Tag Archives: Human Rights

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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