Thursday, October 16, 2008

Monday's speech

'Thank you very much to Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International, and to all the Amnesty team for the invitation to speak tonight at this protest against the government's latest counter-terrorism bill which includes the plans to detain terrorism suspects for up to 42 days without charge. It's a privilege and an honour to be here, and it is great to see how many people have come out on a cold Monday night in their dressing gowns to show that they are passionate about defending their liberties and to show that they will not sleepwalk into giving up essential rights and freedoms.

We have a long and honourable tradition of freedom in this country - an idea of freedom and democracy that we have shared all over the world. One of the most important freedoms we have is the ancient right of habeas corpus; the right not to be detained without being charged, and to be brought before a court who have the authority to say whether you are being lawfully held and why you are being charged.

Over the years, millions of men and women have made great sacrifices to preserve our freedoms against enemies who wanted to destroy them. Older generations have fought and died in terrible wars. Not so very long ago, hundreds of thousands of people said goodbye to their loved ones and friends, not knowing if they would return alive or badly injured. Parents evacuated their young children to live with strangers, hoping they would escape the dangers of aerial bombardment from the weapons of mass destruction of the time. People undertook war work – usually hard and boring, sometimes dangerous. The fight to defend our nation's freedom from our enemies' threats was something that was an inescapable part of everyone's daily lives.

Why am I going on about the second world war in 2008? To make the point that the threat we face now is not anything like the daily threat our grandparents and great-grandparents faced. It is shameful that when others risked so much and gave so much to preserve our freedoms, we seem to barely notice as they are taken away.

Many of the men and women debating the terrorism bill in the House of Lords today are old enough to remember a real war of terror, very different to a 'war on terror'. They remember that out of the horrors of that war came the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention concerning the treatment of prisoners of war and prohibiting torture and inhumane treatment. The nations of the world came together after that terrible war to focus on human rights; to say 'never again'.

Human rights are precious. History teaches us what happens when a political party, or a charismatic leader begins to spread the lie that not every person deserves human rights...that some kinds of people are 'different' and the normal rules do not apply...
We all deserve the right to be treated as fully human and accorded full human rights. Yes, even the suspected terrorist. Especially the person suspected of terrorism, in fact.

These last few days in America, we have seen a politician giving a speech to a large and excited crowd of people, and we have heard voices in that crowd begin shouting 'Terrorist! Kill him! Behead him!'
The person that crowd suspected of being a terrorist is the Democratic Presidential nominee, Senator Barack Obama. Meanwhile, also last week, the government of Iceland were very surprised and upset when they found out that the UK government were using terrorism laws to seize the UK assets of Icelandic banks last week.
Do you see my point? Look at who is being suspected of terrorism. A potential President? An Icelandic banker? Is this what 'suspected of terrorism' really means? In fact, UK terrorism laws have recently been used to arrest pensioners and protesters, parents and poets and priests – all sorts of people – people like you and me. Terrorism laws have been used by councils to spy on barking dogs and noisy children and muddled recyclers and people parking in disabled spaces without the right badges and even people 'selling unauthorised pizzas'. It's crazy. It would be funny, except it isn't funny at all.

Since 9/11, 1228 people have been arrested under UK terrorism laws – only for 669 of them to be released later as entirely innocent. That's more than half of them.

We can be sure of something. If you give State officials powers, they will use them.

We can also be sure of another thing: giving up freedom doesn't make you more free. Nor does it make you particularly safe.
In fact many distinguished people whose entire career has been about keeping us safe from criminals and terrorists, and prosecuting those who mean us harm, have said that legislation like the 42 days clause is counter-productive and actually dangerous.

Here's another thing we can be sure of in uncertain times. Giving up your freedoms does give the State a lot more power over you – not just now, but in the future as well. And we do not know what the future will bring. We can only, as I said, look to the lessons of recent history.

Over the last week, we have seen 'suspected terrorist' be used in a very strange way. It has been used to mean 'someone we, the party in power don't like the look of, doing something we don't approve of.' It has been used to ratchet up fear for political reasons. It has been used to look tough.

Well, we know politicians find it useful to look tough and in control, especially when events are changing fast and they are not in control as much as they would like. Events can change things very suddenly, as we have seen with the recent pandemonium in the world economy. Politicians can come and go, financial markets can be gripped with panic and spiral out of control and none of us can predict the future.

What we can do is protect the human. We can protect ourselves and each other by choosing to focus on our freedoms, not our fears. We can stand up, as we did today, shoulder to shoulder, and show that we will not sleepwalk into a very different future. We can learn the lessons of the past about our better and worse natures, and remember how a war-torn world came together to say that human rights must be protected and preserved for all time, that the dignity of all human people is the foundation of justice and peace in the world; that freedom of speech and belief, freedom from fear and want are proclaimed as 'the highest aspiration of the people'.

Nothing has changed in the last sixty years to change that. Nothing ever will.

Human rights and freedoms remain something worth cherishing, worth loving. Worth living for. Worth dying for.

Thank you, all of you, for standing up to protect and preserve freedom today, tonight, and always.'

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