An article in the current edition of Prospect by Vernon Bogdanor entitled ‘Brexit will erase your rights’ (May 2018) discusses
in detail the effects of leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court, the avowed government policy. One of the important effects is that the ability of judges to disallow legislation which conflicts with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights will no longer be possible. Bogdanor makes the point that we shall be moving away from a codified and protected system to an unprotected one. This is probably the first time this has happened.
For people keen on the sovereignty issue and see all things European to be harmful, then this is what they seek. For them the supremacy of parliament is a key principle. But what has been happening over many decades – and preceding our entry into what was then called the Common Market – was that judges were becoming more willing to interfere in some aspects of legislation. Because we have signed up to the European Charter, where our legislation conflicts with that, then judges are willing to rule against it. The fundamental problem the UK has is a lack of a constitution. The charter was a kind of stand-in constitution against which the legislative process could be tested.
The Human Rights changed that. In regards to the HRA, Professor Gearty stated that:
In the breadth of its ambition and in the potential reach of its terms, British Law has never seen anything like this piece of legislation’. The way in which the Human Rights Act 1998 changed the legal landscape was by inserting a new method of interpretation into British Law which required the courts to read and give effect to legislation in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights ‘so far as it is possible to do so’(s3); requiring that the courts take into account decisions of the Strasbourg Court when determining a question concerning a Convention right (s2); allowing the Court to make a declarations of incompatibility (s4); making it unlawful for public authorities to act incompatibly with the Convention (s6); and by creating a cause of action for breaches by a public authorities and providing for remedial damages for breaches. (s7 and s8). (Church Court Chambers)
For critics of the involvement of the European Court, there is a kind of misty eyed reverence to the British system which does of course have many strengths and has evolved over many centuries. This was particularly noticeable during the Magna Carta celebrations two years ago. But historians will know that it has been a struggle for some simple rights and laws of benefit to ordinary people, to be enacted. Legislation such as the factory acts and public health for example, took decades to enact against fierce resistance by vested interests in parliament. Full enfranchisement itself did not happen until 90 years ago in 1928.
Recent events surrounding the Windrush scandal have shown a legislature and an executive all too willing to inflict misery on thousands of people. The idea that parliament is there to protect the welfare of ordinary people such as those who came here in the ’50s, does not stand up to examination. There is thus a real concern that once we exit the ECJ and the Withdrawal Bill becomes law then some of our rights will be taken away. This will not happen straight off but over time using the infamous Henry VIII powers. The role of the courts will be weakened. The Charter of Fundamental Rights will no longer apply and we will be at the whim of parliament. The key issue behind the scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation was that although there were two immigration acts, a lot of the day to day nastiness was done administravely. So the idea that parliament is sovereign is flawed.
One of the curious anomalies of our political discourse is that people do not usually trust politicians. If someone at a public meeting said ‘I think we should trust politicians’ it would likely engender laughter and ridicule. But by removing our country from the aegis of the charter we will be giving power to politicians and the executive which amounts to trusting them with our rights. Since parliament is rife with self-interest, secretive lobbying by special interest groups, the revolving door enabling ministers and others to take up lucrative positions with organisations which they were supposedly in control of, and behind closed door influence from powerful media barons: to expect it to take interest in the rights of ordinary individuals is a big ask. There are honest politicians and many with consciences but they are few against the party machines.
Bognador ends his piece by saying that ‘the tide of history is towards greater protections, but the coming change threatens to make us more lawless. And it may well be that a country, which wasn’t primed for this sort of change, will not be content with that.’
The arguments over the role of European law and the remit of the ECJ might seem esoteric, the sort of thing lawyers get enthused about and no one else is the least bit interested in. But the effects of a loss of control over the executive and a dysfunctional parliament will eventually be experienced by all and there won’t be anyone to protect us.
Update: See the Amnesty blog post on the reaction of young people to the threat to human rights post Brexit.
*Amnesty has no position on whether to remain or leave the EU: this blog is just about human rights if we leave
We have reluctantly decided to cancel an event – planned for June this year – which was designed to highlight the positive aspects of the Human Rights Act and the benefits we all receive from human rights legislation generally. It was to consist of a week of talks and other events in Salisbury with the overall theme of emphasizing how human rights have improved the lot of citizens in the UK. It was arranged during the anniversary week of Magna Carta.
