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Talking Politics: Human Rights (from 8 July 2013)

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Human Rights – Talk given by David Drew on 8 July 2013 with Rod Morgan at the Arkell Centre, Nailsworth

I want to say to start with how pleased I am to be able to invite Rod to Stroud.  It has been gratifying to be able to attract people of such quality to the constituency but I say a particular thank you to Rod whose knowledge, experience and expertise is second to none in this domain of human rights.

Can I start by stating categorically that I am not an expert in this field.  My views are shaped by practical experience of being an MP for 13 years undertaking a number of visits to countries that had notorious human rights records and through the many debates that regularly faced us as politicians and particularly as Parliamentarians.

It goes without fear of contradiction that we live in an age where human rights and human rights abuses are part of our everyday parlance and chequer the everyday news agenda.  Whether that be Guantanimo, the War against Terrorism, the Surveillance Society or the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act the issues that abound from these features are legion and always of importance. 

The obvious starting point is one of the greatest achievements of human beings, the passing of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.  Whilst I do not want to get hung up on the different articles I do want to emphasise why three of them are of especial note - namely Article 5 on torture, Article 6 on the right to a fair trial and Article 12 on the right to private and family life.

Now it’s not my intention in these short introductory remarks to explain let alone expatiate on the implications of these articles other than in passing about how my opinions were shaped by the manner in which countries applied themselves to these articles.

But to begin I want to stress how proud I was when the last government fully ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1998 which for the first time made UK law complicit with the ECHR overcoming the need for UK citizens to individually petition the Court.  To my mind any notion that the UK should withdraw from the Convention (and remember this has nothing to do with the EU) is mad, bad and dangerous resulting in the UK being pilloried as little better than a banana republic.  Sadly the very fact that some Parties are willing to campaign on this idea shows that British politics suffers from inarticulate and prejudicial views that masquerade as anti-Europeanism.  If the British version of democracy is to stand for anything internationally it must mean that we accept the rule of law and the right of our own people to have the protection that is afforded to others in different national jurisdictions.

More about this later!

Let me know talk about my own experiences of other countries adherence to human rights.  As some of you will know my main country of interest was the Sudan – now encompassing the world’s newest country, South Sudan.  I’ll state that my interest in The Sudan came about by learning about the many and varied human rights abuses associated with the country (countries).  In my visits to the country I found that human rights and the rule of law were not of primary concern, but that the situation was often complex and confusing partly because the way in which their legal systems evolved was anything like straightforward.  For example in a discussion with a judge in the Southern part he mentioned that he applied justice according to four different systems – the colonial British, the state of Sudan, tribal justice and Sharia – for even though he was a Christian he was willing to grant convicted Arab defendants that right of punishment.  This puts into context how difficult it is to apply consistent rights to such a situation. 

This really matters for it was acknowledged that Sudan regularly and gratuitously used torture to bear down on the population and to extract information from oppositional forces.  Some of the bravest people I have ever met came from a national NGO Sudan Organisation Against Torture.  One incident I vividly remember is when we were interviewing them in Khartoum, there was a clear sound of gun fire in the distance to which our interviewees got off and rushed off to the university where the conflict was occurring to record what was going on.  This identifies one key feature of human rights – without brave individuals willing to intervene and often put their lives on the line there will be no human rights.

Two other recollections were meeting up with the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham who had been invited to the country to talk about prisons policy.  Besides his comment to me that he had never seen such depressing inhumanity Tom Bingham did at least commend the regime for being willing to open its doors for outside inspection and advice.  However a second remembrance stuck even more in my mind – a meeting with the then Minister of Justice, who happened to be a brother of the then Vice President Taha, the real power behind the regime.  Without any hint of irony the MoJ lectured us on why hudood (amputation for offences such as theft) was a preferable system of justice to those on offer in the West.  His view was that this short, sharp form of retribution was much better than a long drawn out punishment and would act as a stronger deterrent than sentences we would apply.  Now this may seem nothing more than bizarre – but it does prove how far we have to go in terms of defining what is acceptable human rights, and that this will mean overcoming cultural differences.  Of course to pretend that this is just a problem of the developing world would be naïve – how many states in the US still keep the death penalty – a punishment largely reserved for the poor and the black.

Just one further overseas reminiscence was on a visit to Bangla Desh I asked how long it took for people on remand to expect before their trial would be heard.  I was told there was a 20 year backlog of cases, so many individuals would simply rot in prison rather than face appropriate justice.  Again this demonstrates how far we have to go in order to meet the requirements of a fair trial even in parts of the world that we would seem to have some traction over.

To finish with I want to refer back to the situation facing us in the UK.  As much as we can rail against what is happening elsewhere in the world we do have our own problems and dilemmas.

For instance we have the current searchlight shone our civil liberties through the leaks of Edward Snowden.  Now I have to admit that I have never been to GCHQ – I was once invited to meet the Director but this was in 2010, when I had other things to worry about.  However I am surprised that people are surprised that GCHQ spends its time listening to our phone calls and intercepting our emails.  What does alarm me is the scale of this operation and the apparent unaccountability with Ministers either expressing either ignorance or complicity depending upon whether you take a charitable or otherwise approach to this news.  The question I would ask is where does this leave our human rights on the issue of privacy and protection of our belief that we would not be spied upon if going about our normal business?  Besides the ridiculous expense that this involves at a time of massive cuts elsewhere in public spending this relentless expansion of the surveillance state is deeply worrying.  I know that we can spend of the evening just discussing this issue alone but we cannot pretend that those of us who value civil rights cannot but be perturbed at this development.

Likewise my lowest point as a Parliamentarian came as I found out about the true extent of extraordinary rendition – the secret movement of terrorist suspects around sympathetic countries so that they could be interrogated in jurisdictions which would not obey the normal rules of decency and fairness.  That the UK were implicated in the flights albeit at a limited level was deeply shaming and disturbing.  Though this may not appear to impact directly upon the domestic scene to me it is wrong that the UK must ever again be put in the situation of being the toll of the US.

Of course underlying all of this is the balance between how far a state is prepared to go in order to ‘defeat’ terrorism and how many of our human rights a government is prepared to sacrifice in the process, and if there is public consent to so do.  These are all big questions and ones that I would hope that Rod may now address as we continue to search for human rights that we in the UK can again be proud to defend and perpetrate.

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