» Human rights ¦ What You Can Get Away With

Boris points out the first guilty man

Boris points out the first person to be presumed guilty

In addition to his occasional duties as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson finds the time to do a wide range of other things, including earning £250,000 a year as a columnist for the Telegraph. With all those things to do and so little time to do them in, it’s hardly surprising that Boris can’t devote his full attention to everything he does, and this time it’s the column that suffers. For it’s here that he’s not been paying proper attention to what he’s writing, and has let the affable, humorous Boris the buffoon mask slip to reveal the scary reality of the true Boris underneath.

Boris has declared, like so many other columnists and professional bloviators, that Something Must Be Done to stop terrorists and the Islamic State. Despite this situation having directly emerged from the Something That Was Done when the same people were calling for action against terrorism and Saddam Hussein a decade or so ago, we’re assured that this time, Doing Something is the only option, as long as it’s the Something that columnist has decreed is the right thing.

What does Boris want done? Oh, nothing much really, just a minor change in the law. It’d only be a tiny thing…

it is hard to press charges without evidence. The law needs a swift and minor change so that there is a “rebuttable presumption” that all those visiting war areas without notifying the authorities have done so for a terrorist purpose.

Yes, it’s just a minor change in the law to declare that a certain class of people (that no one will accidentally be included within, of course) will from now on be treated as guilty of a crime until they can prove that they didn’t do it. Having been branded as a terrorist, and thus subject to the control orders that Boris also wants to bring back, it’ll no doubt be a simple task for them t prove their innocence, especially when many things will be kept from them in the name of ‘national security’. Of course, we’ve now got secret courts, and it’ll only take a further minor change in the law to ensure that all those we’ve declared terrorists have to go to one to prove their innocence.

And so it turns out, if there was any doubt, that Boris is just another politician ready to fall into the politician’s fallacy of something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done. Like so many politicians of the last decade or so, it turns out that the Something which Boris thinks Must Be Done to protect us against the terrorists is to give yet more powers to the state and the security services and take more powers away from the rest of us. As ever, these powers are only to be used against Bad People, but once the state has acquired the convenience of being able to declare people guilty until proven innocent of a certain crime, what do you think is more likely? That those powers would remain restricted to just one crime and one group of people (or even be allowed to wither away unused and be removed from the statute book) or gradually be applied to a wider group of alleged crimes and people, just because they’re such useful powers? How long until someone seriously proposes David Allen Green’s Something Must Be Done Bill because we can’t be too careful and Something Must Be Done?

Welcome to the future, where we’re all guilty of something and someone we’ve never met will be given the chance to prove our innocence behind closed doors. It’s OK, though, because Boris is Prime Minister and he’s got funny hair. Laugh at the funny man with his funny hair, and pay no attention to the jackboots behind the smile.

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wpid-14054436933990Two important things happened in British politics this week: the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Act was rushed through in a week, and David Cameron reshuffled the Conservative side of the Cabinet. Some have seen the timing of the Cabinet reshuffle as a deliberate attempt to divert the attention of the political press away from reporting what was going on in Parliament in favour of instead covering the soap opera of who was up, who was down and was out of Government, but as most political journalists prefer doing the latter to the former for the rest of the year, the reshuffle wasn’t strictly necessary to distract them from Parliament.

I’m not going to repeat all the arguments over DRIP, but I think it’s a bad law that’s been rushed through Parliament and will likely prove yet again that when you legislate at haste, you repent at leisure. I’m incredibly disappointed that Liberal Democrat MPs (with the exception of John Hemming and Adrian Sanders) not only voted for it, but argued for it so vehemently, but on top of those erros they’ve made a long term tactical error as well.

The reshuffle wasn’t just about David Cameron rearranging ministers, but about him clearing the ground for a major assault on human rights legislation by removing ministers who’d raised objections to it. It’s quite clear that the remaining months of this Parliament and the Tory campaign in next year’s general election are going to feature a strong campaign to make Britain more like Belarus by withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights. Yes, our political culture has now become so debased that the Prime Minister believes there are votes to be had in promising to take rights away from you, while large sections of the press will cheer him on and demand that he take more.

The Liberal Democrat response to this should be to start a campaign in defence of human rights, and it’s a perfect opportunity for the party to reassert its credentials as a truly liberal campaigning party, making the case about why rights are important and how the ECHR comes directly from the British legal tradition. It’d be the perfect opportunity for the party to draw together all those elements of civil society who care about human rights and rebuild the party’s support in time for the general election, thus ensuring that there are a large number of Liberal Democrat MPs in the next Parliament to protect us from an ECHR withdrawal.

It would be a perfect opportunity, if the Parliamentary Party hadn’t spent the last week alienating exactly those people by supporting DRIP. Just when we might need to build a coalition across civil society in defence of people’s rights, we’ve shown those same people that we’re willing to roll over and compromise those rights and to not cause a fuss when they come under attack. When rebel Conservative (David Davis) and Labour (Tom Watson) MPs are willing to join with Caroline Lucas to try and amend DRIP, but no Liberal Democrat was there with them, it make the party look incredibly weak in what should be its naturally strongest area.