The idea for the event was spurred by the negative press this legislation receives and the drubbing that European institutions get from our media. It is connected loosely to the Brexit debate where one of the guiding principles of those who wish to leave the EU is to be free of what they perceive as interference in our justice system by the European Courts.
In planning the event we had assumed that legal firms in Salisbury would be willing to support it and it was something of a surprise that none would. Indeed, the majority did not reply to our requests. One firm even hosts a human rights organisation but still did not reply. We did eventually secure some financial support (from Poole) but it arrived probably too late for us to be able to do the planning.
So it will not now take place which is a pity. Salisbury has recently become associated with the poisoning issue and allegations that Russia was to blame: highly likely in view of their previous behaviour and the nature of the attack. At base is the issue of human rights. Russia – if it is them – is a state in which lawlessness is now the norm. There is no free press and corruption is the order of the day. ‘Dirty’ money is looted by the Putin regime and much of it finds its way into the City of London. Journalists are murdered and anyone looking like they might be a threat is prevented from standing in elections.
In the UK, despite many unsatisfactory aspects in our political process and the revolving door corruption, we are still able to vote them out – a luxury the Russians do not enjoy. Ordinary people have more rights as a result of the Human Rights Act than previously yet they are constantly told that the act is a menace and needs to be got rid of. It is sad that we were unable to celebrate this fact.
Attached are the minutes for the group meeting held on Thursday 12 October 2017 thanks to group member Lesley for preparing them. A full agenda covering the death penalty, North Korea, upcoming events such as the film at the Arts Centre, Citizenship day, an exhibition at the Library and the plans for the Celebration of Human Rights in 2018.
Anyone local reading this interested in taking part then go to the end of the minutes where future events are listed. Come along to one and make yourself known. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook if you prefer – salisburyai.
If you live in the Salisbury area and are interested in getting involved we would love to see you. The local group is free to join although some join Amnesty International UK and there is a joining fee for that. The best thing is to come along to one of our events and make yourself known. You can see what’s on at the end of the minutes or by following us on twitter http://www.twitter.com/salisburyai.
Three year report on the group’s activities is published
The three year report, prepared by our chair, is published and shows what we have achieved over this time. It is always interesting to look back and review progress and for a small group, we have done a lot in the last 3 years.
Act is likely to be doomed whoever is Prime Minister
Both the leading contenders to become the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson [UPDATE: 30/06 Johnson rules himself out. Michael Gove is standing] and Theresa May, are committed to getting rid of the Human Rights Act [HRA] and want to introduce a British Bill of Rights [BBoR]. It is also true of Salisbury’s MP, John Glen who has written to that effect in the Salisbury Journal. The commitment was in the Conservative party’s manifesto in last years general election. This is yet to see the light of day and how it will differ from the existing act has still to be made clear. We have suggested that the only thing which may stop this happening is that considerable time will now be needed to negotiate our exit from the EU; negotiate new trading arrangements with the EU and the rest of the world, together with a mass of budgetary issues once we no longer are in receipt of EU regional, sectoral and other funds. Whether there will be time for a long battle with the Lords over the HRA is in doubt.
Perhaps now is timely to ask why is it that the HRA has become almost a dirty word and why the media in particular has waged a relentless campaign against the act and against the EU itself, culminating in the Brexit vote last week. Part of the answer is in that last sentence: the HRA is the embodiment in British law of the European Convention on Human Rights and as such is tainted by its association with Europe generally. But that is not the whole answer because it would be possible to be against the EU for economic reasons – slow growth, high unemployment and low investment for example – but still be in favour of the act.
RightsInfo in a recent post has argued that we need to learn 5 lessons from all this and argues for a changed approach to countering the inbuilt media bias against the EU project and the ECHR. While this is true it is nevertheless important to understand where this bias comes from. Why is a large section of the media (roughly 70%) so viscerally against the act and dedicated to writing misleading or plain wrong stories about Brussels and Strasbourg? Unless we can gain an understanding of this then efforts to counter it and change minds are probably doomed.
