of cutting legal aid? The family of Jean Charles De Menezes, the innocent Brazilian man shot at Stockwell tube station would no longer have access to expert lawyers in the future. Nor indeed the Gurkhas or the Lawrence family. It’ll be harder for victims of domestic violence to break away from abusive partners.

Continue reading

Are Human Rights a vote winner?

Writing in the New Statesman, Labour Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan brazenly declares that the Liberal Democrat’s record in Government has left Labour as the party of civil liberties. This has kicked off predictable outrage from Lib Dem activists and in the comments, with most people citing the poor record of the last Labour government.

Despite the Blair Government’s terrible approach to civil liberties and counter-terrorism, its wrong to call Khan a hypocrite. For starters, he was one of the Labour rebels who voted against Tony Blair’s 90-day detention policy, back in 2005. More recently, he has admitted the party’s mistakes on human rights and civil liberties. Part of his Charter 88 anniversary lecture was a scathing critique of the last Labour Government’s approach:

And I hold up my hands and admit that we did, on occasions, get the balance wrong. On 42 and 90 days, and on ID cards, where the balance was too far away from the rights of citizens… On top of this, we grew less and less comfortable with the constitutional reforms we ourselves had legislated for. On occasions checked by the very constitutional reforms we had brought in to protect people’s rights from being trampled on. But we saw the reforms as an inconvenience, forgetting that their very awkwardness is by design. A check and balance when our policies were deemed to infringe on citizens’ rights.

If an opposition spokesperson says this, I think they ward off the charge of hypocrisy when they subsequently criticise the civil liberties failings of the Governing coalition. We want political parties to admit their mistakes and reverse their policies, don’t we? Whether the voters believe Labour or not is another matter, but I think the fact that the spokesman is someone who was a Government rebel on 90 days, and who has been a target of surveillance himself, make Labour’s position that little bit more credible. Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, included similar nostra culpas in her Demos speech on security and surveillance.

Continue reading

Boiling the Frog Yields Diminishing Returns

When a country enjoys relatively good protections for human rights, citing the most extreme examples of rights abuses elsewhere could inspire compancency, not vigilance. To make the defence of the Human Rights Act into a vote winner, we need to frame the debate closer to home.

Last week I made some notes on Yvette Cooper’s speech on the balance between liberty and security. I wrote this:

The Shadow Cabinet need to find the passion and the language to defend the Human Rights Act against a sustained Tory attack. If the entire Labour Party routinely cites liberty as a way of empowering ordinary people, then its support for human rights can become a vote winner.

I have been thinking more about what that ‘language’ shoud be… and what it should not be. Is the current approach to human rights advocacy effective in the British context?

A favourite tactic of human rights campaigners is to argue that a particular policy could send us down a ‘slippery slope’ to more widespread rights violations. We also use the ‘boiling frog‘ analogy, where tiny changes (to the law, or to the temperature in the pan) eventually leads to danger. The argument appears in three guises, depending on whether the end result is similar to an example from 1) fiction; 2) another country; or 3) some point in history.

Continue reading

Yvette Cooper on Liberty as a Labour Value

Last week I was at a Demos #ResponsibleSecurity event in London for a speech by the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper MP, on the balance between Liberty and Security in a modern democracy [full text].  It was a timely intervention on a crucial debate.  Of course the revelations about widespread and illegal government surveillance are still in the news, and there had been recent, appalling revelations that the family of Stephen Lawrence had been bugged by the police.  However, it has also been said that stronger surveillance measures might have prevented the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich.

Cooper said that Labour’s approach to balancing a need for security with our human rights and civil liberties would be based on evidence.  By this measure, she said, the attempt by the last Labour Government to extend detention without charge first to 90 days and then to 42 days, was wrong: “The politics of security had become more important than the evidence.”  She also said Labour had also failed to stop the powers granted within the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) from being abused by local authorities, and that they should have done something to mitigate the effect on ethnic minorities of the stop-and-search laws.

Cooper praised the current Government for trying to fix RIPA and the stop-and-search problems, but criticised them for introducing new laws without proper checks-and-balances on state power.  She cited the recent Communications Data Bill (a.k.a. The Snoopers’ Charter) and the appalling new secret courts as examples of this. Continue reading

24-sutherland-banner

A partial defence of Kiefer Sutherland's '24'

The conventional wisdom is that Kiefer Sutherland’s 24 is an apologia for torture, a cultural product of America’s post 9/11 crisis of confidence. It is produced by Fox, a media outlet not known for its liberal bias1.

Every week the show presents a new ‘ticking bomb’ dilemma for Sutherland’s character Jack Bauer. These scenarios properly belong in a university Ethics 101 seminar, not real life. Would you kill one person to save a hundred? Is torture justified if it yields information that saves lives? In Bauer’s world, the answer would always appear to be ‘yes’. He consistently chooses the path that saves more Americans in the aggregate, regardless of the law. And when he does so, he prevails. The people he tortures are always guilty and the confessions he extracts always yield useful information.

