Shami Chakrabarti: The civil liberties campaigner talks Planet of the Apes, optimism and supporting Jon Gaunt

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The Independent Online

What's the book about?

The basic argument is that the Human Rights Act and the Convention on Human Rights really matter. It's not just about other people; it's about the fact that all our lives and futures are interconnected. If you don't stand up for other people's rights, you're going to lose your own. We're all suspect in somebody else's eyes.

Should we expect to forfeit some civil liberties in the fight against terrorism?

I don't think we have to. I think there's always been an understanding that there can be investigatory powers, just like we've always accepted. In certain circumstances your home can be searched. But look at stop and search: it becomes so blanket and so arbitrary. Then there are all the peace protesters they've stopped – but how many terrorists have they caught?

The Sun called you 'the most dangerous woman in Britain'...

Yes, I've dined out on that. It's particularly delicious because the columnist who wrote that, Jon Gaunt, subsequently lost his job on talkSPORT radio because he was very challenging with a local councillor. He didn't get any fair process, he just got sacked. And now he's got a case in the Court of Human Rights under Article 10, the right to free speech.

You didn't offer to represent him?

No, but Liberty has intervened to support him. That's the irony: you don't need human rights until you need them. Everybody loves their own human rights; it's just other people's that are problematic.

How do you unwind?

I do lots of things that other people do: eat, drink, chat to friends, listen to music, read, go to the cinema, have a laugh. I'm not known for being a barrel of laughs, but I do laugh.

What does make you laugh?

We have a lot of dark humour in the office. We don't take ourselves too seriously. We tease each other. We laugh about the ironies, like the story I've just told you. A bit of sarcasm, a bit of wit.

Are there any Hollywood dystopian visions of the future which have stuck in your mind?

Do you remember the original Planet of the Apes? They were obviously really thinly-veiled metaphors for the civil rights struggle and racism in the US. It's great that you can get so many people thinking about uses and abuses of power if it's the future or it's sci-fi. Fiction and pop culture are really important for that.

You have a week in power, what would you do?

A week is not a long time. I don't think I'd be legislating. I would certainly tell people about the importance of rights and freedoms. I would try to be a bit more honest with people about the limits of what politicians can achieve by tough talk and tough legislation. I think I'd like to do a bit more listening and a bit less legislating. Then I might just learn something, not just for my brief period in power but for the people in power after me.

Do you feel optimistic about the world your son is growing up into?

If you weren't optimistic, you wouldn't do this job. Why would you bother to get up in the morning if you didn't think there was hope? I see hope everywhere. Particularly with younger people. There's a generation who aren't complicit in the Iraq War and the War on Terror and can see that there is abuse of power going on. I just wish some of our politicians would see that, too.


Shami Chakrabarti CBE, 45, is the director of the British civil liberties advocacy organisation, Liberty. Previously a barrister for the Home Office, she was one of eight Olympic flag carriers at the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. Her book, 'On Liberty' (Allen Lane, £17.99) is out now