Loss of Britishness
The first reason may be the sense that we have lost a sense of Britishness acquired over the last eight hundred years, especially as far as the law is concerned. This was very evident during the Magna Carta celebrations last year. There was this sense of 800 years of seamless progress culminating in the corpus of law we now have. Then along came Europe and imposed a new law upon us which had wide ranging implications for all our law in the UK. It said that human rights had to be respected and for some this came hard. Despite the fact it was Churchill who pushed for the European Convention and our support for the UN Declaration of Human Rights in which we played – at times reluctant – part, the ECHR was seen as an intrusion into our affairs. We simply did not need it and there was resistance to its application in the UK.
Magna Carta was about the release of power by the king to his barons. Much of subsequent legal history has been about the steady release of power by those elites who hold it to the ordinary people. As industrialisation gradually took hold in the nineteenth century for example, there were prolonged battles to obstruct and delay public health reforms; improved safety in factories; better housing, and for ordinary people to be educated. The HRA turns this approach on its head and says that there are basic rights that everyone should have. It also gives people the chance to challenge, using the legal process, those in power. It comes as no surprise therefore that those who have the power are miffed at its loss or at least diminution.
One can also detect a kind of arrogance. We won the war and helped put in place a set of rules for them (the Europeans) to live by. We didn’t need them because we have this ancient and trusted system. When we started allowing appeals to Strasbourg it came as something of a shock when rulings started to go against us. Suddenly, this superb system didn’t seem so wonderful after all. Ordinary people spoke and something of a shiver went through the political elite.
Gift to the world
Linked to this is that the British system is now used around the world principally by countries that used to be colonies. From the USA to New Zealand, much of Africa and the subcontinent, the system of justice is based on what was developed here. Europe on the other hand has a different legal system and does not (with a few exceptions) have a corpus of common law. It is difficult in these circumstances for some people not to feel that Europe is a ‘Johnny come lately’ to the legal scene so why should they tell us what to do? After all, fascism was rife in Europe so who are they to lecture us on human rights?
The media and neo-liberalism
One of the strangest paradoxes of the EU debate and the passions the referendum unleashed is that our close links to the USA are almost never mentioned. Yet the effect of the USA and its major corporations have arguably as equal an effect on life in the UK as do the machinations of Brussels. We have witnessed major tax dodging by US corporations such as Google, Amazon, Starbucks et al amounting almost to plunder. Starbucks graciously agreed to pay a voluntary amount and Google a trifling sum. Europe has shown itself to be keener and tougher in its approach to taxing these behemoths.
Throughout the whole debate following the Snowden revelations, it was the linkage between the American spy agency NSA and GCHQ which was a significant fact. NSA used GCHQ to hoover up information on US citizens which, under their Constitution, they were not allowed to do. Both were engaged in mass surveillance largely uncontrolled by our politicians who were – on this side of the pond at least – asleep at the wheel.
A large chunk of our media is owned by Americans, most particularly the Murdoch family. This was allowed to happen to help Mrs Thatcher gain power. The important point however is that these proprietors are keen believers in the Neocon agenda. For them good government is small government. They still believe in the merits of unfettered free markets. The emphasis on the social chapter in Europe is not something they are at all keen on. Power is also important and as we saw during the Leveson hearings, they were used to slipping in and out of the back door of Downing Street for surreptitious and unminuted meetings with the Prime Minister of the day. Europe makes all this harder. Instead of a ‘quiet word’ with the PM, there are 27 other countries to deal with.
American power is therefore widely felt and in many areas has greater influence than anything coming out of Brussels. Yet it is Europe and Europe alone which fills the media and the airwaves. There is thus an inbuilt bias in the reporting of Europe and American power almost never gets a mention. It wasn’t Europe which took us into the Iraq or Afghan wars.
Media and privacy
Still on the media but taking in the tabloids in particular, is the issue of privacy. The phone hacking story revealed many parts of the British media to be acting outside the law. People’s phones and emails were hacked, bank accounts blagged and for some celebrities and politicians, they were almost unable to communicate with anyone without the risk of their message being intercepted. The full story can be read in Nick Davies’s book Hack Attack . Aspects of this was illegal but recourse to the police was largely a waste of time since the police themselves were selling information to the tabloids or were afraid to tackle the media with whom they had an unsavoury relationship. It has been argued that the phone hacking scandal only saw the light of day because of the HRA . Regulation into interception was introduced because the UK fell foul of the ECHR.
