Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Britain has lost the right to lecture on liberty

Dictators will agree with Blair's onslaught, as will Muslims who love authoritarian leadership
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The Independent Online

In the brash courts of Bush and Blair, sacred human rights are being kicked around, mocked, abused, rendered weak and senseless. There is one difference between the two countries. Maddened though it is by fear of terrorism, the US still retains its founding principles and inalienable constitutional entitlements. When the political landscape changes and hopefully settles, these sturdy pillars will not have been destabilised, not even by the present lot of Republicans.

The good people of America understand the importance of their constitutional inheritance because they have been taught to embrace it from childhood. The masses in our coliseums, in contrast, brought up in ignorance, egg on a violent state assault on their freedoms and privileges. And why shouldn't they? They read The Sun and other right-wing papers which have been on a relentless campaign against the Human Rights Act (HRA) ever since it came in eight years ago.

What a week of good cheer they have had. First, David Cameron reaffirmed his mentor Michael Howard's ambitions to amputate or kill off the HRA. Now Blair and his bouncer John Reid demand new laws to subjugate the irritant Act.

The Lib Dems, upholders they say of our liberties, run scared, while the leaders of the two main parties bow to the brutish cacophony, replaying of the last days of Roman decadence and self destruction. Note the warning from Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall: "The principles of a free constitution are irrevocably lost when the legislative power is nominated by the executive." Today we are on the threshold of the executive nominating and dominating the legislature.

Tony Blair wants to limit the ability of the courts to interpret the HRA, specifically when it overrides or overrules or interrogates government policies and practices. What is baffling is that this natural born warrior brought the HRA into British law when Jack Straw was in the Home Office. Then Labour wore its progressive politics with panache, made the Tories look mean, class ridden, anti-European xenophobes. Straw, before he allowed himself to be corrupted by the US neo-con project, was proud of the HRA, the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the amended Race Relations Act.

The increasingly pugilistic Blair now says he never was that taken with this import. Last week Justice Sullivan accused the government of "abuse of power" for denying asylum to the nine Afghan hijackers who landed here in 2000. Blair's intolerance of the HRA has reached a new low. He is a lawyer. He is misleading the public (once again) on the Act and its meanings. Here are just three true/false questions on the HRA. What do you believe?

The European Convention on Human Rights, the bedrock of our Human Rights Act was created by the EU. The death penalty is absolutely forbidden in all cases by the HRA, a fundamentalist liberal document. A police shoot to kill policy is a violation of the HRA.

All three are false. The Convention was created by the Council of Europe in 1950, after the devastation of Nazism and as Stalinism began to stretch its reach. The Council, committed to safeguarding freedom and the rule of law, predates the European Common Market and is independent of the EU and the European Commission. Countries in the EU can choose to incorporate the Convention into domestic law. The Convention permits states to carry out state executions "during times of war or imminent threat of war" provided there is a provision for such actions within the laws of that state.

Now even I didn't know this until I re-read it before I wrote this column. And the final right is permitted by the Act which balances, quite properly, the rights of individuals and the need to keep safe communities and the peoples of this nation. Yet it is presented always by opponents as a liberal handout to criminals and insurgents - oh, and those asylum-seekers, who are the worst of the lot.

Perhaps if I had lost a daughter or a husband in the July bombings I too would be incapable of understanding why human rights for all should matter. These killers cared nothing about the right to life, Article 2, why the hell should I care about their right to a fair trial, Article 6? But an eye for an eye, as Gandhi said, would make us all blind. In my grief and anger I would depend on a dispassionate and fair state to deal with the criminals on my behalf.

You cannot compromise the legal system on which we all depend. Once you can get the population to believe that depriving citizens of liberties and laying aside invaluable legal precedents are essential to nail the enemies within, they become complicit in their own surrender to unstoppable political control. Our freedoms are fast being snipped and hacked; we are more vulnerable to state invasions into privacy, debate, freedom of thought and legitimate opposition. In such an atmosphere, other institutions begin to adapt to the new realities.

The subtlety of it all is truly impressive. Obvious censorship and locking up of dissidents is just so Soviet, so crude. I have been told by good friends at the BBC not to expect to be invited on to key political programmes any more. Too much trouble, apparently. There are heroic people who still stand up to be counted and are heard - Helena Kennedy, Bishop John Sentamu, Lord Steyn, Lord Lester and others - but I fear even they will soon be marginalised by our masters and their willing servants.

The impact on the world of this degradation of human rights in Britain is incalculable. Our soldiers in Iraq attack helpless civilians; in Afghanistan warlords behave with unimaginable cruelty with our tacit approval, and torture by any other name is used and approved of by our rulers from Guantanamo to Uzbekistan. Now we bring home the contempt for human rights.

One thing is for sure - dictators, from Burma to Zimbabwe, will no longer dismiss human rights as sissy "Western values". The worst of them will agree completely with Mr Blair's latest onslaught, as will the too many Muslims who love authoritarian leadership. Just take one example. In Egypt, distinguished judges have been demonstrating against the government's attempted control of the judiciary. Young activists who supported the judges in peaceful demonstrations have been taken into hell-pit prisons. What courage, taking on such a government.

Then I look at Britain and see our own dissolving democratic values. No more moral authority here. How do we now officially ask any dictators to conform to international standards of good governance? We are all barbarians now, and Bin Laden has won the war of the worlds.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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