It’s clear now that our rights are going to come under even greater attack over the next twelve months and beyond, and someone is going to need to lead the fight to defend them. Liberal Democrats should be out there leading that fight and making the case, but our capitulation over DRIP means no one is going to take us seriously if we try.

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One of the most interesting features of international treaties and conventions is the loophole clauses that state when they don’t apply. For instance, the Geneva Conventions don’t apply on alternate Thursdays between 7am and 9.30am and there’s a complex formula to determine when the Charter of the United Nations doesn’t apply to certain countries. Obviously, this means that they’re still in force for 99% of the time, so those times when they don’t apply don’t matter, and certainly aren’t used to accomplish all those nasty tasks that can’t be done when the rules are in place.

The previous paragraph is, of course, a complete pack of lies because treaties and conventions, like laws, need to be in place permanently, otherwise everyone who wants to break one of them will just wait until the time they can and go ahead with it. Once you concede that the law is a temporary construct that can be abrogated for convenience, you start to wander down a very dangerous road.

Which is why the idea of the UK temporarily leaving the Council of Europe and/or the European Convention on Human Rights (FT article, requires registration) to facilitate the extradition of Abu Qatada should be a concern to everyone. The purpose of the ECHR is to establish that no government is above the law, a vital principle established in the aftermath of the Second World War (and one that British lawyers were instrumental in implementing). To suddenly change that principle to one that no government is above the law, except on a few occasions when it feels it needs to be, is to make the ECHR useless. If the UK can ignore the ECHR and ‘temporarily withdraw’ when it wants to, then so can anyone else. Belarus could finally sign up to the ECHR, then claim it was ‘temporarily withdrawn’ from it at any time when human rights abuses are complained about there.

If your rights aren’t permanent, then they’re something that can easily be disposed of when it’s convenient for the Government. A temporary withdrawal from the ECHR is being presented as simply an administrative measure to enable one goal to be accomplished, when it’s actually knocking the first hole in the dam. Sure, it’s only one hole and not a very big one, but all the water can flow through it, given enough time. A temporary withdrawal is the government saying that ECHR rights are something we possess only while it’s convenient for the government, and that they can be disposed of whenever they feel like it.

This is why I’m concerned at the following section in the FT report:

An aide to Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, refused to rule out backing a temporary withdrawal but said it had not been proposed, dismissing it as a “complete hypothetical”. Mr Clegg said last year he would never support permanent withdrawal.

Yet again, we have one of Clegg’s aides saying something silly. There’s no compromise possible here, and Clegg should be completely ruling out the possibility of any withdrawal from the ECHR, whether it be temporary or permanent. Human rights are something that apply to everyone at all times, and that’s a principle the leader of the Liberal Democrats – and his aides – should be standing up for.

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One of the distinguishing traits of a senior politician is to be in possession of a circle of loquacious friends, always ready to talk to the press about things they don’t feel ready to talk about personally in public. Michael Gove’s friends have been talkative this weekend, telling the Daily Mail all about his views on the European Union.

It’s pretty much just Gove throwing a bone to the Tory Right, of course, saying he’d vote for the UK to leave to the EU, coupled with complaints about how those horrible human rights laws stop him from doing exactly what he wants. This helps us to show us how Gove suffers from two of the problems that befall many of the anti-EU brigade: first, the inability to understand the difference between the European Union, the Council of Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights and the European court; and second, the odd way in which conservatives who talk about limiting state power have an aversion to human rights conventions that protect the power of the citizen against an over-mighty state.

This is just Gove trying to shift the Overton window a few more inches to the right, rather than some major shift in Tory policy – after all, if he was serious about this he’d have said it himself at the Tory conference last week rather than leaving it to some anonymous friends to talk to the Daily Mail. However, the question we should ask if it’s all right for senior Tories to talk about ending our membership of the European Union, why is it so wrong for senior Liberal Democrats to talk about the possibility of ending the coalition?

As I talked about a few weeks ago, the party’s negotiating position in any internal Government discussions is weakened by the insistence that the Coalition must not be allowed to end early:

By saying – explicitly or implicitly – that nothing short of Cameron falling under the proverbial bus or it’s equivalent will make the Liberal Democrats walk away from the negotiating table, the party is drastically weakening its hand in any discussion. It emboldens the Tories to push further to the right, as there’s no counterforce to draw them to the centre if the Liberal Democrats have hidden their most powerful weapon in negotiations. Leaving aside my position that it should end now, I’m not saying that Clegg and Alexander should be threatening to walk out over everything, but if their counterparts don’t believe it’s possible that they will, then they’re dangerously weakened in negotiations.

In the same way that Gove doesn’t state his anti-EU views publicly, we don’t need Clegg giving regular speeches about bringing the coalition down. However, the response to something like Gove’s comments should be senior party figures (other than Lord Oakeshott) pointing out that the natural response to any Tory moves to quit the EU would be the Liberal Democrats quitting the coalition. Both domestically and internationally, the Tories are willing to do their negotiations in public, and Liberal Democrats need to be willing to do that.