The print media were feeling the pinch however with falling advertising revenues, fewer people buying newspapers, preferring the internet to gain access to stories, and increasing costs. Much easier therefore to hack into celebrities’ phones to get a juicy front page. They were free to do this because there was no law of privacy. The HRA does provide some privacy protection and this poses a threat to their business models. So parts of the media have a problem, both ideologically with its adherence to free market ideas and, its business model based on intrusion. Europe is a threat to both these aspects, especially the latter from the HRA.
Thirdly is the concept of freedom and responsibility. To be able to reach millions of people either in print or online is a huge responsibility, a responsibility to give as balanced a view as possible to impart the key facts. Freedom of speech is a precious thing but it does also come with some responsibilities.
To end this section it would be unfair to blame all the media’s woes on the media themselves. They are there to sell papers and, as with all forms of marketing, it is based on the principal of giving people what they want. Clearly, they have picked up a mood or anti-Europeanism and they have provided the stories to match. One can argue that they have failed to provide a balanced view. They, however, might argue that the Independent newspaper was balanced, but is now only available on-line and the only other paper trying to give an even handed view is the Guardian which sells only a derisory number of copies. If the public were interested in balance and wanted to read the benefits of EU membership they can do so. They don’t. The tabloids can fairly argue that they reflect the public’s view. People buy their papers by the million, not the ones with balanced views. The Daily Mail has the world’s biggest on-line readership.
Which brings us to the final point. Against the tide of misinformation and negative stories about the HRA and Europe generally most of our politicians have either joined in or remained silent. A few Lib Dems were proponents but they were reduced to a rump at the last election and are now scarcely a political force. Whereas Ukip and Nigel Farage are rarely out of the news, the Lib Dems have all but disappeared off it. Saying positive things about Europe to try and keep Britain within the EU came late to many of our politicians during the Referendum campaign and resulted in them not being believed anyway. Anthony Lester refers to the ‘love-hate relationship’ between politicians and journalists in his book Five Ideas to Fight For .
They are mutually dependent and yet proclaim their independence, each side claiming to represent the public interest better than the other. (p159)
The media and politicians are both part of what has been termed the ‘Establishment’. In his book The Establishment and how they get away with it  Owen Jones attempts a definition:
Today’s Establishment is made up – as it always has been – of powerful groups that need to protect their position in a democracy in which almost the entire adult population has the right to vote. The Establishment represents an attempt on behalf of these groups to ‘manage’ democracy, to make sure it does not threaten their own interests. (p4)
In a chapter entitled ‘Mediaocracy’ he describes how the media plays a role within this Establishment by focusing people’s ire on those at the bottom of society. The success (if success be the right word) of this blame game could be seen in spades with the Brexit campaign and its focus on immigrants and Europe as the cause of many of our woes. That immigrants contribute at least £2bn to the UK’s economy and are a mainstay of hospitals, the food industry, transport and much else is something you would not be aware of from much of the media.
It can be seen that the dislike of the HRA is the result of several forces. The shift in power away from the elites and the provision ordinary people with rights is resented especially by those who have sense of being born to rule. A right to privacy threatens those parts of the media whose business model depends on the wholesale intrusion into the lives of celebrities, sportsmen and women, and politicians (but never you notice other media folk). An arrogance concerning the age of our legal system and its alleged superiority to the continental one makes us reluctant to accept correction or a different perspective from across the channel. A loss of power and influence by media proprietors of the political establishment is also a factor where Europe more generally is concerned. All these forces come together to result in an assault on the act. Very little good is allowed to be said of it but plenty which is bad – whether true or not – can. The HRA enabled a light to be shone into the Establishment and what was revealed was murky. Is it any wonder they are so keen to see it gone?
This is the backdrop to the likely demise of the HRA. And it seems little can be done to halt the process. Good news stories rarely get into the media and are unlikely to be believed anyway.
 Hack Attack, How the Truth Caught up with Rupert Murdoch, 2014, Nick Davies, Chatto & Windus
 A Magna Carta for all Humanity, 2015, Frances Klug, Routledge
 Five Ideas to Fight For, 2016, Anthony Lester, Oneworld
 The Establishment, and how the get away with it, 2014, Owen Jones, Allen Lane
This has been a busy year for the group. A prevailing theme has been the Magna Carta celebrations and we enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the Cathedral where one of the extant copies of the charter is displayed. We organised a talk in the Cathedral by Dominic Grieve – the former Attorney General – and 160 attended to hear him speak in favour of the Human Rights Act. Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty, spoke at the Sixth Form Conference also at the Cathedral. We mounted a display in the cloisters and we ended the year by displaying the tapestry, assembled by members of Amnesty groups in the south region, with two contributions from refugee groups. Another event was at the Playhouse where we hosted a discussion with Kate Allen; Prof Guy Standing and Ben Rawlence – a first for us. The Playhouse agreed to display the tapestry ahead of it moving to the Cathedral.
