Monday, 11 March 2013

If the people don't, who'll defend rights against government abuse?

A pincer movement is a much more effective form of attack than a simple frontal assault.

That no doubt is the reason we’re facing a two-pronged movement against civil rights in Britain at the moment.

One prong is being run by the government and takes the form of legal moves to introduce secret trials, held in private and with the defence denied access to the prosecution evidence.

The other prong is still more insidious in that it is based on whipping up a popular movement. Spearheaded by the right wing of the Conservative Party and its sniping opponents even further to the right in UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), it takes the form of a campaign against the Human Rights Act. A measure of its relative success is that it has managed to make ‘human rights’ sound like a bad thing – an extraordinary piece of doublespeak, fully worthy of Orwell’s 1984.

The pressure for closed trials is ostensibly based on the need to keep certain types of evidence hidden from certain types of defendant, mainly evidence obtained by the intelligence services, used against presumed terrorists. Just how serious the issue is was made clear by the former Labour Cabinet Minister Jack Straw. In a debate on the bill on 4 March, he told the House of Commons that in certain circumstances certain types of information have to remain concealed, in order to protect secret sources. If secrecy could not be guaranteed, the evidence could not be used and a terrorist might walk free and offend again. Straw went on:

‘If we had explained how we had ended up in such a situation by saying that information had to be provided in its entirety in open court in all circumstances, people would have said, “Thanks very much, but my relative, wife or child has just died.” That is the dilemma and it is not abstract—it is absolutely real.’

That immediately reminds me of Benjamin Franklin: ‘those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.’ Britain at its best decided to put certain freedoms above protecting life – if not, it would not have fought on against Nazi Germany in June 1940, at a time when many even in government favoured surrender, in a war that in the end cost nearly half a million British lives.

Jack Straw
Once a radical, now keen on secret trials

That however isn’t the most shameful aspect of Straw’s statement. The truth, as Henry Porter pointed out in the Observer this weekend, is that the effect of revealing evidence in open court in terrorist cases has not been to free terrorists, but to embarrass the government and force it to pay damages for having behaved illegally. No wonder government wants to conceal this kind of information. 

Porter reminds us that Straw told parliament in 2005 that Britain had not been involved in rendition and torture of terror suspects; in 2009, his successor David Miliband had to admit that the statement was untrue and apologise for it. 

That’s what secret courts are about: not so much to protect us from terrorists but to protect government from embarrassing disclosures of its own bungling or criminal acts.

Which brings me to second prong of the attack, against the Human Rights Act. The popular movement against it points to the criminals who hide behind its provisions, and many do – but then criminals have always been good at abusing rights. That doesn’t mean we should do without them.

Article 6 of the Act guarantees that ‘everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law’ (my emphasis). Later, it specifies that a person accused of a crime is entitled ‘to be informed promptly, in a language which he understands and in detail, of the nature and cause of the accusation against him’ and equally ‘to examine or have examined witnesses against him’

The US constitution is remarkable for its conciseness, its ability to express fundamental rights much more succinctly than most such legislation. Coincidentally, as it is Article 6 of the Human Rights Act, it is the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution that deals with the right to a fair a trial:

‘In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

The fact that the same rights are guaranteed on both sides of the Atlantic does rather suggest that they’re regarded as fundamental generally in democratic societies.

So why do so many citizens in Britain oppose the Human Rights Act? Especially when the government is busily trying to bring in legislation that undermines one of its most significant articles. Have some of my compatriots suddenly decided that they don’t need protection from government misdeeds and that the two-pronged attack therefore deserves to succeed?

Odd. They don’t usually show such touching confidence in the good faith of their rulers.


Faith A. Colburn, Author said...

The U.S. and Britain seem to mirror each other in the abuse of citizens' rights, don't they?

David Beeson said...

We're cousins in so many ways. Such a shame that we choose that way too.