14th February, 2012. 14.35 G.M.T.

Human Rights
under fire.

by Helen Gavaghan


Leeds, UK: "We face threats to the post war (WWII 1939 to 1945) framework of human rights," said leading human rights' barrister, Shami Chakrabarti, yesterday evening, speaking in the Moot Court Room of the law school at the University of Leeds.

Ms Chakrabarti, formerly with the Home Office, is now director of the National Council for Civil Liberties. She reprised the history of NCCL from 1934, speaking of it as a magnificent conceit, and telling her audience that Keir Starmer QC, current director of public prosecutions, started his career with NCCL.

The post war framework set a right to a fair trial, no retrospective punishment, freedom of religion, freedom of association and equal treatment under the law. Almost all believe in human rights for themselves, she said, but there is a dilemma when determining to whom else those rights should extend.



She was clearly concerned by the problems posed by indefinite detention, and said, "when we have to grapple with issues of freedom of speech and privacy, the principal of equality before the law is a great discipline."

She sees conflation of motive in those wanting the human rights' Act replacing by a national Bill of Rights. Eurosceptics are misdirecting their distrust of the EU onto the Act, was one point she made here.

The second beef from Human Rights' Act's opponents is they think the judiciary applies the Act to subborn parliament's authority. This she demolished as spurious, saying there was a need for an independent judiciary. Her reductio ad absurdum being to ask how democracy could work without an independent judiciary. Imagine that the parlous state of an economy is argued as a justification to cancel elections and save money. Without an independent judiciary how would that be opposed?

What, she next asked, if someone behaves badly, do they loose their human rights? Her answer to herself was no. Human rights attach to the person, not to their status or citizenship. In this one law professor partially opposed her, saying he thought human rights attached to citizenship.

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She called this the elephant in the room. "The draughters of the human rights' framework knew that rights must attach to the individual human being, not to their nationality."

Passion surfaced a couple of times. How are kids supposed to respect asbos when senior politicians do not respect a Court's decision? And what of Abu Qatada, she asked (who was about to be freed to strict bail conditions as she was speaking), why had he not been charged in the UK?

"Human rights should live, not just in the Courts, she said, but in the boardroom, in the classroom, in parliament and in the news room. Human rights will not survive if they are seen only as a box of lawyers' tricks. They must be embedded in society."

Ms Chakrabarti was introduced by Steven Wheatley, professor of international law and head of Leeds Law School. "Whilst law cannot guarantee justice," he said, "it can promise a search for justice, and it is a countermeasure to mob rule."

Because I attended this event as an alumnus of the University of Leeds I had intended that Ms Chakrabarti see this prepublication. The presence of The Yorkshire Post made this a public event and freed me of that obligation. Ms Chakrabarti has thus not seen this article pre publication.

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