Labour and torture…

One of the immediate effects of reading some of the Torture Report last night was a feeling of deep anger. My memories of 2003 and protesting against the planned invasion of Iraq came flooding back – and my anger towards Tony Blair in particular and the Labour Party in general came flooding back. I tweeted about it a bit last night and this morning – and though most people seemed to agree with me, a number seemed to think I was being unfair. After Polly Toynbee’s suggestion yesterday that we should ‘ignore the flaws’ of the Labour Party, having this particularly huge flaw shoved in my face seemed a touch ironic. So am I unfair to be angry with Labour? The people suggesting so seem to have a three main complaints:

This wasn’t Tony Blair – or even the UK. This is about the CIA.

It’s certainly true that the Torture Report is about the CIA’s activities – but the UK is not unconnected. Firstly, the UK was involved in the CIA’s activities, helping with rendition at the very least, and turning a blind eye to other things. Secondly, anyone who imagines that the UK is totally innocent of similar actions seems to me to be deeply naïve – the fact that we don’t know for sure may well have as much to do with our secretive and seemingly ineffective forms of oversight. A report like the Torture Report is almost unheard of in the UK. We have the odd whitewash from time to time, but nothing more. What’s more, Blair made the UK complicit in the whole ‘war on terror’ – and the torture was part of that.

Tony Blair didn’t know what was happening

For that to be true, he would have to be a complete fool – and that’s one thing I would never accuse him of. What’s more, over a million of us warned him.

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I was on that march – and we weren’t just saying ‘don’t invade Iraq’, we were saying ‘don’t go into bed with the most reactionary and objectionable US president in living memory.’ We may not have known the details – details confirmed by the Torture Report – but we knew who and what Bush was, and what joining him implied. Blair must also have known – and if he didn’t make the obvious inference about things like torture, then as I wrote before, he would have to be a fool. And he isn’t a fool.

Tony Blair isn’t the Labour Party

No he isn’t – but he led the Labour Party, and a very significant number of the current crop of MPs voted for Blair and Bush’s war, effectively voting for this torture. Some of the ‘big figures’ who actively supported the war are still very much part of the party – names like David Blunkett and Jack Straw spring to mind, but there are others. More importantly, the current Labour Party seem to be very much carrying on Blair’s agenda. Yvette Cooper seems to be almost as much an authoritarian as the rest of them!

 

So yes, I do blame Labour. And yes, I think that’s fair – and until Labour makes a proper break from the past, and shows that it understands what went wrong, or even that it was wrong, I will continue to blame Labour.

Immigration, xenophobia and racism…

Every so often, these days, someone says something about immigration that makes me think about racism, xenophobia, or both. Often it’s someone from UKIP, but recently Tory politicians have been joining in pretty regularly – and even Lib Dems and Labourites have been triggering the same reaction in me. Whenever I mention this on Twitter, in amongst the other reactions there will pretty much every time be someone who says something like ‘why does someone wanting to limit or control immigration have to be racist or xenophobic?’

The answer I generally give is that of course they don’t – but these days, all too often, the reasons behind such statements have racism or xenophobia in the background. That is, not all those people wanting to control or limit immigration are racists or xenophobes, but a lot of xenophobes or racists use the relative respectability of opposition to immigration as a cover story from xenophobia or racism.

I had three interesting altercations of this kind on Twitter last week – from what I remember, they came after the revelation that UKIP had done a deal with a Polish MEP who happened to be a Holocaust Denier. In all three cases, the starting point was a seemingly rational objection to immigration. I engaged with the argument – I don’t always, because these kinds of arguments can be exhausting and depressing – and in all three cases the ending was memorable. The first finished with the suggestion that Labour councils had been engaging in ‘ethnic cleansing of whites’ (the words of my opponent). The second peaked with the remarkable statement that everything always goes downhill when the proportion of whites in an area goes below 60% – a ‘fact’ that I was assured couldn’t be racist because my opponent has been told it by a black person. The third argument was much more rational, and specifically about immigration from the EU. It ended with a suggestion that one of the biggest problems with EU immigration was that communities didn’t integrate. When I pushed on this point, asking which EU communities didn’t integrate, the answer came Poles and West Africans. Aside from my own experience of the Poles as integrating very well into British society (as they have since their great contribution to the Battle of Britain), the way that West Africans somehow fitted the ‘EU migration’ story made that old feeling of racism and xenophobia come back again.

