Tag Archives: Human Rights

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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.

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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.

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Do Neanderthals have human rights

http://twitter.com/AdamWagner1/status/311186530372829185

Rosalind English asks: If science was able to resurrect Neanderthals, would they have human rights?

I think yes, due to the likely way in which such a resurrection would come about.

Consider the way in which gene enhancement techniques will work, when scientists perfect their methods. They will fertilise an egg by means of IVF, and then test the DNA of the petri-dish embryo for whatever it is they are concerned about. They will isolate undesirable genes (such as, a predilection for cancer, green eyes, low IQ, &ct) and replace them with desirable genes (cancer resilience, blue eyes, high IQ, lizard skin, &ct). Then they will put the resulting embryo back into a womb, in the expectation a baby will grow as a result. Such a child (hereafter referred to as an Enhanced baby) will undoubtedly be considered to have human rights… even if a portion of its DNA is from elsewhere in nature. Continue reading

Three thoughts on the Human Rights Act

I hear that over the weekend, Teresa May reaffirmed her pledge to abolish the Human Rights Act if her party wins the next General Election.

When Mrs May and Chris Grayling made similar remarks about the Human Rights Act and the ECHR earlier this month, I recorded a few thoughts to YouTube. The Home Secretary’s doubling-down on Saturday is enough of a reason to post my video here:

Traditional Marriage Paves The Way For A Return To Polygamy

Adam and Steve
Photo by Dave Schumaker on Flickr, Creative Commons Licence

Its great news that MPs voted for marriage equality yesterday.  We should remember that the debate yesterday was only one of several stages in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.  There will be other votes on this issue, and the arguments for and against the reforms will persist for a little while yet.

The anti-family campaigners’ main argument is this: If we re-define marriage to include same-sex marriage, what is to stop a future parliament from re-defining the concept again, to allow polygamy, or inter-species marriage, &ct?

The usual rebuttal to this is that marriage has often been redefined – The Liberal Democrat campaigner Mark Pack’s recent post on this topic is a great example of this argument.  There is, however, another argument, that is admittedly less persuasive but worth an airing.  It is this:  If we acquiesce to the traditional, religious conception of marriage, what is to stop future parliaments making further reversions in the future?  The religious books are pretty clear that the male has primacy in a marriage, and a religiously motivated politicians might seek to restore that inequality by redefining marriage.  Likewise, the Bible has passages that warn against inter-faith marriage, such as 2 Corinthians 6:14:

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

Stern stuff.  The Old Testament also endorses polygamy.

So giving credence to anything proposed by the religious or social conservatives risks a similar if different ‘slippery slope’ argument.  “Traditional Marriage Paves The Way For A Return To Polygamy”.

This is a reminder that it is in the very nature of our political system that laws may be changed, and that any change to any law means that it could be further reformed in the future.  This is not a bad thing (although those who see their values falling out of fashion tend to see it as such).

Are there any immutable laws that are not open to revision by future parliaments?  In times past, God’s Law performed this function.  But this was a flawed system, not least because religious authorities seem happy to re-legislate the Word of God when it is convenient.  Countries with a written constitution seek to encode some underlying laws that frame what legislators can and cannot do… but constitutions are open to amendment and repeal.  In Britain, the European Convention on Human Rights can trump domestic law.  Its incarnation in British law, the Human Rights Act, has a certain meta-status, governing what other laws can or cannot say.  But even these laws are open to repeal or withdrawal by law-makers.

There is no final arbiter that can prevent the slippery slope towards mad laws, dangerous and unethical laws, if a parliament wishes such things to be so.  This is why the vigilance of the people is so important – to ensure that the law keeps pace with, but does not go beyond, our values.  This seems to be happening in the case of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which reflects the new public consensus that marriage should be available to all.

David Cameron makes a statement on the Leveson Report

Cameron and #Leveson: My Dilemma

The extraordinary political drama surrounding the publication of the Leveson Report yesterday leaves me with something of a dilemma.

On the one hand, I want to commend David Cameron for making a principled stand for free expression in Parliament yesterday.  This Prime Minister seems hostile to the Human Rights Act, so his words on the importance of free speech are noteworthy:

The issue of principle is that, for the first time, we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land. We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press. In this House, which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries, we should think very, very carefully before crossing that line.

Cameron also said he was “instinctively concerned” about changing the rules on Data Protection and journalistic sources (Hansard link ), which, from a free expression point of view, is also a welcome attitude.  Some might argue that these are platitudes, but they are on record in Parliament and there is no reason why free speech campaigners should not trumpet these comments.

