Human rights in austere times

Shami Chakrabarti tells Jamie Kenny why our freedoms are vulnerable in poor economic times

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The head of Britain’s leading human rights group has warned that the UK’s civil liberties risk falling victim to austerity culture.

“History demonstrates that our rights and freedoms are most vulnerable in times of austerity when populist politicians look for scapegoats and distractions,” Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, told the recent Human Rights in an Age of Austerity conference in Liverpool.

Right to peaceful protest

Speaking to The Big Issue in the North before she addressed the conference, organised by Liverpool John Moores University, Chakrabarti said: “Liberty’s predecessor, the National Council for Civil Liberties, was founded during the depression of the 1930s after a group of policemen assaulted hunger marchers.

“Today we’re living in another age of austerity where once again the right to peacefully protest has to be defended.”

Chakrabarti was a high-profile opponent of many of the policing and security measures introduced by the Labour government. She said that in some respects the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition has been an improvement.

“I’m truly grateful to the coalition for abolishing ID cards and for addressing some of the worst aspects of the database state,” she said.

“But liberties are about more than simply the state drawing back. We’re seeing cuts being made to legal aid and to Citizens Advice Bureaux. There’s no point in having a situation where everyone has theoretically equal rights but where people without money have no access to legal advice.”

Although an age of austerity may prompt the government to cut back on costly database state programmes and explore alternatives to prison, it also tempts the government to use civil liberties as a scapegoat for popular discontent created by cuts to services. The Human Rights Act, she said, is a particular target.

Rights are universal

“There have been all kinds of distortions published about the HRA – that it’s a villain’s charter, that it’s something imposed on people by Europe and most of all that we somehow don’t need the rights enshrined within it.”

Chakrabarti opposes coalition government proposals to replace the HRA with a British Bill of Rights.

“Rights are universal – we have them because we are human and they need to be enforced through the justice system,” she said.

“A British Bill of Rights implies that rights can be restricted to nationality – or more generally that they should be restricted to ‘people like us’. That risks leaving huge numbers of people on the outside.”

Liberty provided 100 legal observers to monitor policing on the 26 March TUC protest march agains the cuts.

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