Tag Archives: human-rights

Confused debate over superinjunctions

I can’t help but smell a rat over the current media furore over superinjunctions.

It started out perfectly honourably, with a genuine freedom of speech issue surrounding Trafigura. Clearly a company which had been caught dumping toxic waste should not be able to hide behind a legal nicety reserved solely for the wealthy. But what was clearly a debate about the right to report issues which are clearly in the public interest has descended into a terribly English furore about where footballers stick their winkies.

Is an important principle of law really being defended right now, or is this little more than a distraction. After all, it can’t be a coincidence that this story has arisen as the scandal surrounding the News of the World phone-hacking scandal appears to get worse and worse. We are being invited to consider the death of privacy – and that such an occurrence is no bad thing – precisely at a time when one of the world’s top media corporations is under pressure for steamrollering over people’s personal rights.

Of course new technology presents us with new challenges in defending privacy, and of course we need to defend freedom of speech. Refusing to have a privacy law helps us to achieve neither. It isn’t that I think Judges are fools or terrible people; I just think the basic principles should be established in as democratic a manner as possible. It is surely pure laziness to claim that any attempt to legislate will inexorably lead to a French system in which sex pests are free to aspire to the highest positions of power, knowing that they can avoid even the slightest whiff of scandal (so long as they stay within France’s borders – should have thought of that Dominique).

However imperfect our Parliament is, I would still trust it above and beyond the lone instincts of Justice Eady. Let’s by all means tear up superinjunctions, but in the process let’s not create such a free-for-all that everyone is left at the mercy of the Daily Mail.

Coroners and Justice Bill: the most toxic law ever?

The Coroners and Justice Bill went through its second reading at the start of this week. If you read blogs, you will probably have heard about the clauses hidden away at the end of it which threaten to effectively neutralise the Data Protection Act. If you read my first edition of the Carnival on Modern Liberty you will have read my comment about it also giving the government the power to hold inquests in secret.

But that isn’t all. Justice outline their concerns about this Bill as follows (emphasis mine):

– the provisions for secret inquests;
– the restriction of public comment by inquest jurors and coroners on matters of legitimate public concern;
– the holding of inquests without juries in relation to some deaths involving public authorities;
– the implementation of new partial defences to murder in the absence of wholesale reform of the law of homicide;
overbroad criteria for the use of anonymous witnesses in criminal trials;
– amendments to bail legislation in murder cases which are on their face incompatible with Article 5 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR);
– the near-total undermining of the Data Protection Act 1998 through allowing ministers to authorise disclosure and use of data to serve policy objectives.

But even that isn’t all. Not content with the prohibition of “extreme pornography” (which also came in this week), the Coroners and Justice Bill will also “ban the possession of any image involving sexual activity and children. For the purpose of the law, an image is said to contain a child if ‘the impression conveyed … is that the person shown is a child’.” I blogged about this proposal last year but didn’t realise it had made it into an actual bill.

Now this is a minefield of an issue to blog about because of its emotive nature. I realise that even by raising the subject I’m leaving myself open to attack. Pornographic images of actual children (as opposed to images of actual children that individuals may happen to find erotic) is obviously wrong as they involve children beneath the age of consent. But what if the image is a cartoon? And what if that cartoon is of an adult character who happens to look young? Fundamentally, if no actual harm is being caused, what is the offence? The mind is repelled by the idea of child pornography, but if we look at it clearly for a second, aren’t we talking here about thoughtcrime?

This isn’t just an issue for “lolicon.” Probably the most significant example of a work which appears to fall foul of this prospective new law is Alan Moore’s Lost Girls, an erotic work about the sex lives of Alice (in Wonderland), Dorothy (Wizard of Oz) and Wendy (Peter Pan). But there are numerous other examples of comics, manga in particular, which feature childlike characters in erotic situations. And how will this law apply to Delirium, from the Sandman series – a character frequently portrayed as childlike in appearance, despite wearing immodest clothing. How will the censors react to this line (illustrated in the book Brief Lives)?

“Touched by her fingers, the two surviving chocolate people copulate desperately, losing themselves in a melting frenzy of lust, spending the last of their brief borrowed lives in a spasm of raspberry cream and fear.”

