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On Liberty

Nick Spencer

Shami Chakrabarti
Allen Lane, 208pp

Shami Chakrabarti joined Liberty, formally the National Council for Civil Liberties, on 10 September 2001. The organisation was already then of pensionable age, having begun in the crypt of St Martinin- the-Fields in 1934. Some people knew about it in 2001, but many didn't. Thirteen years later, on its 80th anniversary, that sentence could be reversed. Shami Chakrabarti is the reason why.

This book ostensibly retells of Chakrabarti's 'personal and political journey' but is at heart a plea for and defence of 'human rights' at a time when the phrase, especially when linked to word 'Act', 'Court' or - worst of all - 'European' is often vilified.

Chakrabarti is not a human rights 'fundamentalist'. She recognises that very few rights are absolute and that the majority may be 'interfered with' if done 'proportionately [and] for… good reasons'. However, she is unyielding in her belief that a full and principled adherence to legally-enshrined human rights makes for a much better, fairer and more secure society.

Given the timing of her joining Liberty (initially as in-house counsel, two years later being promoted to Director) it is easy to see why. The first decade of the 21st century was stormy and Liberty was near the centre. The book's early chapters chart the 'opportunistic' governmental responses to 9/11 and subsequent acts of mass murder. The spectre of 'terrorism' and promise of 'security' were used to justify the erosion of privacy, the denigration of due process, special rendition, torture (or 'enhanced interrogation techniques'), as well as other, mercifully abandoned, ideas like the National Identity Register. Liberty was kept very busy.

Not all government response was necessarily malign. Indeed, the real crime seems to have been sloppy legislation - 'a political speech or press release masquerading as properly thought-through legislation' - rather than Putin-like despotism. Nevertheless, the tale still makes for unedifying reading. As Chakrabarti says in the introduction, when she joined Liberty she never expected to have to make arguments against internment, kidnap and torture.

Not all human rights talk is about terrorism, however. Chakrabarti goes into some detail about the way the Blair government played fast and loose with legal process regarding anti-social behaviour, cuts to legal aid, extradition and other (marginally) less histrionic subjects. She makes her point equally forcefully here, but the further she gets from the big evils of the 21st century, and the closer to the more mundane aspects of human rights law, in particular the complicated way it interacts with democracy, the more her arguments fray.

Like any good liberal, Chakrabarti is instinctively a democrat but this presents her with problems she barely acknowledges. The occasional passing reference to 'depressing opinion polls' masks the obvious fact that authoritarian and often rights-sceptical politicians are not driven simply by power and self-interest, but actually reflect broad national opinion, certainly better than Liberty does. She (rightly) bemoans the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in the early years of the century but fails to acknowledge that this was driven by public opinion. She skirts over the death penalty, long supported by the public for some crimes. And she admits, awkwardly and almost with embarrassment, that it was the (gasp) unelected House of Lords that proved better at protecting civil liberties than its democratic fellow chamber.

Chakrabarti is robust in insisting on the right to offend whom we like but draws the line at harm. That's a standard and well-established line of liberal reasoning. But 'offence' and 'harm' are notoriously slippery concepts, and are readily used to smuggle in preconceptions under the cover of tolerant neutrality. Denying a gay couple a room in your bed and breakfast she argues - well, asserts - is about 'really hurting, as opposed to offending, other people'. It isn't though. It is undoubtedly offensive (not to mention inhospitable and unchristian) but it doesn't materially harm anyone.

Chakrabarti may not be 'fundamentalist' about human rights but she certainly has a salvific attitude towards them. Human rights are what people in some parts of the world 'dream' of. They 'empower the vulnerable'. They 'irritate and inconvenience the mighty'. Is the echo of the Magnificat accidental?

Such a salvific attitude translates into a frustrating unwillingness to engage critically with rights. Chakrabarti can hardly be blamed for failing to acknowledge the contested philosophical grounds on which they are based. On Liberty is not that kind of book. But the repeated and straightforward opposition of human rights and human evils is more troubling. She quotes with approval a gulag survivor saying indignantly at a public meeting, 'My wife was in a death camp and I was in Siberia. No one is going to tell me that we don't need human rights laws'. This was undoubtedly an electrifying moment in the meeting but it doesn't bear a minute's intellectual scrutiny.

The fact is it is perfectly possible to be sceptical about human rights, at least in certain incarnations, without siding with Western hawks, let alone the terrorists they fight. Jonathan Sumption, for example, recently elevated to the Supreme Court, has written with great sophistication of how because the European Convention is what is known as a 'living instrument', ever more of what is judged political (i.e. debateable) slides into the realm of law (i.e. settled). The result is disaffection with human rights ('since when is prisoner voting a human right?') and disaffection with politicians ('they don't have any real power?'). Good intentions pave a troubling path.

On Liberty is a powerful, useful and readable book and we should be grateful that Chakrabarti joined Liberty when she did. Nonetheless, a more probing account of human rights would also be welcome. As Christian history illustrates, when people judge a thing salvific, it doesn't mean they are always right about it.