Two conferences over the weekend 200 miles apart highlighted the difference between a liberal defence of civil liberties which aims at building a classless coalition of the mainstream political centre and a more militant enforcement of human rights in a continuous struggle against the state.
A new generation of law students committed to the defence and advancement of human rights in the broadest sense are the core of National Critical Lawyers Group (NCLG). The students themselves organised a conference at Manchester’s Metropolitan University on human rights and the state. They invited top practitioners to explain where the struggle is at and where it has to go. A World to Win was privileged to speak about the arguments in our new book Unmasking the State.
At the same time, in London, vast resources were allocated to the £35-a-head Convention on Modern Liberty. While it was highly successful in terms of attendance, with an estimated 1,500 taking part in London and other venues, its focus was on the loss of what are termed civil liberties under New Labour and the destruction of the rights of the individual in Britain.
This narrow view enables the Tory leader David Cameron to offer support and for former shadow home secretary David Davis to close the event. These, don’t forget, are from a party that in the 1980s illegalised trade union activity, sent the state out to smash up the miners’ and other strikes, privatised public services, ended local government autonomy and created mass unemployment to boot. A great record to build on when they return to office!
In Manchester, the NCLG conference concentrated on the state and the struggle against it, not just in Britain but throughout the world. They heard Everard O'Donnell, acting deputy registrar of the the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, explain how an estimated 262 million people had been killed by their own governments in the 20th century. O’Donnell appealed to the students to broaden the indictment for war crimes from states in the developing world to the leaders of the major countries.
Liz Davies from Garden Court chambers, which is at the forefront of defending human rights, explained how the British state was denying housing rights that European Courts had asserted while Professor Sally Sheldon attacked the "shameful non-update" of the 1967 Abortion Act by New Labour and the apparent collusion between New Labour and Ulster MPs which denied women of Northern Ireland even minimum rights. Owen McIntyre from Cork University talked about human rights to water while Professor Bill Bowring, Birkbeck University, explained how human rights existed in relation to the state and said the struggle was "about radicalising democracy and collective action". Phil Shiner, from Public Interest Lawyers, spoke of the difficult task of bringing into the open the British state’s torture and murder of Iraqis.
Conor Gearty, director of the London School of Economics human rights centre, who has come under heavy fire from journalist and commentator Henry Porter for his criticism of the convention’s framework, warned against New Labour/Tory plans for a Bill of Rights in place of the Human Rights Act as “malign and meaningless” which, he added, would be a “misallocation of political energy” and a “cover for political inactivity”.
Whether you take the civil liberties standpoint or that of human rights, the central issue is the same, however. Is the present capitalist state system going to restore what has been lost and, furthermore, grant rights that are still aspirations? That is to assume that we live under a flourishing democracy where the state is neutral and simply waiting for a “progressive” government to come by.
The opposite is the case, however. Our view is that the globalisation process in particular has undermined the democratic side of the capitalist state and speeded the process towards authoritiarian rule. Developing concepts and practices that takes us beyond the capitalist state, in a bid to reclaim and extend democracy into areas like the workplace through a new political system, is a project that now has real urgency about it.
AWTW communications editor