Tag Archives: Human Rights

GCHQ Has Not Been Here

The draft Investigatory Powers Bill was published at the beginning of November.  Its a huge document and the Government promised there would be ample time for scrutiny before MPs start the formal legislative process next year.  Unfortunately, some are suggesting it now be rushed through in the wake of the Paris attacks. Continue reading GCHQ Has Not Been Here


Surveillance: It’s not all about you

The Investigatory Powers Bill will be published tomorrow.  The Home Secretary will set out her vision for what snooping powers the security services should have in their tool-box, and also what oversight parliament, the judiciary, and independent ‘watchdogs’ should have over the use of those powers.

I work for English PEN, one of the six organisations leading the Don’t Spy On Us campaign.  Be in no doubt I will be sharing our analysis of the proposed new law and recommendations for improvement.

A constant issue regarding civil liberties (and one that we have discussed before on these pages) is how to convince members of the public to care about human rights when few of us ever actually experience a violation of those rights.  In the past, I have discussed the idea of ‘everyday rights‘ and the notion that, even if we are not tortured or detained, our lives are made marginally worse when our rights are eroded, even in small ways. Continue reading Surveillance: It’s not all about you


Photography Imbued with Sadness

A while ago I posted on The Darker Side of Selfies, and the way in which the mainstream media illustrate the news of tragic young deaths with images from the victims’ social media accounts.

Whether it is a car accident, a drug overdose, a gang murder, or a bullying related suicide, the photo editors turn to the victim’s Facebook page or Twitter stream to harvest images. … Used in this new, unintended context, these images strike a discordant note.  The carefree narcissism inherent in any selfie jars with the fact of the artist/subject’s untimely death.

The death of Terrie Lynch and Alexandra Binns this week is a good example. Continue reading Photography Imbued with Sadness


Ok, so this right here is why we need strong human rights laws

Bloody hell.  A serving general has threatened mutiny if a Corbyn-led Labour government attempts to scrap Trident or otherwise downgrade our military capabilities.  The Independent reports that the general said that the military would attempt to stop such policies being enacted, “by fair means or foul”. Continue reading Ok, so this right here is why we need strong human rights laws


Why we shouldn’t execute Islamic State militants with air-strikes

Yesterday, the Prime Minister re-announced that his Government had targeted British citizens with missiles fired from RAF drones.  Two men are dead.  The Sun and others have cheered the news.  Others have expressed grave concern. Continue reading Why we shouldn’t execute Islamic State militants with air-strikes

trafalagar square protest

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.


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


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*


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


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.