It happened again when I read of Michael Fallon’s comments of towns feeling ‘swamped’ and ‘under siege’ by EU immigrants. If he really was talking about EU immigrants, what was it that made him feel ‘swamped’? Too many Polish shops on his high street? Too many shopping aisles in his local Tesco with Eastern European specialist products on them? Hearing Czech spoken at the bus stop? Does he think he can tell an Eastern European from a Western European just by looking at them – I mean, Nigel Farage may be able to ‘know the difference’ between a Romanian and a German, but…

To me it feels like dog whistle politics. When Fallon talks about feeling under siege, he means that ‘they’ look different from ‘us’. ‘We’ should feel threatened by ‘them’. That’s feeding into racism and xenophobia – and I’m afraid that’s all too common in the anti-immigrant rhetoric going around at the moment. That’s where the ‘too many black faces’ talk comes from, the ‘ethnic cleansing of whites’, the ‘going downhill when the White faces go below 60%’, and the non-integration of West Africans goes. And whilst we’re at it, non-integrations is often a cypher in itself. It suggests people shouldn’t talk their own languages, even amongst themselves, shouldn’t wear any clothes that aren’t ‘British’ enough – and certainly shouldn’t practice any religion other than Christianity openly.

Of course there are rational arguments against immigration – though most of them fall apart under serious scrutiny. Those twin myths of ‘health tourism’ and ‘benefit tourism’ keep being trotted out though the figures show they’re negligible – and indeed immigrants tend to be younger, healthier and less likely to claim benefits than non-immigrants, as well as contributing more in taxes than they cost in terms of health and benefits. ‘They’ aren’t taking ‘our’ jobs either – in general immigration creates as many jobs as it takes, and boosts the economy. The problem problems we have with housing are connected with chronic underinvestment and a dysfunctional market – not immigration.

All this, however, is lost in the morass of misinformation, much of it fuelled by racism and xenophobia. What are also lost in this mess are the real causes of the real problems in places like Clacton, Rochester and elsewhere. Whilst focussing on the immigrants, the unscrupulous landlords, dodgy employers and tax-avoiding rich people and companies who mess up the housing market, pay poverty wages and massively reduce the tax take necessary to make the investments those communities need, are laughing all the way to their off-shore banks. Politicians wreaking havoc through austerity and ‘reform’ are left to enjoy their subsidised drinks in the Commons’ bars. The real villains are happy to see immigrants and immigration take the blame. Of course they are.

So no, talking about wanting to limit or control immigration isn’t racist or xenophobic – but plenty of xenophobes and racists talk about wanting to control immigration. And plenty of others are selfish enough to encourage them to do so, because it keeps their own actions away from the limelight. It keeps them from being held to account – and it allows the story to keep on going in exactly the same way. The side effects of the encouragement of racism and xenophobia are hideous, and the damage it does to us as a whole, as a culture, as a community, is incalculable. It divides, it stigmatises, it spreads suspicion, distrust and fear. It’s what makes people suspect any Muslim could be a terrorist, every African a carrier of Ebola, every Serb a war criminal, every Romanian a thief. It diminishes all of us. That it’s allowed to grow, to fester, is something that makes me, for one, deeply sad.

Valuing the human…

When I heard that UKIP had forged an alliance with a Polish MEP who was, amongst other things, a Holocaust denier, a man who joked about beating wives and beating children, who thought disabled people shouldn’t be on TV, and that had described Hitler as a ‘rascal’, my first reaction was to sigh. Not because these things aren’t terrible – but because they are, and they’re sadly typical of something I see in so many places. It’s about a failure to place value on the human, but instead only on certain people.