For several years we have held a film night at the Arts Centre and this year we managed two, the first being the documentary Bastards. Set in Morocco, this moving film showed an illiterate woman’s struggles with her family and the justice system on behalf of her illegitimate son. We were delighted to welcome the director of the film, Deborah Perkin, to introduce it. After the showing, we asked people to sign cards for Ali Aarrass who was returned to Morocco from Spain, held incommunicado, denied access to a lawyer and tortured for 12 days. An enquiry into his allegations was promised but has not happened. He still seeks justice and has recently ended a prolonged hunger strike. Campaigning for Prisoners of Conscience like Ali are a core aspect of Amnesty’s work.
The second film was Timbuktu which was timely in view of the problems with terrorism and Islamic extremism. We are grateful for the continuing support of the Salisbury Arts Centre in this enterprise and to the many people stopped after the showings to sign cards.
Saudi Arabia and arms sales
Saudi Arabia formed a backdrop during the year with their continuing and increasing use of the death penalty and a host of human rights violations. In July, we wrote to our local MP, Mr John Glen, to urge his government to take a more robust line with the Saudis. We received a reply from him and a minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office assuring us that diplomacy was proceeding behind the scenes. We had not long received the letter when it was revealed that the FCO had just removed references to the abolition of the death penalty from its policy. It was also revealed that the requirement to adhere to international law and treaty obligations had been removed from the ministerial code. We then discovered the astonishing news that the UK government had been active in securing a seat for a Saudi man on the UN’s Human Rights Council. Together with the continuing support the government offers to sellers of arms to Saudi Arabia, this shows that claims to be interested in better human rights in countries like Saudi was a sham. It was depressing to note the new college in Salisbury being supported by a range of arms companies.
Economic prosperity was further up my list of priorities than human rights
Sir Simon Mc Donald, head of the Foreign and Colonial Office in evidence to the Foreign Affairs sub-Committee
Our all too close relationship with the Saudi government was exposed at the end of the year when the Independent revealed details of the secret security pact signed between the two governments. Human rights groups, the Independent reported, expressed alarm at the secretive nature of the deal with a regime which has been condemned for its human rights record. Kate Allen, Amnesty’s Director, called it a ‘murky deal’.
Later in the year there was a great deal of interest in Syria and the decision to bomb ISIS. A major debate was held in Parliament with impassioned speeches on both sides. We noted that no such passion was evident in the case of Yemen where British arms supplied to Saudi are being used to bomb civilians and kill children. The government remains to keen to sell arms to whoever seemingly unconcerned where they end up. They support the annual arms fair in London and, no doubt mindful of previous revelations about the sale of torture equipment, banned a representative from Amnesty attending.
It is extraordinary that so much heat and righteous indignation is engendered by the barbaric activities carried out by ISIS, but beheadings, crucifixions, floggings and torture carried out on an increasing scale in Saudi Arabia result not in condemnation, but visits by ministers and by members of the royal family.
But is was not all bad news. The Salisbury group, in common with others around the world, campaigned for the Nigerian man Moses Akatugba who was brutally tortured by the Nigerian police and forced to sign a confession to murder. We are pleased to note that many Salisbury people signed our petitions and cards with the result (with world wide campaigning as well) that Moses was released after 10 years on death row. This was a notable success. Over 34,000 people around the world signed petitions. Amnesty have received a letter of thanks from Moses describing his feelings on learning of his imminent release and describing Amnesty activists as his ‘heroes’.
Another success was the decision by the state authorities in Missouri to give Reggie Clemons a retrial. After a long wait for a decision from the Court following the report of the Special Judge, Reggie’s conviction and sentence for first degree murder were ‘vacated’. The Court had upheld his right to a fair trial which was all that he had sought from the beginning. This is a campaign which the local group has been pursuing actively for many years and again we are pleased to record our thanks to many hundreds of Salisbury people who signed cards and petitions.
