Like otters and kingfishers: human rights in the Labour leadership contest

As I said during the general election campaign (remember that?!), none of the parties were really talking about human rights then. And the same is basically true in the Labour leadership contest now. Yesterday’s one-and-half-hour debate on Sky News saw precisely zero mentions of human rights (I think I spotted a fleeting reference to “civil liberties”), the same number as in the Channel Four debate last week. Likewise, the New Statesman’s lengthy endorsement of Ed Miliband barely touches on the topic. Hmm. What’s going on? Are things basically not too bad?  Well, the draconian “security” measures of the Blair-Brown years have not disappeared. Terrorist suspects are still under “control orders”, confined as near prisoners to their homes though they haven’t been put on trial for anything. Foreign terrorism suspects are still facing deportation to countries where they could be tortured or locked up without trial while our government uses so-called "diplomatic assurance" deals to try to get around human rights concerns. And, to take two further examples, if you’re suspected of involvement in terrorism you can still be held without charge for nearly a month (28 days) and meanwhile the police continue to “stop and search” thousands of people a year without concrete reason using highly controversial section 44 powers under the Terrorism Act (2000).

And this is just the security stuff. There are other concerns on the treatment of asylum-seekers, about arms transfers, and on women’s rights, to name but three. Neither the coalition government or the main opposition party is engaging with these issues any where near as much as they should be. That’s a real concern and something Amnesty will not ignore. Meanwhile, an inquiry into allegations of UK complicity in “war on terror” rendition, secret detention and torture is planned, and Amnesty is working to ensure that it’s effective and human rights-compatible. It’s important that this doesn’t become any kind of whitewashing exercise, so Amnesty and others will be vigilant on this score.  After the dreadful London bombings of 2005 Tony Blair famously talked about how the “rules of the game are changing”. Not for the first time, he was gearing up to retool the state security apparatus and diplomatic assurances in particular were a direct product of this thinking. I’m not one to throw my shoe at Mr Blair (might not get it back for one thing), but to me it’s highly dubious when politicians talk of radical new security measures straight after a terrorist atrocity. Historically these moments are nearly always when human rights are chopped back by those in power.  Amnesty has produced a new briefing on the need to undo some of the damage done by the UK’s over-zealous security measures of the last decade. Have a read here. The briefing’s just been submitted to the Home Office – which is conducting the review – with oversight by (the magnificently-named) Lord Macdonald of River Glaven* QC.  *In case you’re wondering – and I must admit I was – the River Glaven is a 10-mile-long river in Norfolk which has its source at a place called Lower Bodham and flows into the North Sea at Blakeney Point. According to Wikipedia, the river’s wildlife includes otters and kingfishers, both of which are elusive and difficult to spot. A bit like human rights in the Labour leadership contest.  


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