The whole nature of the Holocaust was about that – and so is Holocaust denial. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think UKIP is a party of Holocaust deniers – though I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were a few in UKIP’s ranks – but that they don’t think Holocaust denial is such a big deal. Certainly not a ‘deal breaker’, as they’ve demonstrated by making their deal. Why would you not think it was a big deal? The most obvious reason is that the millions of deaths, the brutal and systematic nature of those deaths – not just of Jews but of Roma, of Slavs, of disabled people and others – simply don’t matter that much to you. For some people such an attitude is almost inconceivable – but for others, it seems long ago, those ‘people’ don’t really register as important enough to make a difference. They’re not valued.

Holocaust denial is one of the most obvious, but the failure to place value in the human is in all those other things. You can only joke about ‘wife beating’ if you don’t really value women – they don’t quite class as human, somewhere in your mind. The same for beating children. Saying that disabled people shouldn’t appear on TV can only really be because disabled people don’t count as quite, well, people. Human. And it’s part of a bigger pattern. Racism, ultimately, means thinking that people of one race are less valuable than others. Xenophobia, of the kind demonstrated by UKIP towards Romanians and Bulgarians, for example, says the same. ‘You know the difference’, as Nigel Farage said to James O’Brien, comparing Romanians to his German wife, is about valuing one kind of human above another.

It’s not just UKIP. Lord Freud’s comments about some disabled people being ‘worth’ less than the minimum wage has the same origin – and in some ways a more pernicious one. It takes the idea of value to a more calculated level, treating people not as humans but as ‘assets’ whose only ‘worth’ is their ability to contribute as productive economic units – and as a result finds them wanting. It’s not just treating disabled people as less than human – it’s treating all of us as less than human. It’s not valuing humanity at all. Labour’s Rachel Reeves gets in on the act too. In her recent speech on social security began by talking about ‘decent, hardworking people’ – which implies that there are some people who are not as valuable. Not decent. Not working hard enough – and hence not as valuable, not as worthy. That would include people who can’t work as hard – disabled people for example, older people, kids – and people whose lives are not filled with what is commonly described as ‘work': carers are perhaps the most obvious example, the majority of whom are women. These people, the indecent, non-‘hardworking’ people are seen as less ‘valuable’ than the decent, hardworking people, who ‘deserve’ support. The value’s in the ‘decency’ and the ‘hardworking’, not the ‘people’. Not the human.

That’s also why the Tories can see an attack on ‘human rights’ as something that’s not just politically acceptable but politically valuable. Many people seem to think that there isn’t any value in the human, just in certain kinds of human.  That’s why the recent survey that suggests many more Britons think that they should have the right to work anywhere in Europe than think Europeans should have the right to work in the UK. It makes sense – if you understand that we Brits are inherently more valuable, more worthy, more trustworthy than all those dodgy foreigners. We brought civilisation to the world, you know, of course we’re better than those Europeans – particularly those dodgy Romanians and Bulgarians, who are mostly beggars and thieves anyway. Even if people don’t articulate it in those terms, that’s what underlies it. ‘We’ are better than ‘them’.

We seem to see just the differences, and use them to ascribe value. We forget the human, and undervalue it. That’s why UKIP can just shrug off the Holocaust denial and the wife beating jokes. That’s why the casual racism inherent in the UKIP Calypso doesn’t matter – and why even if Lord Freud does eventually lose his job, the attitudes towards disabled people are seen by far too many as just common sense and economic reality. That, to me, is deeply sad.

Human rights and the trivial…..

The Conservative plan for a ‘Bill of Rights’ has been made public by David Allen Green (@JackofKent) here.

I’m sure there will be detailed analyses of it by people far more expert than me – but there was one particular thing in the proposals that drew my attention. The idea is to:

Limit the use of Human Rights laws to the most serious cases. They will no longer apply in trivial cases.

So what counts as trivial? Who decides what is trivial? This may seem like a trivial question, but it really isn’t, particularly when you consider the nature of human rights. What is trivial to one person is far from trivial to another – so who it is who makes that judgment, and on what basis, is critical. As someone who works primarily in the field of privacy, this is an issue that comes up all the time. Those who invade privacy often consider those invasions trivial – and don’t understand why other people complain about this. The ‘nothing to hide’ argument often hinges on this – only ‘bad’ people are bothered by privacy invasion, because the impact on other people is ‘trivial’.

