Shami Chakrabarti at Cheltenham Literature Festival

Review published on October 18, 2014. Reviewed by Mike Stafford

As she herself touched upon, there was a certain irony in seeing Shami Chakrabarti discuss civil liberties in Cheltenham, barely a stone’s throw from GCHQ. Discussing her new book, ‘On Liberty,’ Chakrabarti discussed her career to date, her endless harassment by Abu Qatada – or at least by those who would attempt to hang him like a millstone around her neck, and the current government’s plan to repeal the Human Rights Act.

Joining Liberty on 10th September 2011, Chakrabarti was not fated to make an easy transition from her role at the Home Office to the National Council for Civil Liberties. On her second day in the job, watching the World Trade Centre towers fall, what could she have predicted the future would bring, she was asked by interviewer Rachel Holmes.

The death of privacy could have been predicted, she accepted. The denigration of the “other,” the foreigner, the outsider, the different, could also have been expected; this is almost the default response when a society is scared. What Chakrabarti could not have expected to see coming was that she would spend so much of the next decade having to make arguments against torture “conducted in freedom’s name.”

At this point, she cited the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan national captured in Afghanistan in 2001. Initially co-operative under “standard” interrogation techniques applied by the FBI, al-Libi was later subject to extraordinary rendition and tortured. The information he supplied under torture was not reliable – though it was referenced frequently in the build-up to the Iraq war. For Chakrabarti though, the argument against torture is not about efficacy but civilisation. We cannot have a pick and mix approach to who deserves due process. Any of us, she pointed out, can look “other” or untrustworthy. She referred to the case of Christopher Tappin, a British businessman extradited to America to stand trial for selling weapons parts to Iran. In Britain, Tappin looked like an honest businessman and the victim of a misunderstanding. In Texas, however, the perception of him might realistically have been of the calculating, British-accented Bond villain; the accusations of supplying weapons parts (the actual ‘parts’ were batteries) might seem a little less innocuous to the average Texan.

For this reason, Chakrabarti argued, we must resist the current Conservative attempts to repeal the Human Rights Act. In the climate of xenophobia that forms the backdrop to the move, she reminded us that the European Convention on Human Rights is not some foreign treaty dropped on the heads of unwilling Britons. “It doesn’t smell of bratwurst,” she quipped. Drafted by British Conservative lawyers and the brainchild of Churchill, it was forged after the Second World War. It should already be considered as a source of British pride; it is part of a legacy which should not be thrown away. The point was made most eloquently by the late Lord Bingham, quoted admiringly by Chakrabarti –

“The right not to be tortured or enslaved. The right to liberty and security of the person. The right to marry. The right to a fair trial. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Freedom of expression. Freedom of assembly and association. Which of these rights, I ask, would we wish to discard? Are any of them trivial, superfluous, unnecessary? Are any of them un-British?”

Chakrabarti sees herself as fighting complacency. The rights that we enjoy should not so easily be cast aside. What message would it send out to embryonic democracies, to those living under dictators and despots, to the developing world, if Britain itself were to throw them away?

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