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The cheapening of the meaning of human existence

In the second part of her interview Liberty director MARTHA SPURRIER talks to Ben Cowles about attacks on Britain’s civil rights and the ever more intrusive surveillance powers

THE ominous expression “may you live in interesting times” has been bashing round inside my head a lot this past year.

It’s hard to deny that we are living through an interesting and potentially transformative period in Britain, one which our descendants will study in great detail — that is if humanity is to survive global climate change and the threat posed by the orange man in the White House with his stubby finger on the nuclear annihilation button, and if we defend our human rights and utilise them to avoid the seemingly inevitable corporate dystopia heading our way.

And so I sought out Liberty, the human rights advocacy group which has been standing up for our fundamental rights and freedoms for 83 years, and a conversation with its new director Martha Spurrier.

As I was editing this together, I realised not all the topics Spurrier and I discussed would make it into the paper. And so we decided to split the interview in two. Part one was printed in yesterday’s edition. I have also uploaded the raw audio of our entire chat online, there is a link at the bottom of the page.

I often feel that, from having an understanding of human rights, I have a responsibility to defend them to others. Do we all share that responsibility?

Absolutely. Not least because we all have so much to lose if human rights go away. It is incredibly important for those that do understand why human rights are relevant and powerful to defend them.

Unless we all take on that responsibility and unless we make this a movement for social change, unless we tell our young people why it is that human rights are an important part of their future in this country then they will be ever more at risk from politicians who want to tear them up on a whim.

We also shouldn’t shy away from the fact that human rights are there to protect people who are accused of crimes; they’re not a get-out-of-jailfree card. We still lock people up for a very long time when they’ve gone against the values that we hold dear. And that’s absolutely right.

The police and the security agents have a whole range of sanctioning powers, civil and criminal, to put people under surveillance, and to then have them tried and put in prison by a judge. But then what we have agreed as a civilised society is that we don’t then abandon our morality and treat those people in a way that would degrade us.

There is a misconception that the human rights violations only occur elsewhere or that the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 is only something to defend terrorists and paedophiles. Why is that?

There is a sad understanding gap on human rights. And the reason it’s sad is not because lawyers like me need to make sure they’re upheld so we’re kept in business but because every single time a person has an interaction with the state, that sets up a power relationship which human rights are there to balance.

The Hillsborough families would be the first to say that they were ordinary British families who just pitched up to a football match one Saturday and suddenly were caught up in something deeply unfair and completely tragic, where they should have been protected and they weren’t. They then faced the state closing ranks and covering up from every angle. Human rights were the only thing that meant they could get a proper investigation into what went wrong.

There’s a lot of spin around human rights. They’re an easy scapegoat for politicians when they’re faced with complex problems they don’t know how to solve. It’s very easy just to say, “oh well, if we dismantle human rights laws or if we just targeted that one group, whether it’s by booting them out of the country or locking them up, then all of this will be solved.”

But actually behind all of that lies a problem that needs a social, economical or political solution that’s much harder to grapple with. Particularly in a situation where you’ve got a first past the post system, when you’re in a rush to be elected, it’s not surprising that people reach to blame human rights.

What worries me about the government’s plans to replace the HRA with the British Bill of Rights is the emphasis on Britishness. Why are they putting a nationality above humanity?

I think that’s one of the reasons why the proposal for the British Bill of Rights is so toxic because it is suggesting that your rights are based on where you’re a citizen of and, of course, the whole point of human rights is that you have them by virtue of being human, not by virtue of being British or an EU citizen or an African citizen or a US citizen.

What that title, that bit of semantics does indicate is very telling of what the policy is behind it, which, no question, is to weaken the rights of immigrants and to make it easier to treat them unfairly.

It would create an underclass of people who are not entitled to rights in the same way that others are. It takes us back to a Victorian idea of the deserving and the undeserving and once you start that whole groups aren’t entitled to rights.

It starts with the immigrants, then the prisoners, the terror suspects, the whistleblowers, the people that are members of extreme political parties and before long you’ve got rights for a very small and very privileged bunch of people who, for whatever reason, have the approval of the government.

We’ve seen it in the EU referendum. The government repeatedly refused to recognise and clarify the rights of EU citizens in this country and tried to use them as a bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations. That is a cheapening of the meaning of human existence, to say well actually you’re going to be a chip on the table. It’s a very telling moment of politics that they hold back on guaranteeing rights of “other people” for their own political gain.

As a journalist and someone who uses the internet everyday, I find the snooper’s charter terrifying.

The snooper’s charter fundamentally changes the game. It makes protection of sources a thing of the past, lawyer-client privilege a thing of the past, doctor-patient confidentiality a thing of the past. If these powers are all brought into force, people will look back fondly on the days where there was individual privacy.

This is ironic of course at a time where it is becoming harder to get information out of the government. What we’re seeing is the state closing its doors. There is no open state anymore. And yet, at the same time, individuals’ privacy is being completely sucked away by government.

With these new powers the government will be able to build up this incredibly detailed picture of your digital existence — which for most of us now is 90 per cent of our existence. They will know the protests you went to; they’ll know the mosque or synagogue or church that you pray at; they will know the things that you buy; they will know the vices that you have online.

All these activities may be perfectly lawful and perfectly within your rights as a citizen going about your daily business. But when put together, who knows if they could then build a picture of suspicion that then might justify more intrusive surveillance powers, that then might justify putting you under some kind of counter-terror measure that infringes on your liberty.

It feels like people are sort of sleepwalking into a more authoritarian state. Do you think that’s fair?

I think that’s fair.

I suspect when you use the word “authoritarian,” people think that isn’t us, we are not East Berlin we are not nazi Germany. But there have been some erosions of very important freedoms that, it turns out, are kind of there on the good manners of the people who run the country.

For example, we’ve seen terrifying proposals coming out of the law commission trying to criminalise whistleblowers and lock up journalists for writing public interest stories. If that were to come to pass, then that is the government saying when someone blows the whistle on something important, they will be met with a criminal sentence.

So it immediately shuts down dissent, transparency and accountability and that’s straight-out-of-the-dictionary authoritarian.


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