Locally, the group undertook two Citizenship talks, one at South Wilts and one at the Shaftesbury School. These are popular with young people and well attended.
Campaigning against the Death Penalty has continued to be a major focus for the Salisbury Group. Regrettably, there has been no national campaign coordinated by Amnesty International in London. We hope this might change in 2016 as we have taken part in a Survey currently being carried out by HQ confirming that we would like this important aspect of Amnesty’s work to be taken up again – particularly in the light of the recent changes in the priorities of the Foreign and Colonial Office.
In the meantime, we have identified particular issues around the Death Penalty on which we have campaigned. Throughout the year we have responded to all the Urgent Actions received in respect of individuals under threat of execution – 31 in total. The majority of these have been for prisoners in Saudi Arabia, Iran and the USA. We have worked on the cases of individuals sentenced to death within Amnesty’s Campaign against torture – most notably Moses Akatugba and Saman Naseem (see below), including them in letter writing, card signings and petitions, and have also continued to campaign on behalf of Reggie Clemons (see above). In partnership with St Thomas’s Church, we held a Vigil as part of the World Day Against the Death Penalty. This was our first such venture, and it has to be said that public support was disappointing, but the Group felt it had been very worthwhile.
One of our concerns are the numbers of being sentenced to death and executed for alleged crimes committed when children. Countries with the worst records for this are Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. This issue was taken up by the Salisbury group and it was the focus of the Vigil for this year’s World Day Against the Death Penalty. We highlighted the case of Saman Naseem, a Kurd, arrested aged 17, tortured and sentenced to death for being a member of a banned organisation.
The group continues to publish a monthly death penalty report which collects information from around the world on the use of this barbaric and ineffective practice. At the bottom of this blog you will find other sites which provide information. While countries like the USA, Saudi and Iran feature frequentlyy in these reports, it has to be recognised that China executes more than the rest of the world put together but keeps the statistics a state secret.
A full report on the death penalty is on a later blog.
This year saw the state visit by the Chinese president to these shores. There was considerable discussion about human rights in China – or the lack of them – including the denial of free speech, the use of torture, thousands executed after brief trials and continued suppression in Tibet. It was revealed by the Chinese media that George Osborne – who is keen to replace David Cameron as Prime Minister – on his visit to China, failed to mention human rights at all to the surprise of his hosts. What was said to the president on his visit here, if anything, is unknown. Protestors in London were mysteriously kept well away by armies of Chinese. This was a clear demonstration that the current government is almost exclusively concerned with economic matters and not about human rights.
During the year we continued to highlight where we can, the continuing state of human rights abuses in North Korea. The situation there remains dire and the role of the Chinese is crucial. People fleeing the country are frequently handed back to face a terrible future in a forced labour camp the condition of which are unimaginable. They also try and obstruct efforts by the UN. Their fear is that instability in North Korea could be the trigger for unrest in China itself. There is now greater awareness of what is going on the country and the story has moved away from border skirmishes to the appalling human rights situation: progress of sorts. Clip from the video made in 2014 available on YouTube. The message reads ‘Close the Camps’
We have campaigned throughout the year on behalf of individuals who have been subjected to torture. This abhorrent practice is still very common around the world with an estimated 141 countries still practising it. This is despite signing various UN protocols to the contrary.
Human Rights Act
We have reported on many occasions the desire by the government to do away with, scrap or abolish the HRA. Our local MP, Mr John Glen is on record as wanting this. Part of the reason – perhaps the major part – is the continuing dislike of things European. ‘Brussels’ has become shorthand for anything bad and for interference in our affairs and the HRA is caught up in that. It doesn’t help that the majority of newspapers publish seemingly endless stories of dubious decisions which are the result – it is claimed – of the workings the act. Stories about benefits for ordinary people almost never make it onto a tabloid page.
A second reason (we have speculated) is that much press activity nowadays involves the intrusion into the private lives of celebrities and politicians using hacking, buying information from the Police and other sometimes illegal means. Article 8 of the HRA includes a right to privacy which would seriously curtail this activity. We are currently awaiting the review of the act (promised in the Autumn) and how the government proposes to change it. Perhaps we can be encouraged by the appointment of Michael Gove MP as Justice Minister, who has shown himself willing to overturn some of the worst excesses of his predecessor such as iniquitous court fees and banning books from prisons.
