Shami Chakrabarti: You Ask The Questions

The director of Liberty answers your questions, such as 'Can torture ever be justified?' and 'What makes you sad?'

Sunday 18 September 2011 20:40

Is there a case from a human rights perspective to try Bush and Blair for war crimes? Najinder Sander, by email

I'm not at all qualified to answer this question, not being an international lawyer, let alone an expert in the laws of war. Let's just say that if I were one of these gentlemen, I would probably get myself some legal advice.

What should happen if Osama bin Laden was apprehended in London? Rupert Fast, Esher

This one's easy. He should be charged with umpteen offences of murder, conspiracy and incitement to murder and put on trial. Yes, he would be granted the humane treatment that he has denied to thousands, but this would be an historic worldwide testament to our democratic values. He would know that we see him as a heinous criminal, but a common criminal nonetheless.

A terrorist suspect cannot be charged for lack of evidence and cannot be deported as he who comes from a country that practises torture. What should be done with him? Mike Pictor, Cheltenham

The devil is in the detail on this one. You say "terrorist suspect" but what exactly is the nature of the suspicions? Do they relate to what he's done or what he's about to do? Is he a suspected funder, inciter, conspirator or bomber? Clearly what we want is evidence with which to charge him or dispel our suspicions. Remember, it may well be possible to charge him with a lower level offence like attending a terrorist training camp if we can't yet prove the big conspiracy. One important decision might be whether to arrest him for such an offence or to put him under close surveillance. This surveillance might be covert (so that he leads us to more evidence), or overt (so that he knows not to put a foot wrong). I will never accept the counsel of despair that says the choice is between locking up a suspect (who may be innocent) indefinitely without charge or doing absolutely nothing.

A man has been arrested. He has planted a bomb in central London scheduled to go off at rush hour. Would you use torture to make him tell police where it was? If not, why not? Roger Fairclough, Liverpool

To my knowledge, this classic nightmare scenario has only ever arisen in Hollywood movies but is frequently used to justify the living nightmare of torture victims the world over. The bottom line is that in a human rights' framework filled with balances and qualifications, the one absolute is no torture; no compromise. This principle is the greatest distinction between democrats and tyrants.

Why do so many people remain unconcerned about the reduction of our individual freedoms? Roy Parizat, by email

We are fortunate enough to live in perhaps the oldest unbroken democracy on the planet. We've had our rights and freedoms for so long that it's easy to take them for granted.

Isn't your organisation just made up of privileged do-gooders and Oxbridge graduates, completely out of touch with real people? Keith Hall, Norwich

No. Liberty (the National Council of Civil Liberties) has a rather broader membership, united by shared values rather than education, class, race or even party politics.

What is your opinion of the 10 years of a Labour Government? Matthew Smithen, by email

Mr Blair left us the Human Rights Act but denigrated it in thought and word and deed. We got the Race Relations (Amendment) Act but poisonous anti-asylum policy and legislation for ID cards. Surely Mr Brown can do better?

You are a woman from an ethnic minority, but you lead a powerful organisation. What's the secret of your success? Rita Harvey, Sussex

You said it. It's the organisation that is powerful but not in the classic sense. Liberty's annual turnover is little more than £1m a year. It is independent of government and therefore has no statutory "power". Its strength comes from its members and staff sharing a set of principles that actually run very deep in this country. It has been a joy and privilege to be in the right organisation at such an important time.

Wouldn't you like to get involved in real politics one day and have a voice inside Parliament? Laura Connolly, by email

I don't think I'd be best suited to party politics.

Do you think the concept of individual civil liberties needs to change for the modern electronic era? Delash Patel, Wokingham

No. I don't believe that fundamental values need changing. However, I am concerned that technology advances very quickly and public education, ethical, political and legal debate lag too far behind.

Over-policing at the recent climate change camp clearly breached civil liberties for many peaceful protesters. What do you think citizens can do to reclaim the right to protest? Sandrine Levêque, London

Join Liberty. Protest even more. Write to your MP, chief constable and local newspaper.

Do you believe the Human Rights Act 1998 should be repealed? Alex Ustych, by email

Absolutely not. The myths about the Human Rights Act constitute some of the biggest lies ever told in Britain. The rubbish about it being alien and European when Churchill was the greatest proponent of the Convention on which it is based. The nonsense about rights without responsibilities when most rights are balanced and all demand our responsibility to protect the rights of others. The piffle about too much power to lawyers when the Act expressly prevents judges striking down Acts of Parliament.

Many left-wingers campaigned against Pinochet's Chile but not Videla's Argentina. To what extent is it objectively possible to discuss human rights without being ideologically biased? Nicholas Jones, by email

It's perfectly possible. It just takes a clear head and an even hand.

When did human rights turn into "civil liberties" anyway? Daniel Smith, Aberdeen

It's fascinating the way some people cling to one phrase and not the other. If we're talking about the civil and political rights in the Human Rights Act like free speech and protest, privacy, fair trials etc I don't see the distinction. The danger is of some people on the left and right of politics using "civil liberties" as a means of protecting just citizens or people they like, as opposed to all "human beings".

Why hasn't Liberty taken a stronger position on the question of the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" flights? Marcus Williamson, by email

Is it possible to have a "stronger position" on kidnap and torture than utter disgust, complete condemnation and ongoing efforts to uncover and outlaw any British complicity?

If the most powerful country in the world is regularly committing human right atrocities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay what hope is there of influencing less developed countries to change their ways when it comes to human rights? Russell Sheehan, Los Gatos, California


Do you ever worry that you've become overexposed?, Paddy Fletcher, Vauxhall

Whoops. Many thanks. Zips can be so unreliable.

Have there been any events in your own life that have made you such a keen defender of civil liberties? Marcus Corby, Kent

I've had an incredibly fortunate life. No persecution or profound injustice. My parents who saw cruelty and injustice, share their positive democratic values with me.

What saddens you about today's Britain, and what gives you hope? Mark Anderson, by email

It's sad when people turn a blind eye to profound injustice or when people are too casual about rights which their ancestors fought and died to defend. But I always burst with hope. People, in my experience, are generally more decent than not and Britain has an ancient tradition of rights and freedoms and I take great comfort from people across political, geographical and other lines who want the pendulum to swing back.

If ID cards will catch more fraudsters, illegal immigrants, simplify police investigations, protect us from terrorist outrages and make the nation a safer place to live in then what is the problem? Laurence Measey, by email

One big problem is that ID cards won't do any of these things. Nor will they deal with global warming or junk mail.

Will you resign in protest when ID cards are forced on us? Diarmuid Casey, by email

My job is to protest. Its hard to protest by giving up protest.

Will the media treat the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights seriously? David Cole, by email

I hope so.

Do you not agree that a surveillance state is inevitable? Joshua Darbo, Croydon

Some surveillance is inevitable. It is necessary, proportionate and lawful for very good cause. But we have been too casual with our precious personal privacy, which is essential to dignity, intimacy and other essentials.

Do you support the "right" for people to hunt with dogs? Amanda Young, by email

A human rights' analysis often helps to evaluate whether a particular policy has gone too far to be acceptable. But I don't think it decides every thorny political issue.

Some people regard you as a bit of a left-wing pin-up. How do you feel about this? Duncan Reader, Chepstow

Sticks and stones.

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