We seem to have lost this anxiety about prose over forty years ago; so how are images so fundamentally different?

Interestingly, it looks as if these concerns are starting to surface in the comics industry itself, with the Telegraph reporting the website Comic Shop Voice expressing concerns about this new law, along with the broad definition of extreme pornography found in the Criminal Justice Act 2008. To what extent Comic Shop Voice are representative of the industry remains to be seen (I am investigating), but I would suggest that a wakeup call is needed.

This might sound paranoid, but I invite you to consider the following: firstly, the examples of the police using their powers come up with new and ever more authoritarian ways are legion. How many times have we seen photographers and protestors being arrested under terrorism laws for example? The fact that War on Terror boardgame can be confiscated on the grounds that the enclosed balaclava could be used for criminal activities tells me all I need to know. Secondly, there is the Lord Horror case. I seem to recall there being a number of other police raids on comic shops during the 1990s but since they were before the mass expansion of the internet I’m struggling to find confirmation of this.

We may not be living in a police state, but paranoid, authoritarian policing is certainly on the rise (cf. Form 696; Section 27 orders on football supporters). Paul Stephenson’s appointment as head of the Met does not exactly fill me with confidence. I’m pleased that the Lib Dems voted against the Coroners and Justice Bill at second reading (it is notable – and lamentable – that the Tories decided to abstain). What will emerge from the Committee Stage and the Lords remains to be seen.

Finally… the Carnival on Modern Liberty #1!

After a rough week, I’ve had a cold riddled weekend. So my master plan to get the first edition of the Carnival on Modern Liberty done on Friday fell flat on its sorry arse.

However, between sneezing fits, I did manage to get it done yesterday and now Sunny has published it on Liberal Conspiracy. Have a look, don’t forget to submit your articles for next week’s edition (which will be at Our Kingdom) and enjoy!

Introducing the Carnival on Modern Liberty (crosspost)

Another day, another crosspost. I will just add a link to this story about the Government attempting to stop the Welsh Assembly from publishing its own expenses – even if I had time to blog about this I couldn’t as words fail me.

Much as I support the Convention on Modern Liberty, I am very conscious of the fact that there are two dangers inherent to an initiative such as this. The first is that all it leads to is talk and a thousand people sitting in a hall munching on sandwiches. Linked to that is the danger that all it leads to is despair; that the problem seems so big and so intractable that people simply end up withdrawing altogether.

It is crucial that the Convention leads to positive action by as many people as possible (I made some suggestions a couple of weeks ago – I’m sure you can think of others).

Our mission must be nothing less than a paradigm shift in how the general public perceives civil liberties.

That is an achieveable objective and has happened in politics over the years on numerous occasions, but the level of consciousness raising we need can’t be done by a single journalist or even pressure group.

What’s more, the need for action has never been more crucial. I write this having given up a substantial portion of my weekend doing stuff to block the Government’s plans to exempt MPs’ expenses from the Freedom of Information Act.

If liberty is to have any meaning, we have to be able to keep an eye on those we elect to serve. Otherwise we are no different from the animals at the end of Animal Farm, enviously peering into the House and unable to tell the difference between pig and human. Harriet Harman, champion of equality, has just added the rider “but some are more equal than others.”

We need to take urgent action on issues such as this, but it also highlights why it is high time we started being proactive.

It is with this in mind that Liberal Conspiracy – in association with Our Kingdom and Unlock Democracy – are launching the Carnival on Modern Liberty.

As an online companion to the Convention, it is intended to help promote debate on civil liberties on the blogosphere over the next few weeks. Fundamentally however, it is also intended to spur both bloggers and their readers into action.

I will be producing the first edition this Friday on Liberal Conspiracy. Over the next couple of weeks it will move to OurKingdom and Unlock Democracy and then we’ll be looking for volunteers to host future editions – what about you? (email offers to modernliberty *at* quaequamblog *dot* net).

