It’s easy to allow people we like to have rights. Indeed, it’s more than easy – we want to do it. We want to hear what people we agree with have to say. We want to give our friends privacy – and are angry when people intrude upon them and take advantage of them. We demand that our friends get access to justice and fair trials. That, however, misses the main point of rights. The key test isn’t whether we accord our friends and allies rights, it’s whether we accord them to our enemies, to people we disagree with. It’s whether we understand that it’s not just ‘good’ people that have rights – but everyone. Even the worst people. Even the people we think are complete wankers – or far worse.
With the government apparently contemplating a temporary withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights in order to be able to deport Abu Qatada, that commitment to rights, that understanding of rights, is being put to the test in a big way right now – and it’s a test that we really must pass.
Freedom of Speech
The test is being played out in a number of ways right now – in ways that show how hard a test it is. The first of them is freedom of speech – about which I’ve written recently. The key is whether we’re willing to let people say (and hear) things we disagree with, things that make us uncomfortable, things that offend us. Old Holborn pushed that limit in one way – ‘hate preachers’ like Abu Hamza push it in another. Do we really ‘believe’ in free speech? Sometimes, as I suggested in my earlier blog, it doesn’t feel as though we do – but it is important!
Privacy is another area that can be hard. Again, it’s easy for us to want our friends and those we admire to have privacy – and we get deeply offended (and rightly so) about privacy invasions like the phone hacking of Milly Dowler. What we seem less clear about is when it comes to people we don’t like. The phone hacking saga didn’t make people sit up and take notice when it was ‘just’ celebrities and politicians who were having their phones hacked – in some way people seemed to think that the celebrities and politicians ‘deserved’ it, or at least that they have accept it as part of the price of being celebrities and politicians. There is something to that – but if we believe in privacy, we need to accord that privacy to all, and to understand that invasions of privacy hurt everyone, and that even those we really dislike deserve it. Max Mosley is a case in point for me. I detested everything his father (the Fascist leader Oswald Mosley) stood for, I find the whole hoo-ha around Formula One repellant, and distrust his politics intensely – but the way his privacy was invaded was just plain wrong – and what he does in private, with consenting adults, is his own business. The idea that people’s private lives should be opened up and served to the public just for titillation – and that what ‘interests’ the public is in the public interest, so can override a right to privacy – must be wrong. Even people we dislike have that right – even those we consider complete wankers.
The right to a fair trial
This is where things are playing out right now – and not just with Abu Qatada. The right to a fair trial, to justice, to due process, is a fundamental right, and so it should be. It is in most key human rights documents – as Article 6 of the European Convention on Humand Rights, in the US constitution (in the 5th, 6th and 14th Amendments), and fundamental to the British idea of justice, right back to Magna Carta and beyond. In some ways it may be the most important right of them all. It applies – and should apply – to everyone. That includes Abu Qatada, and it also includes Boston bomb suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – which is why many are watching how the US justice system treats him with eagle eyes.
With Abu Qatada, it is that right to a fair trial that is stopping his deportation – and however ‘bad’ he is, however much of a ‘threat’ he is, we need to be clear that it’s a fundamental issue. As it stands, the concern is that evidence obtained by torture could be used in his trial in Jordan – and that isn’t just a legal nicety. There are clear international conventions against torture (most notably the UN Convention Against Torture, which the UK has signed and ratified) and quite rightly so. Torture is considered abhorrent – and by most people ineffective. If evidence obtained through torture is accepted as a valid part of a judicial process, we’re more than condoning torture – we’re effectively encouraging it. No matter how much of a threat we consider Abu Qatada to be, that’s simply wrong – and it’s also unfair. If we believe in what we say we believe in – in fair trials, in justice – we should be standing up for Abu Qatada’s right to a fair trial, and to justice. Our system does that – which, ultimately, is why it has been so hard for successive governments to deport Abu Qatada. Home Secretaries may rant and rave, but that’s the bottom line. Until we’re sure that Abu Qatada will receive a fair trial, it’s quite right that he should not be deported – and to bend the rules, to consider withdrawing from the ECHR, in order to deport Abu Qatada is more than just wrong, it’s fundamentally wrong.
Do we believe in human rights?
It’s not so much whether the government actually does manage to temporarily withdraw from the ECHR that matters – as Adam Wagner has said, the chances that they can actually do so are vanishingly small – but the fact that they’re even considering doing so that is very disturbing. To call it a slippery slope is to underestimate the importance of being consistent in our support for human rights for all. We need to accord rights not just to those we like, those we respect, those we consider to be our friends – we need to accord them to those we hate, those whose views we detest, to our enemies. Indeed, the extent to which we do that is a crucial test of our commitment to rights. It may even be the only real test of that commitment. If we fail that test, the results could be catastrophic.