If Clegg won’t do it himself, then others need to be given a licence to do so. It’s the role Vince Cable’s carried out at some times, and Chris Huhne did too, but too many other party figures seem to be too tightly wedded to the policy of not rocking the boat. As we’re seeing now over policies like rights for shares, that polite acquiescence is letting dangerous and illiberal policies head towards the statute book, and the party should be willing to fight fire with fire and match the Tory strategy. Otherwise, all the public associates us with is meekly rolling over for whatever the Tories want, unable to walk at any no matter what. The public need to know what the red lines are, and Liberal Democrat silence on them gives the impression they don’t exist.

There’s little else to learn from Michael Gove, but sometimes he’s a useful example.

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Yesterday, I learnt something I didn’t know before about British politics – the police claim the right to pre-emptively veto people attending the conferences of political parties.

I probably wasn’t go to go to Liberal Democrat Conference this year, as various other commitments and the hassle of getting to Birmingham and back likely outweighed the benefit I could get from it. So, I didn’t really notice the email about booking for it being opened and the new security arrangements that had been put in place until they created a large storm of concern amongst Liberal Democrat twitterers and bloggers.

If you haven’t heard the news yet, then this is it: to register for a Lib Dem Conference now, you have to provide a passport number, NI number or driving licence number as well as a photo that complies with passport rules. This information will then be passed on to Greater Manchester Police (on behalf of West Midlands Police) to assess whether you’re a security risk and decide if you’re entitled to come to Conference. Oh, and they’ll also want to keep the data you supply to them in one of those handily-secure databases from which information never gets leaked.

Now, I can understand these sort of rules being imposed onto the Labour and Conservative conferences without protest because – as recent political history shows – both parties are full of people extremely happy to trade liberty for the appearance of security and neither of their conferences get to decide much of importance. We, however, are meant to be different – we’re liberals, we’re against this sort of thing.

That the Federal Conference Committee and the party hierarchy rolled over so meekly at this request from the police worries me – what else is being acquiesced to behind the scenes in the name of ‘security’ that we’re not being told about? Why were we not told that anything like this was in the works before it was suddenly landed on people?

And then there’s the big question that really troubles me – why are so many people who call themselves Liberal Democrats so happy to meekly roll over and accept this? Do they not realise how ridiculous they sound when they bleat about security and how it’s nothing to be worried about because it probably won’t lead to you or anyone you know being banned? As others have said, the one thing that now makes me want to go to Conference is the prospect of party policy being set by people who are quite happy to nod their heads and agree to something like this – what else might they give away on the grounds it doesn’t really affect them?

If you’ve made it this far, then will you please sign the open letter or the petition against this?

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Until very very recently, I would have expected the competition for the worst comment piece published by the Guardian in 2010 to have been easily been won by one of the innumerable post-May ‘How dare the Liberal Democrats decide not to agree with me on everything’ articles.

But then, out of left field on the last day of the year – which they must have been storing it up for, so Toynbee or Milne wouldn’t have the time to come up with a competitor of equally moronic depth – came this piece of spectacular asshattery.

According to Stephen Kinzer, it seems the people of Africa – and Rwanda in particular – aren’t in need of any human rights, because they’re perfectly happy without them. Yes, we should stop complaining about anything anywhere because he’s been to Rwanda and he thinks that the people there are happy with their lot. The Guardian has published many bizarre articles in the past – I can recall very odd pro-Milosevic articles finding a home there – but I never thought I’d see them publishing an argument like this:

The question should not be whether a particular leader or regime violates western-conceived standards of human rights. Instead, it should be whether a leader or regime, in totality, is making life better or worse for ordinary people.

which sounds like the sort of thing even the Chinese government might regard as a bit extreme to make as a public statement.

The thought that comes to mind from reading that statement is whether people would feel better if the law allowed them to assault – without any consequences – Stephen Kinzer or anyone else espousing similar views. Surely then, if that was the case, Mr Kinzer would agree that he has no need of his ‘western-conceived standards of human rights’ that stop him being assaulted in the street as the government would be making life better for ordinary people? Or can such trade-offs only be made in the name of other people, living in far away lands of which we know nothing?

(story originally found via David Allen Green – aka Jack of Kent – on Twitter)

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I’ve been mentioned in the Daily Mirror. Sadly, not for any great achievement on my part, or coming out with some great opinion that needed to be heard by the people, but because they can’t be bothered to report a story properly. I was one of several people who tweeted from the Lib Dem Special Conference yesterday about Tom McNally and Chris Huhne pledging to leave the Government if the Human Rights Act goes but I was the one named as a source by the Mirror – possibly because I’m a councillor and say so on my Twitter profile – rather than any of the many others who mentioned it as well.

Of course, a decent journalist might have contacted Huhne or McNally themselves, but why go through all the hassle of having to work out how to get in touch with a Liberal Democrat minister when your deadline’s pressing, and you can just do all your work by following Twitter hashtags?

Tomorrow’s Mirror headline: Lib Dems are secretly alien lizards from space. Though I am kind of hoping some crazed follower of David Icke will one day find that and hold it up as proof that the Turquoise Messiah is right.

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