During the year we were pleased to welcome the formation of Rights Info which was established to counter the misinformation regularly pumped out by our media. It analyses the various cases and stories which make the news and presents the facts.
The investigatory powers bill is currently in the report stage. It proposes giving increased powers to the security services to intercept private messages, phone calls, Skype, emails and social media. People are rightly concerned and fearful of terrorist activity and mostly take the view that as I’ve got nothing to hide, losing a bit of liberty is a price I’m willing to pay for greater security. There is a trade off here: we give up some liberty and the right to our privacy to enable the security services to invade emails and the like in their hunt for terrorists, drug smugglers and people traffickers. But we expect our politicians to exert oversight and to ensure the security services are properly accountable. The revelations by Edward Snowden exploded that and showed that the relevant parliamentary committee had little or no idea of what was happening. We have also noted the strange dichotomy between the publics’ distrust of politicians on the one hand and trusting them when it comes to intruding into our private lives on the other.
Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher (Viking Penguin) first revealed the inside story of the MI5 which he alleged had burgled its way around London. More recent books such as Seamus Milne’s The Enemy Within (Verso) revealed the underside of the security services and their (successful) attempts to undermine the miners’ strike and Nick Davies’s Hack Attack (Chatto and Windus) which told the story of the media’s involvement with politicians, senior Metropolitan Police officers and the security services. All these books, and others, show the importance of strong independent control of what these services are up to. Unfortunately, the unholy link between some newspaper groups, politicians and the police makes achieving this very difficult.
So although we do not mind the security services penetrating terrorist cells, we might mind them listening in to solicitors discussing their client’s cases, journalists’ phone calls and bugging human rights groups, all things they have been shown to do. Liberty is a precious thing and we need to be ever vigilant that their activities are closely monitored and are appropriate. With the politicians we have today we cannot be sure of this. One of the few exceptions is David Davis MP (seen here third from left at the Sixth Form Conference at the Cathedral, next to Kate Allen) who has regularly highlighted the dangers of this bill and of the creeping nature of intrusion being planned by the Home Office.
This has been a busy year for us with many achievements. However, we look forward to next year with some forboding. The desire to promote economic interests almost at any cost and the near abandonment of overseas human rights issues is a worry. We want to go on selling arms to highly unstable regimes like the Saudis, seemingly with no concern with how or where they use them. Claims of ‘quiet diplomacy’ are a sham when you are promoting one of their number onto the UN’s Human Rights Council. At home, the combination of the ‘snoopers’ charter,’ a desire to end or abolish the Human Rights Act and to curtail the Freedom of Information Act are all steps in the wrong direction.
This has been an exceptionally busy year, as the report notes. We have succeeded in holding major headlining events, around the Magna Carta celebrations, while still carrying on our usual campaigning, and keeping awareness of Amnesty high in the city, all with a relatively small activist base. Our visits to schools have been valuable in this respect too, and thanks are due to all who have helped over the last year to keep us in the public eye and assisted in the success of the achievements noted here. I would conclude by wishing our readers an supporters a happy New Year, and hopes for freedom for those we are supporting.
Andrew Hemming, Chair of the Salisbury group
We continue to be heartened by the warm support we get at signings from people in the Salisbury area. The support of the Cathedral in this Magna Carta anniversary year has also been particularly valued.
The revised Regulatory Powers bill has now been published and has been debated in parliament. It is better known as the ‘snoopers’ charter’ and tries to put the interception activities of the security services on a sound legal footing. The previous act, RIPA, was clearly inadequate and revelations by Edward Snowden revealed that it was being widely circumvented and ignored.
It has to noted that the public at large is mostly relaxed about the degree of intrusion into their electronic activity. The wholesale interception of emails, phone calls, Skype, Facebook and the like arouses no great passions. The general view can be summed up as ‘I’ve got nothing to hide so they’re welcome to look at my emails if they want to.’
The line put across by politicians is that these powers are needed to defeat the activities of terrorists; international criminals; people smugglers and the like is widely accepted and seen as a price worth paying if we are to remain safe and such people are to be put behind bars. The paradox however is that if you ask people the question ‘do you trust politicians?’ you are likely – indeed almost certain – to receive a very dusty or robust answer. They are seen – often unfairly – as untrustworthy, interested in their own careers, acting as lobby fodder or simply being out of touch. So allowing these individuals additional powers does seem to be something of a contradiction.