Another example has come up in the last few weeks, with the conviction of Dave Lee Travis for indecent assault. There were a number of articles in newspapers (such as this one by Rosie Millard) suggesting that what he did was, effectively, trivial. The woman whose breasts he squeezed was, effectively, accused of making a mountain out a molehill in complaining. By most accounts it wasn’t trivial for her – she certainly didn’t think so. Whose view takes precedence? Who decides when things are trivial?

It’s not a trivial question. It matters – and if the upshot of the Conservative Bill of Rights is that decisions like this are made by the government, the ‘little people’ – the people that human rights are particularly needed to protect – are likely to be given short shrift. That isn’t a trivial matter.

Royal Babies…. and human rights!

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 13.34.58The news of another Royal Pregnancy – the Duchess of Cambridge is expecting a second child – has as usual provoked a lot of media attention. To say the least. Lots of cooing, lots of cute pictures (like this one of the last little prince to be born), a fair amount of cynicism about the timing of the announcement (in relation to the Scottish Independence referendum in particular) and so on. Flags will be waved, bells will be rung, tears will be shed – but when it comes down to it, will anyone ask the question that comes up so often in other circumstances: ‘won’t anyone think of the children?’ There are many, many reasons to object to the monarchy – but one rarely mentioned is that it’s inherently cruel to the children. Indeed, it might be argued that it breaches their human rights.

The institution of the monarchy brings into play a whole plethora of human rights. Looking at the European Convention on Human Rights (the ECHR), and glossing quickly over Article 4, which prohibits slavery and forced labour (the application of which I will leave to your own imagination), we can move on to Article 8, which covers the right to a private life.

Article 8: Right to respect for private and family life

“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”

How much privacy does any Royal Prince or Princess get? As a child, their every move is watched – the huge excitement over Prince George’s first steps was just a start of a lifetime of being snooped on, stared at, scrutinised and analysed in every detail. Of course the Prince or Princess will have protection, and the vast wealth of the Royal Family and indeed the powers of the government will be brought into play, but even so, the level of privacy is minimal. What kind of an institution puts that kind of pressure on a child pretty much from the moment it’s conceived – and certainly from the moment the bump is noticed.

Article 9 – freedom of conscience and religion

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

What freedom does a Royal Prince or Princess have? Their religion is predetermined – after all, they might grow up to be Defender of the Faith. We often look down on religious fanatics who force their children to follow in their footsteps – but Royal Babies are every bit as restricted. No chance to change – even if it’s legally possible, the pressure not to change is so huge as to be almost insurmountable. It could bring about a constitutional crisis.

Article 10 – freedom of expression

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”

Almost none of that for a Prince or Princess. One word out of place and the media will jump on them from a great height. Prince Charles has tried a bit, and been viciously attacked (yes, sometimes even by me) for doing so – but even he keeps his pronouncements to a pretty narrow range of topics. The expectation is clear – don’t say anything wrong. All statements in writing care carefully edited and vetted. Nothing political. Nothing that might be misconstrued. No real freedom at all….

Article 11 – freedom of association and assembly

“Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

How can a Prince or Princess exercise freedom of assembly or association? They’re watched and monitored by the Royal Household, by the paparazzi, by a huge number of others. They can’t meet with who they want, when they want, or associate with who they want. Imagine a trade union for Princes and Princesses….

And the rest…

There’s Article 12, covering marriage,  and article 14 covering prohibition from discrimination, but even forgetting them we’re still left with the institution of the monarchy being deeply in breach of the human rights of Royal Babies.

There’s only one solution. The abolition of the monarchy. We must do it, for the sake of the children.

 

Privacy invasive law in Mexico – guest post by Lisa M Brownlee

I’ve written about this before – but things have moved on, and not in a good way. Some aspects of the law discussed are deeply troubling, and privacy activists around the world should be concerned. The following is by Lisa M Brownlee – an information security/privacy and intellectual property legal scholar and author residing in Mexico, and someone whose work is well worth following, as is Lisa herself, on Twitter, where her tag is @lmbrownlee1. Her work on an early version of the law being discussed was published in ArsTechnica.