If you have an article you would like to be included in the first edition you can submit it either by following this link or emailing modernliberty *at* quaequamblog *dot* net. The deadline is 4pm on Thursday 22 January (if you miss this it is no problem as it will simply carry over to the next week’s edition). We are particularly looking for articles on the following sub-topics:

  • ACTION: our favourite category! ideas and initiatives for raising awareness of civil liberty-related issues.
  • EVENTS: civil-liberty related events that you are either organising or would like to promote (you don’t need to wait until 28 February before holding a meetup, tweetup or even just a social to the pub or cinema – if it’s civil liberty related, publicise it here).
  • JEERS: reports of the latest assaults on liberties.
  • CHEERS: good news (we do get it occasionally!) and praise for the champions of liberty.
  • WHAT LIBERTY MEANS TO ME: think pieces about what liberty in a modern context actually means (once you’ve been all philosophical, do an action post to balance things out :)).

Finally, if I have one goal for the next six weeks, it is to get this debate out in the wider blogosphere instead of the usual political bloggers arguing amongst themselves. The UK blogosphere is gratifyingly diverse, yet too often the politicos seem to exist in a bubble.

So your first mission, if you choose to accept it, is to think of five bloggers who are not the “usual suspects” who you would like to encourage to take part in the Carnival – and then encourage them!

My five will be:

To help get the Carnival off the ground, please blog these five (so they get pinged!) and submit your post to the Carnival – thanks!

Do you “deserve” your rights?

Anyone who thinks our civil liberties will be any better protected by a Conservative Government should think again. Speaking in Bangor (the Northern Ireland flavour) on Friday, the News Letter reports Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve saying:

… there is “a rights culture” which is “out of control”, not just in Ulster, but throughout the UK.

It did not help that “the undeserving in society” can often use rights legislation for personal gain, he added.

The Conservatives, he suggested, intend to create a UK Bill of Rights which would have in-built safeguards to prevent those “whose own behaviour is lacking” from abusing the powers.

I’m used to people from across the political spectrum differentiating between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor when it comes to welfare but not when it comes to fundamental rights. This rhetoric even goes beyond the talk about “rights and duties.”

In fairness to Labour, even the Jack Straws of this world have fallen short of using language as stark as this. Michael Wills was arguing last month that by “responsibilities” all they are talking about is the vague rhetoric about responsibilities that you can find in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and I have heard Straw on more than one occasion insist that by “duties” he means nothing more than the riders which can be found in the European Convention. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from using loaded rhetoric whenever they want to court favour with the Daily Mail.

I suspect that tailoring your rhetoric to suit your (in this case the dinosaurs in the DUP and UUP) audience is something that Grieve himself is guilty of here but even at their best, the Tories don’t offer the same reassurances that Labour do. It is rank cowardice on their part not to call for its outright rejection, rooted in a knowledge that it would make us the pariahs of Europe (we would have to leave the Council of Europe and subsequently the EU). More to the point, he is talking tosh: when challenged, the anti-HRA brigade consistently fail to come up with concrete examples of how eeeeevil people are using it for “personal gain.”

I don’t actually think the Tories mean all this nonsense. I do fear however that if they regain control the constant undermining of the HRA that Labour are guilty of will be turned up several notches.

And let’s not forget that Grieve is a supposed “wet” – just imagine how much further his own backbenchers will want to push him? And before you carp “never mind this human rights nonsense, at least the Tories will be better on civil liberties” – nu-uh.

Nine wishes for 2009 #3: The State’s assault on Civil Liberties to begin to reverse

2008 was the year in which the gaff was well and truly blown on the government’s relentless drive to have every one of us “pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed and numbered.” Starting with the data leaks scandals at the end of 2007, we had a steady trickle of revelations about how the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act is being casually abused by local authorities. The year ended with the revelation (courtesy of David Howarth) that the injuries which the police used as a pretext for raiding the eco-protest camp outside Kingsnorth power station included insect bites and toothache. We had an open verdict at the Jean Charles de Menezes inquest and police raiding Parliament without even bothering to try obtaining a warrant. All of this adds up to a state that is running completely out of control.

