Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Dark days for rights as attacks gather pace

A massive attack against deeply enshrined rights is gathering pace and the alarm bells are ringing in unlikely quarters. Supreme Court president Lord Neuberger has used his first-ever interviews to warn of about the Coalition government’s attitude to the rule of law and thereby revealed the growing rift deep within the British state.

Neuberger expressed in no uncertain terms his opposition to two major planks of government strategy, both of which have the enthusiastic backing of senior Labour former ministers.

He described as “slanted” attitudes towards the European Court of Human Rights, saying that those who want to send “nasty terrorists” back to countries where they may be tortured were clearly in breach of the UN Human Rights convention of 1948.

Neuberger added that “attacking judges” in the way that Home Secretary Theresa May has done repeatedly in relation to recent immigration cases, was “unfortunate” and “not a sensible way to proceed”.

May’s department is stinging from last week’s rebuff by High Court Mr Justice Wilkie who has rejected Home Office efforts to force through the deportation of failed Tamil asylum seekers.

Teaming up with May in opposition to human rights is Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. He has made it clear he wants any future Conservative government to repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights.

Neuberger also criticised the severe restriction of legal aid from April when £350 billion of cuts come into force, warning that this would undermine the rule of law, because “people will feel like the government isn’t giving them access to justice in all sorts of cases”.

The  judge’s concerns, however moderately crafted, acquire a more frightening aspect if they are taken together with the passage through parliament of the Justice and Security Bill.

Last night MPs voted against “safeguards” to curb the use of secret courts proposed in the Bill. Labour’s amendments were intended to make it more palatable to its numerous critics. But with the unstinting help of former Labour ministers David Blunkett, Jack Straw and Hazel Blears, the amendments failed by 71 and 73 votes, even though seven Lib Dems rebelled.

This gives minister Kenneth Clarke carte blanche to continue railroading his Bill through parliament. Clarke has made no secret that his enthusiasm for secret courts is totally on behalf of “our security services”.

A strange bedfellow in the campaign for rights, the Daily Mail, published an open letter signed by 704 legal figures, including 38 leading QCs, which warned that the plans for secret courts were “dangerous and unnecessary”. One legal expert even suggested that its provisions for Closed Material Procedures (CMPS) were intended to cover up UK “complicity in rendition and torture”.

The human rights charity Reprieve has called for complete opposition to secret courts, saying: “The right to hear and challenge the evidence used against you in court has been established in Britain for centuries. Yet plans for secret courts would sweep this away...” Its head, Clare Agar, has rightly said that last night was “a dark night for British justice”.

The suggestion by The Guardian’s editorial today that undermining human rights is a “Tory” strategy is of course ludicrous. New Labour’s David Blunkett was just as, if not more gung-ho in attacking human rights legislation as the current administration.

Labour introduced detention without trial and thwarted in its attempt to raise the time people could be held under anti-terror laws to 90 days. And let’s not forget the previous government’s plans for ID cards.

Behind the concerns raised by Britain’s most senior judges, lawyers and human rights defenders lie the ever-deepening resentment and suffering caused by austerity measures and the subsequent alienation of people from the state.

The urgent need to defend ancient legal rights as proposed in the campaign for an Agreement of the People for the 21st century could not be clearer. For that to happen, we definitely should  create a new democratic, political system in place of the increasingly authoritarian one bearing down on ordinary people.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

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