 

Mexico’s new telecommunications law – including controversial surveillance and data retention provisions.

On Wednesday, August 13, in a 4-3 vote, Mexico’s personal data protection authority, IFAI, (Federal Institute for Access to Information and Data Protection) considered and voted against challenging the constitutionality of Mexico’s new telecommunications law, the Federal Telecommunications and Broadcasting Act (FTBA).

The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) was also empowered to block the legislation on constitutional grounds but failed to do so by Wednesday’s challenge deadline. The Mexican legislature’s Chamber of Deputies, also empowered to prevent the law’s taking effect, was 12 signatures short of a vote to block the FTBA. FTBA therefore took effect on August 13.

Shortly after the vote, Mexico’s Secretary of Communications and Transport (SCT), Gerardo Ruiz Esparza welcomed the new law and hailed, among other provisions, the law’s authorization of SCT to establish new Internet connections in over 40,000 public places nationwide.

IFAI is mandated to protect the privacy and personal data of citizens, and thus had the authority to challenge the constitutionality of the data collection, retention and access provisions of FTBA Articles 189 and 190. During the hearing, IFAI members stated that the data collected and retained under the FTBA was not “personal data”, and that IFAI therefore lacked standing to bring the suit.

FTBA Article 189 requires telecommunications licensees and Internet service providers to provide real-time geographic location of any type of communication device to public servants and security officials at their request, without warrant. Article 190 provides for the collection of data pertaining to communications, including the-origin of calls, duration, location, text messages metadata, activity on the network, and for the retention of such data for up to 24 months. Both provisions provide warrantless access by a broad range of government and law enforcement personnel.

Human rights activists fighting the constitutionality of the FTBA’s geolocation and data retention and access provisions were disappointed in IFAI’s failure to take action. The Twitter hashtag #IFAIL arose shortly after the no vote, the tag being a play on IFAI’s name, designating failure to carry out its privacy and data protection authority.

The digital rights group R3D Mexico decried as indefensible the statement made by IFAI president Ximena Puente that the data retained by the telecommunications companies was not “personal data”, and later criticized the failure of IFAI, CNDH and the Chamber of Deputies to act.


 

We need to watch this space!

DRIP: web-mail and web-browsing….

One of the big questions concerning data retention and the hastily-passed DRIP is whether it applies to web-browsing activities. Indeed, Julian Huppert MP asked the question during that all-too-brief debate in parliament, and was assured that it did not. I was far from convinced by the answer, and remain far from convinced, particularly given the idea that this ‘update’ to powers is intended to cover activities like webmail and social networking messages. Some colleagues have been asking questions, and a reliable source within one of the US companies that operates webmail (amongst other things) told us that they don’t expect the data retention powers to apply, given that they have never done so and the government made clear that there was no change in that through DRIP. They added further that as a US company, they are in a very different situation to UK providers.

That leaves us in a very interesting situation. If you’re communicating by webmail or social networking, how can your activities be caught? I can see only two ways: directly from the webmail company, or by capturing web-browsing through the ISP. If there are other ways, I’d like to know… because in the current circumstances I can see only three options:

  1. That webmail and social networking will not be covered by DRIP. That’s almost inconceivable, given the intentions of DRIP and the extent to which communications of the kind that those behind DRIP want to capture take place on webmail and social networks; or
  2. That the non-UK webmail and social network providers have been misled, and DRIP will be used to compel them to gather and hold communications data concerning activities on their services; or
  3. That Julian Huppert – and parliament, and the people of the UK – has been misled, and DRIP will be used to gather web-browsing activities.

If there’s another option, I’d like to know it. It’s entirely possible, as I’ve been wrong often before, but I can’t see it immediately.

My instinct is that the third option is the most likely – and that the intent of DRIP was always to gather web-browsing activity. If we’d had proper time for scrutiny of the bill, and to get experts to ask questions in committee, we might know the answers – and make sure that appropriate balances and controls are put in place. We didn’t. I have a strong suspicion that was entirely intentional too.