Domestic terrorism – the original pretext for all those extra state and police powers – has drifted down the agenda. So have we seen a reversal of the encroachment of civil liberties? Not really. Jacqui Smith’s response to the growing realisation that her plans for a national identity card scheme was completely unrealistic has been to adopt a divide-and-rule approach, targeting immigrants and smelly students and extending the full implementation of the scheme to 2011/2012. The near defeat in the House of Commons of the proposals to extend pre-charge detention to 42 days was followed by a total defeat in the Lords and the abandonment of the project by the government (ditto the plans to hold politically inconvenient inquests in secret). But this happened almost hand-in-hand with the announcement of government plans to begin recording the details of every email, telephone call and website visit made in the UK.

And while the Tories have, in the main, become born-again civil libertarians in recent years, it is clear that their opposition is only skin deep. David Davis’ resignation, it appears, was rooted out of a desire to force Cameron to not abandon opposition to 42 days. In this respect, it appears to have been successful. But almost instantly afterwards, his successor announced plans to increase police powers. And let’s not forget that under the Tories, the police would be more politicised than ever, with police commissioners directly elected (I should point out at this point that the Lib Dems want directly elected members of police authorities but a) this is far less problematic than electing commissioners themselves and b) I don’t agree with them either!).

Like the environment, the problem with the creeping assault on civil liberties is not that politicians are acting against the wishes of the electorate, but in the face of broad indifference. Unlike the environment, I don’t think the problem is quite as intractable. Liberty’s recent ComRes poll suggests why. Support for the rights protected by the HRA are extremely high, yet the general public has not made the connection. Given the lack of public information on the subject (“only 13% remember ever seeing or receiving any information from the Government explaining the legislation” – I’m amazed it is that high; I work in the sector and have seen sod all from the government on the subject), that isn’t entirely surprising.

So what’s to be done? Fortunately, plans are already in place for a Convention for Modern Liberty, supported by the Guardian, Liberty, Amnesty, NO2ID, Unlock Democracy, Open Democracy and Liberal Conspiracy. My hope is that this will lead to a significant shift in attitude. For that to happen however, the Convention will have to be the spark of something big; not another organisation but an upswing in civil liberties-based activism around the country. In this respect, the London-based event by itself is less significant than the satellite local and regional events around the country.

We certainly need a debate, but following that we need people who will be willing to take a stand. It isn’t enough for people to say they support civil liberties, only for them to vote for an MP who is part of the problem at the next general election. For the Convention to have been worth the time and effort being put into it, it needs to lead to thousands upon thousands of letters being sent to MPs, local public meetings, lobbies and hustings.

I would urge all readers of this blog to:
1. Bookmark the Convention for Modern Liberty website and sign up to their news alerts.
2. Attend a Convention event, either the one in London, one of the regional and national events happening on the same day or a local event. If there is no event happening in your area, start organising one!
3. Join a pro-democracy and human rights organisation. Whichever tickles your fancy (although, obviously, joining Unlock Democracy helps pay my wages!) and get involved.
4. Join or set up a local group. It doesn’t have to be affiliated to anything, and it needn’t be anything more than you and a couple of your mates to start off with.
5. Write to your MP and ask them their starter for ten: “what do you think about the dillution of civil liberties over the past couple of decades and what do you intend to do about it in 2009.” And keep writing to them.
6. Go to the Taking Liberties exhibition at the British Library if you can, before it closes at the beginning of March.
7. Tell everyone you know to do the same.

And as for the Lib Dems, I would urge them to be pushy. Both Clegg and Huhne are speaking at the Convention event on 28 February; make sure they get a good reception by promoting the event via your various networks (including the party’s central email list). Include a civil liberties-related story in every Focus leaflet you publish this year. If there are events happening in your area, make sure you attend. If there aren’t, make sure your local party is sets one up. The party could achieve a lot by riding the coat-tails of this one, both in terms of forcing the other parties to take it more seriously and by recruiting sympathisers to the party. It has many of the benefits of the anti-war march in 2003 but without the risk of sharing a platform with people who are predominantly out in the far left fringe.

In short, this is an O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y (like most campaign gifts, it tends to need to be spelt out) – seize it with both hands!

The campaign for scrapping 28 days detention without charge starts today

About bloody time:

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has said that plans to extend terror detention to 42 days will be dropped from the Counter-Terrorism Bill.

This is of course great news. But the truth is Parliament should never had capitulated over 28 days in the first place. And it shouldn’t have moved up to 14 days. Frankly, if 48 hours was good enough to combat the IRA in the 80s, it is good enough now.