However, these statements are tempered by the concern that, in appearing to reject Lord Justice Leveson’s key recommendation, it seems as if the Prime Minister is undermining the Inquiry he himself set up.  This is likely to further alienate people from parliamentary politics.  Labour and the Liberal Democrats are right to ask what the point of the Inquiry actually was, if the central conclusion is summarily dismissed.  In taking an early position against ‘statutory underpinning’, Cameron has aligned himself with the newspapers, rightly or wrongly symbolised by the hated Murdochs.

https://twitter.com/stephenfry/status/274179392127762432

The Prime Minister has also placed himself in opposition to the McCanns, the Dowlers, and Hugh Grant, which politically speaking seems an incredibly risky manoevre.  It is so counter-intuitive to the project of re-election that I am persuaded that he has indeed taken the position on a matter of principle.

I am no fan of David Cameron’s policies, and usually enjoy watching his poll numbers fall.  But I worry about a situation in which a Prime Minister loses public support because he makes statements in favour of free expression.

Yes, This Is Political Correctness Gone Mad

I am usually a supporter of ‘political correctness’, especially when it concerns speech. I think it is far better for someone who says something offensive to be criticised and recieve a social sanction for being ‘politically incorrect’ than for them to suffer any kind of legal censorship.

It is therefore incumbent upon me to condemn genuine acts of ‘political correctness gone mad’ when they occur. These are usually instances of local government officials take progressive legislation too far. There have been two ridiculous cases of this kind in the past week: A man won an employment tribunal case against Trafford Housing Trust after they saw he had posted comments against gay marriage on his Facebook Page; and a foster-couple in Rotherham had a couple of kids removed from their care when it was discovered they were members of UKIP.

I note that the authorities acted on information gleaned from the aggrieved people’s private lives. The couple’s membership came from a “tip off” apparently, and the demoted Christian man was posting on his own Facebook wall. Both these things acts of political expression took place in that liminal space that is not private but not necessarily fully public either. But the fact that the employers and Rotherham Council have been punishing these people, based on their actions and beliefs expressed in this mid-way space, is highly disconcerting. This is the sort of thing we need human rights legislation for – to protect the overreach of the state and employers into areas that are not their business. It’s ironic that the concept of human rights is also often derided as ‘political correctness’. Had Rotherham Council and Trafford Housing Trust had a better understanding of free expression, freedom of association and the right to a private life, they may not have made the mistakes that made the headlines.

De-humanisation

Ugh. I just unwhittingly clicked on a YouTube video showing the immediate aftermath of the assasination of Ahmed Al-Jabari in Gaza. A passer-by drags out dead body from the car… and half of it is missing. It is sickening and certainly Not Safe For Work or children. I wonder how long it will remain live on YouTube before the company removes it for being too graphic.

The video is a huge contrast to the clinical black and white footage distributed by the Israeli Defence Force. Ever since Operation Desert Storm there has been discussion of the way in which TV pictures frame our view of war, sanitising the horror. In recent years there has also been much analysis of the ‘gamification’ of war, as soldiers brough-up on video games join the army and begin shooting real people. The two contrasting images of the same incident speak to that dehumanising tendency.

The gruesome, visceral aftermath also provides some understanding of the hatred towards Israel that steams out of Palestine. In the background of the video you can see children observing the scene. I am glad that I never saw such sights in my childhood. Is it any surprise that those who experience such visual traumas grow up to hate those responsible? Time and again, I find my thoughts returning to this 2005 essay by Laurie King on the symbolism of the body in war, occupation and resistance:

These violations [at Sabra and Shatila] of individual bodies were not haphazard or random acts carried out in the heat of murderous rage, but rather, part of a grammar of political exclusivity, a systemic and coherent — though certainly deranged — message that an entire group could be violated, perhaps even eradicated, with impunity. The message of that massacre endures and echoes a quarter of a century later. Its scars are social, physical, and symbolic, and are felt far beyond the scene of the crime.

So what we have here are different methods of dehumanisation. The fact that these people we fight against are our fellow humans is forgotten in the melee and the maelstrom. Some comments psoted below the video of the half-body:

Lol, not much of him left, and nice slug trail to boot (link)

I wish wars still involved swordmanship and valor but now we got this lame no effort shit. Oh well. (link)

Where’s the rest of him? Ah well…One less scum bag polluting the world (link)

These are not the comments of those who see the other side as human.

See also: Twitter and the anti-Playstation effect on war coverage.

Two Essential Testimonies on Date Rape

Occasionally, this website forgets it is a blog and descends into sheer self-promotion. Not so today, when we share a couple of pieces posted elsewhere on the sensitive issue of so-called ‘Date Rape’ (the qualifying prefix to which is actually superfluous).

Two things have sparked another collective conversation over this issue. The first is the ill-advised, point-missing defences of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, who is wanted for questioning in Sweden on sexual assault charges. The second is the wilfully ignorant remark by US Congressman Todd Akin (R-MO), that a victim of ‘legitimate rape’ rarely gets pregnant.

In response, two women have bravely written personal testimonies about how they were forced to have sex without their consent, and the feelings of confusion and shame that followed the ordeal. Both articles are accompanied by the phrase ‘Trigger Warning‘ (which I confess I had not encountered before). Continue reading