So what are the arguments about the Regulatory Powers Bill and why does it all matter? First is the issue of trust to which we have already alluded. Before Snowden, many of the same politicians were telling us that matters were under control and that warrants and searches were only used when strictly necessary. It was then revealed that comprehensive snooping was underway and that the ministers concerned – including those on the select committee – had little or no idea of the scope of the activity. GCHQ was hoovering up large quantities of information seemingly without any oversight.
… and they still don’t. Only a very few individuals get to see the core information since most of it is presented in terms of briefings. This goes back to the war when the JIC was set up to look at all the information and then put it together to inform the cabinet committee. Very few MPs have any serious experience of intelligence matters and the nature and sensitivity of the information they receive makes it difficult for them to find out. David Davies MP says we have a ‘comforting illusion’ about our intelligence services which leads to complacency.
There is a natural tendency for all organisations to talk up the issues they deal with. By highlighting risks it enables them to win resources in Whitehall battles and in battles with sister agencies. This needs to be remembered when blood-curdling threat assessments are issued.
There is a belief that more is better. By simply amassing more and more information using ever more powerful computers it is argued this will enable the intelligence services to protect us better. The only problem is that time after time it has been found to be wanting. The 45 minute claim is the most famous but there are others. Only this week we read of the death of Ahmed Chalabi who misled the USA in many different ways over Iraq. So despite the massive scale of the American intelligence system, the billions of dollars spent on the CIA and NSA, one man comprehensively fooled the State Dept. over a period of several years.
A fundamental issue at stake is one of power. It was not so long ago, following the collapse of East Germany, that the scale of their intelligence activities by the Stasi were revealed. Miles and miles of underground corridors existed with hundreds of thousands of files on almost every citizen in the state. Children informed on their parents; brother informed on brother; neighbour on neighbour. All typewriter fonts were recorded so that any typed samizdat could be traced. It was a nightmare world of paranoia and poisoned a generation. People in the West were horrified when this was revealed. That was clumsy by comparison to what the agencies can do today in the internet era. Yet we seem relaxed, not horrified.
The issue of power and who has it is central to the debate. Our society is based on division of powers in part going back to Magna Carta. For one group to have too much power is recognised as dangerous. We have the Lords (however imperfect) and the Commons. We have a separate judiciary. We have a reasonably independent media. These divisions prevent despotism or at least make it exceedingly hard to achieve. In addition there are elections every 5 years.
By allowing the intelligence agencies, to pry into every communication, to intercept communications between lawyer and client; to intercept emails of human rights groups such as Amnesty and to tap into the phones of journalists, is extremely dangerous and alters the balance of power significantly. All these things have happened.
It is also dangerous because of the frailty of the people in power. Lord David Owen in his books has investigated the mental capacity of various leaders in times of stress particularly war. In both TheHubris Syndrome (Politico) and in In Sickness and In Power (Methuen) he shows that senior politicians can be unstable and suffer from hubris. This led for example, Tony Blair and George W Bush to ignore or manipulate intelligence to fit their beliefs and with disastrous results.
The thirst for power can itself be dangerous. Obtaining it, holding on to it, fighting off those who want to take it from them, and wielding it, can be the all consuming passion for a politician. It is for these very reasons we should be extremely wary of granting them the advantage of even more intrusion.
It might reasonably be asked however, what about terrorist activity and especially a group like ISIS (or whatever we agree to call them)? They are undoubtedly a cruel and dangerous organisation. But they are not an existential threat to the UK. Even if they manage to pull off some outrage in this country, it cannot be argued that they will change our way of life. Giving up our liberties and our right to privacy is a heavy price to pay on the uncertain promise of greater security.
Our freedoms and liberties have been acquired over many centuries and we should be extremely wary at giving them up. Vague promises of judicial oversight – which are empty since they will only oversee the process not the actual decision – should not blind us to the fundamental risk this bill will pose if it gets enacted. Combined with the intention of scrapping the Human Rights Act, this is something to be worried about.
The tapestry – which has been put together by members of the southern region of Amnesty International – was erected today in the Playhouse.
Each panel illustrates one of the clauses of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It will be on display in the theatre for the next two weeks or so and while a series of plays are being performed on the subject of Magna Carta.
We hope to move it to the Cathedral, subject to their agreement, at the end of the theatre run. The tapestry can be viewed on the first floor of the theatre.