There are plenty of other safeguards. A reduction in detention without charge could be a one line private members’ bill and one which, if MPs are lobbied, we can win. I can only hope the civil liberties movement can work together to deliver it.

Olympian Values (UPDATE)

I’ve been sitting back and enjoying the show that is the ongoing farce of the Chinese Olympics. I have two main reasons for not taking a stand. Firstly, I’m quite ambivalent about the Olympics in general and so singling out China feels a little hypocritical. Secondly, I’m acutely aware that in a sense both sides are right and both sides need each other in order to progress.

Simply put, if the Olympics were not being held in China this summer, the profile of Tibet would not be as high as it is now (higher than it has been at any point in the past 12 years in my view). So is this a case of the pro-Olympics people being right – that the Olympics is raising these issues? Well yes, up to a point. But if it wasn’t for the protesters opposing the Olympics these issues would not be getting an airing.

One thing in particular though that does amuse me is this constant hailing of “Olympian values”. What are these exactly? I get the whole world coming together thing, but is there really anything noble in a bunch of athletes doggedly competing with one another to see who is best? These pressures lead to athletes taking performance enhancing drugs; the Russians and the Chinese have traditionally taken this to extremes, hothousing athletes in order to wave their medal successes around as a status symbol proving their political ideologies are superior. Hitler tried the same trick, only to be made to look like a fool. What is so great about all this global willy waving?

And if there is something noble about the Olympics, how come the IOC don’t insist that countries who host the games must abide by, for example, minimal human rights criteria? If you want to join the EU, the price you have to pay is to sort out your human rights record. As a result, Turkey is actively doing so. What is stopping the IOC from doing the same? One can only infer that egalitarianism isn’t an Olympian value.

Arguably, the truth is quite the opposite. One thing the IOC do insist on is that host nations pass laws to stop companies from being able to use the word “Olympics” in order to promote themselves unless they are official sponsors of the events. Freedom of speech comes second fiddle to worshiping at the altar of capitalism. This is a price which China had far less of a problem with paying than the UK.

Olympian values then seem to be rooted entirely in body fascism, ruthless competition, vainglorious pride and the worst excesses of monopolistic commercial practice. These are the values that the Olympics variously inspires and insists upon. If supporters of the Games wish us to treat them as anything other than a political football, then perhaps they should get their own house in order first?

UPDATE: One thing I forgot to mention here was the comment by the police chief in charge of handling the Olympics protests yesterday who made the extraordinary claim that under the law, if you supported the Olympic torch on Sunday you were not regarded as a protester and vice versa. Apart from the fact that under the strict letter of the law this is balls, think about it for a second. If you are a supporter of freedom and democracy, the government considers you a potential enemy of the state. If you are an apologist for a repressive dictatorship, the government considers you to be friendly. Good night.

The Blaney game

It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. Apparently the 21st century political equivalent of having a punch up beside the bike shed after school is to have a live debate on 18 Doughty Street.

Having had one with Mr Blaney not that long ago – and lived to tell the tale – the one thing I will say about him is that he has a curious attitude towards the individual and the state. The crimes of an individual – in Nelson Mandela’s case the violent reprisals of the ANC – are always unforgivable. The crimes of the state – in this case the Tory government’s refusal to criticise South Africa’s system of apartheid – is always justifiable. Philip Lawrence’s murderer should be exterminated. The system of human rights that protects me from being abused by the state should be abolished.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but support for a system whereby the rights of the individual are always considered to be subservient to the interests of the state is support for the sort of totalitarianism that Uncle Joe would be comfortable with. Apparently however, we are to regard this as true “Thatcherism”. Thanks for clarifying, Donal.

The only exception to the rule that murder is murder is murder, as Donal himself pointed out during our debate on the Doughty News Hour, is Tony Martin (or St Tony as I understand he is known amongst certain members of the swivel-eyed fringe). Martin, let us not forget, shot a man in the back of the head as he was running away from him. At the very least, one would have thought, Mandela’s tacit support for necklacing by the ANC and Tony Martin’s laughably named ‘self-defence’ could be described as both morally abhorrent. Sadly however, simple consistency is too much to ask.