This is a 180° reversal of real life, of course. But by promoting the idea that the abolition of due process can be effective, 24 is propaganda for the abandonment of law and decency that characterised the Bush/Cheney administration. 24 skews public debate on such issues.

However, I have just watched Season 7. This block of episodes has a very different feel to the previous seasons. Terrorists still attack passenger aeroplanes, launch WMD, and attempt to assassinate the President. And Jack Bauer foils their plans on an hourly basis. However, this time the action has moved from decadent, decaying Los Angeles to Washington DC. This proximity to the institutions of State clearly inspire the supporting characters. As the action unfolds, Bauer is consistently harangued and brow-beaten over his actions by the people around him. FBI Special Agent Reneé Walker tries to play along with Bauer’s unconventional approach, and finds she does not have the stomach for it. Special Agent Larry Moss says “the rules are what make us better.” Back at the FBI HQ, the analysts complain about racially profiling suspects. In a key scene with a liberal Senator, Bauer is forced to entertain the notion that it is the rule of law that makes America, and that sometimes upholding The Constitution should take priority over saving lives. By the end of the series, Jack has accepted this argument.

Meanwhile, in the White House, POTUS Allison Taylor puts the responsibilities of her office over the unity of her family in a most dramatic fashion, following her head not her heart. The situations that she and Bauer encounter are no less preposterous than anything in the previous seasons… But at least in Series 7 the characters give proper weight to the importance of the law as they make their decisions.

24 Season 7 was made in 2008. You can tell it is the product of a different political wind. In an overt attempt to redeem itself after many years promoting a Manichean worldview, this series ensures that every Muslim character is wholly noble. As Bauer lies critically ill in a hospital bed, he even summons an Imam for spiritual guidance.

It is a shame that 24 took so long to put forward the view that it is the law that is at the heart of the American Way. It is a shame that it took the producers six seasons before they remembered that United States Presidents take an oath to defend the Constitution, not the people. Jack Bauer’s torturing ways are themselves an attack on American ideals, and it is a shame that this is only called out in Season 7.

But hey – at least the series does, finally, make that conceptual connection. Just as Jack Bauer repents his sins to the Imam, so 24 Season 7 feels like it too is asking for forgiveness.

Does the show deserve absolution? That all depends how Season 8 unfolds, and I haven’t watched that yet.



1. Yes, I do know that Fox also produces The Simpsons but that does not excuse Fox News.

Joannah Lumley on Human Rights Campaigning

After my panel discussion at the Liberty Conference, I stayed around to hear Joannah Lumley interviewed by Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti.

Lumley was engaging and hilarious when recounting her famous lobbying of Phil Woolas on the subject of immigration rights for Gurkhas in 2009. She is a purveyor of a kind of Occam’s Razor form of political campaigning, scything through civil service obfuscation and demanding politicians stop delaying, and act. She says this is the reason why she would never go into politics herself – idealistic people with fire and passion are swallowed up, and begin to speak like apparatchiks.

Continue reading

Liberty Annual Conference: Is Speech Free Online?

I was delighted to be asked to speak on a panel at the Liberty Annual Conference yesterday. I took part in the ‘Is Speech Free Online?’ discussion with Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk and the Erotic Review, and Bella Sankey, Liberty’s policy director. Martin Howe was the chair.

Speaking first, my co-panellist Ian Dunt made a pertinent point about how the low financial barriers to free speech online are also the reason that online speech may be threatened. People do not need financial reserves in order to publish online – It is cheap and quick. However, this lack of money also means they are more vulnerable to being sued by those who do have money and power. The publishing divide is not between online/offline, but between those with lawyers, and those without.

I began own my remarks by noting that speech was most certainly not free online in other parts of the world. I cited the recent manoeuvrings to criminalise online dissent by the Azerbaijan parliament; China shutting down dissident Sina Weibo accounts; and Fazil Say’s suspended sentence in Turkey.

I spoke about the recent prosecutions from remarks made on social media, and the fact that current laws include the word ‘offensive’ as a trigger for prosecution, which is open to abuse. I noted how the immediacy of social media messaging meant that immature political views follow you around long after they should have been discarded, but that Tweeting and Facebooking are forms of publishing and could never be cordoned off as some special type of speech that is subjected to different laws. Parents and teachers need to help the young ‘uns be savvier about what they choose to publish online. I finished by warning that we cannot take our free expression for granted when we use social media spaces that feel public, but are in fact owned by corporations with a profit motive to censor if it is in their financial interests to do so.

The player is below or you can listen on SoundCloud.

During the Q&A I also managed to slip in a few re-tweetables about the nature of free speech and ‘counter-speech’.

Here’s the view from the panel just before the start of the session, as people began to filter in.

20130518-202032.jpg