LONDON — Britain is in the midst of an extraordinary national debate. It comes after the decision by a leading member of the opposition Conservative Party to resign his seat in Parliament and stand again in a by-election over the single issue of the erosion of civil liberties.
The politician, David Davis, made the announcement in the wake of a decision in the British House of Commons to extend detention of any individual for up to 42 days without being charged under anti-terrorism laws. It comes amid mounting opposition to the use of anti-terror laws for a wide variety of offenses, including, in some cases, minor transgressions attracting financial penalties imposed by local councils.
Britain’s Liberal Democratic Party, which came second in Davis’s constituency last time, has said it will not put up a candidate against him in the by-election, expected to take place next month. Even some prominent politicians of the governing Labour Party have announced that they will support Davis, despite threats that they will be expelled from the party. The volume of e-mail and other messages of support is extraordinary. Anti-terror laws, their use seen as arbitrary and widespread, are beginning to backfire.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown takes comfort in pointing out that two-thirds of the British people in a recent survey supported the extension of detention without trial for up to 42 days — in effect, suspension of the right to habeas corpus for a period nearly equivalent to a three-month prison sentence in the United Kingdom. Supporters of Davis’s move say that if the British people really believe on reflection that that is what they want, then they should exercise their right to decide whether he should continue as their MP. At the very least, his resignation gives an opportunity for that reflection. Otherwise, the matter would be left to the House of Lords and courts. They are certainly among the guardians of our liberties. But it is essential that the citizen, too, remains involved in this debate.
The 2007 annual report of Amnesty International on the state of human rights worldwide says: “Powerful governments and armed groups are deliberately fomenting fear to erode human rights and to create an increasingly polarized and dangerous world.” [Amnesty International, 23 May 2007]
The message of Amnesty reflects something that has become increasingly obvious since 9/11. The ‘war on terror’ has left a long trail of human rights abuses and created deep divisions that cast a shadow on international relations, making the world more dangerous. In one of the strongest repudiations of the policies of Western governments, the secretary-general of Amnesty, Irene Khan, says: “The politics of fear are fuelling a downward spiral of human rights abuses in which no right is sacrosanct and no person safe.” She accuses governments of adopting policies which undermine the rule of law, feed racism and xenophobia, divide communities, intensify inequalities and sow the seeds for more violence and conflict. Old-fashioned repression has gained a new lease of life under the guise of fighting terrorism in some countries, while in others, including the United Kingdom, loosely defined counter-terrorism laws pose a threat to civil liberties, including free speech.
Among the leaders named by Amnesty International for playing on fear among their supporters to help them push their own political agendas and strengthen their political power are President George W Bush, now ex-Prime Minister John Howard of Australia, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Nothing can be more serious than when leading countries of the free world find themselves in the same league as the most barbaric when it comes to human rights.
The 2008 report of Human Rights Watch mourns the state of democracy with these words: “Rarely has democracy been so acclaimed, yet so breached, so promoted yet so disrespected, so important yet so disappointing.” From Pakistan, China and Russia to Uzbekistan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, every dictator or totalitarian regime aspires to the status conferred by the label of democracy. They all used repression before. The rhetoric which President George W Bush has introduced since the beginning of his ‘war on terror’ and crusade for ‘democracy’ have given such regimes a new lease on life. Human Rights Watch accuses the Bush administration of embracing this route instead of defending human rights, because talk of human rights leads to Guantanamo, secret CIA prisons abroad, simulated drowning and other forms of ‘rendition,’ military commissions and the suspension of habeas corpus. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are two of the world’s leading organizations in the field of human rights. How did they reach conclusions so bleak?
The dawn of the 21st century bears a strange resemblance to the circumstances that led to the grant of Magna Carta in 1215. In the early 13th century, King John of England had invaded France and, in the ensuing wars, had captured large pieces of territory in the west. By 1214, he had stretched his military too far and was defeated in the battle of Bouvines, near Lille, in that year. They were disastrous wars and the costs in terms of lives lost and money needed to finance them unsustainable. The king’s income from the occupied land in France had dried up.
The king demanded higher payments from his barons to make up for the deficit and more individuals to serve as knights in his military. He did not have much sympathy for his subjects. He appointed all of England’s county judges, who imposed harsh penalties on dissenters, seizing their properties and possessions in many cases.
In 1215, King John was unpopular. His policies in fighting ruinous wars and funding them through excessive coercion against his subjects generated resentment. At a time of economic difficulties, his proclamations to raise money and troops caused more hardship for the people of his kingdom. There was a rebellion led by some of the most important barons, who complained that the king’s demands had become unreasonable, breaking all rules of customary fairness. They were supported by the city of London and others not in open revolt. King John’s authority had already suffered in previous defeats and because of a bitter dispute with the pope over election of the archbishop of Canterbury. The growing rebellion at home posed a grave threat to his crown.
In an attempt to avoid a civil war, King John put his seal on two documents of concessions in June 1215. One was Magna Carta, the Great Charter of Freedoms. The other, the Charter of the Forest, promised the subsistence rights to the poor. Although Magna Carta was not a bill of rights for the king’s subjects, it had the opposite effect. Its principles remain the source of the most fundamental freedoms today — for every individual.
The right to habeas corpus, prohibition of torture, trial by jury and the rule of law all derive from Chapter 39 of the Great Charter of 1215, which says that no free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or victimized or attacked in any way, except by the judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. Habeas corpus is an extraordinary legal remedy. It empowers courts, even places a duty upon them, to command the state to produce a person whose liberty has been taken away and show cause why. It is the ultimate safeguard against unlawful detention and is written in the American constitution, English law and all its derivatives throughout the world. That right is at stake here as the nation reflects on the extension of suspension of habeas corpus for as long as 42 days.
An adage used today by legal experts stresses that ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ It is the basis for an individual’s right to be produced in court without delay and to a speedy trial once charged. Or it would be unfair to the injured party, who must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The promise can be traced back to Chapter 40 of Magna Carta, in which King John agreed: “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
A growing number of people in Britain are beginning to say these guarantees are at stake today. Questions are being asked where is this taking the country? Should a weak and tired government be allowed to get away with restricting the most fundamental freedoms when a large body of stalwarts — politicians, legal experts, law-enforcement officers and enlightened citizens — cannot be persuaded? Should a narrow victory in Parliament by nine votes (315-306), made possible by coercion and enticements, not make people think that more reflection and deliberation are needed on this matter, both inside and outside the House of Lords? If what the government can point to is one public opinion survey to justify curtailing the most fundamental right in a democratic society, then where does it lead to? Is the majority, indicated in opinion surveys, at any given point sufficient to target a particular community or to bring back hanging that much of the civilized world, except for America, shuns?
Such scenarios may seem democratic to some. But opponents argue that they quickly destroy democracy. To them, democracy is not just an abstract idea. It is about how people live in a free society. This is a debate that is likely to continue in the United Kingdom well after President George W Bush leaves the White House in January 2009, and until the next general election in Britain in 2010.
The above article appeared in Online Journal on 25 June 2008.