Introduction, Here I Stand
As the vastly outnumbered Scottish forces looked out over the looming ranks of the English army on a September morning in 1297, William Wallace, the Scottish knight and leader roared ‘They may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom!’
In that moment Wallace – or rather Mel Gibson playing Wallace in the screen version Braveheart – was tapping into the deep truth that the freedoms we enjoy today are worth dying for – and have in fact been paid for, in blood, many times over.
The history of freedom
Today our freedoms and liberties include the right to vote for our leaders, the prohibition on the use of torture, the right not to be arbitrarily detained, the right to speak freely and the right to protest.
Freedoms do not spontaneously arrive, and they are not handed to citizens by benevolent rulers. Our freedoms in the UK were gained through a long and often bloody history of slowly establishing limits on the powers of mighty monarchs and tyrannical rulers.
The history of Western freedoms has many important milestones, including King John signing Magna Carta in 1215, the Bill of Rights in 1689, the US Bill of Rights in 1791, the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to name but a few. Campaigns, demonstrations, protests and legal battles have resulted in many people now being able to vote in their leaders, enjoy greater protections at work and having the right not to be discriminated against.
Freedom demolished at the stroke of a pen
But we need to be ever vigilant, because the freedoms that have been hard won for us can be lost in a moment by the stroke of a politician’s pen – as they were in the UK during the World Wars, when the army was given control over almost every aspect of civilian life and many injustices were suffered by ordinary people.
The greatest threats to liberty now come not from terrorism, but from the fear of terrorism and our politicians’ misguided quest for absolute security. Unlike Wallace, the cry of the modern government at the first whiff of a terrorist threat is: They can take our freedoms, but they can not take our lives.
Save our human rights: three things we can all do We should not go along with government counter-terrorism strategies that attempt to criminalise thoughts, limit free speech, restrict access to courts, ban protests and put society under continuous CCTV and internet surveillance. We must all be jealous guardians of our freedoms, and appreciate that many of the liberties that we enjoy in the West are still being fought for by citizens in other parts of the world who are ruled by dictators and tyrannical regimes.
To protect our freedoms and ensure that they are not diluted or removed, we need to:
- CARE about rights and freedoms, want them for society and speak up for them when they are under attack
- QUESTION politicians and leaders when they say it is necessary to remove freedoms to create a safer society: ask them where their actions will lead
- ACT – there are many small actions we can all take to safeguard our freedoms: write letters, speak out against injustice, vote, join campaigns and attend demonstrations.
Every gain for human rights and those freedoms we enjoy began with one or two people recognising that something was worth fighting for, and joining with other like-minded people to make a difference. I hope you will all be inspired to do the same.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.