Saturday, February 28, 2009

Today's speech on liberties

Hello, I've just rushed here from up the road where the Convention on Modern Liberty is taking place and would like to thank you for inviting me here today to speak. I've been asked to talk on 'Why did we lose the argument on liberty versus security?'

This is pretty defeatist stiff, isn't it? We are having the argument, we have lost much but we have not lost everything yet. The very fact that there are two ram-packed events about liberty, freedom and justice going on a few miles from each other is a good sign. Despite the at-times overwhelming sense of impending doom, it has at least never been easier to find out about the loss of our freedoms, to speak out, stand up, push back and mobilise for change. We live in an interconnected world linked together by a web that transmits words and images at the speed of thought, from Gaza to Guantanamo. Now a million pairs of eyes can scrutinse truth and lies. There is no such thing as a good day to bury bad news anymore.

But in a world overloaded with information, we have a thousand claims on our attention. Perhaps that is why is has been easy to whittle our freedom away: we have been too easily distracted, too beguilingly entertained, letting the good times roll. Perhaps our attention span is too short and our aspirations too greedy and selfish to care for things when they do not directly impact us.

We have been told that 'the rules of the game have changed'. Like the metaphorical frog in the saucepan of slowly-heating water, our complacency has seriously endangered our chances of a healthy future.

Only cheats try to change the rules of the game. And unpacking the language shows how dangerous that phrase by Tony Blair, the smiling salesman of a 'war on terror' really was.

By 'rules', he meant the rule of law, the rights that enshrine our freedoms.The right not to be detained without reason, the right not to be tortured or degraded, the right to a fair trial. The right to freedom of thought, conscience or religion, the right to respect for privacy, family life and the home. The right to freedom of speech, protest and association, and to protection of property, including your most intimate data.

Those were the rights, the basic, human rights that we signed up to after a world war that left millions dead, injured, dispossessed, countries in economic ruin, beggared by a fight against a fascist ideology that killed and tortured on an industrial scale. After such trauma, such horror, that human rights were needed was a truth that was self-evident.

These are our birthright human rights that our government is so keen to take away, in the name of our current security. To get away with this, it relies on our apathy, and our fear of terrorism, anti-social behaviour and crime. Now human rights are presented to us by the very government minister who introduced the act as some kind of criminal -cuddling charter. The collection of smooth-talking political salesman waiting in the wings tell us we don't need the human rights of the human rights act. We need a British Bill of Rights, for British people.

For God's sake.

Human rights are the rights of all humans. They are not British rights, they are not to be re-cut to re-fit the latest body politic by the designers of the latest fashionable election strategy.

The battered and broken men who are slowly coming out of Guantanamo show us that the unspeakable evil of torture has been sanctioned and outsourced at the highest levels. If we will stoop to this, we will sink to anything. We are not only in danger of losing our human rights, we are in danger of losing our common humanity, our right to call ourselves human.

Yet there is hope. Those who are bent on wickedness always go too far and show their hand, drop their mask. Boiling frogs can jump out of saucepans, and stupefied people can wake up and demand change, hold their leaders to account. They are more afraid of us than they let on, you know. We should trust ourselves, and each other more.

When the world goes dark, when horror and fear and shock are overwhelming, that is when you find out the truth about people. This is what I have learned: when terrorists bomb a crowded train, those left alive do not fight and attack each other to survive. They call out for calm. They grab each other's hands. I've seen that people are better and braver and stronger than the government give us credit for. This truth is bigger than any lie they can tell.

We are not sleepwalking prisoners of our own nightmares. We are awake. We can see what they are doing. We are the guardians of each other's liberties and lives. This is the time; we are late, there is much to do and we are greatly needed to defend our ancient liberties and future freedoms.

It is not over yet, and we are better than this. Now is the time to show it.

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The Convention on Modern Liberty/6 Billion Ways

Convention on Modern Liberty - February 28th, London and around Britain

It's today. It's completely sold out. All the action can be watched live, here.
Right, I'm off, I'm running incredibly late, it started at 9.45am and is expected to be rammed. It's going to be great. Might try liveblogging it, if I can find space.

Later on, I'll be at 6 Billion Ways, speaking at 5.30pm as part of the civil liberties/terrorism panel.

Amazing that we have 2 mega-events on the same day - a sign of how much people care.
Go, go, freedom!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Happy Birthday Liberty

75 years of fighting to protect civil liberties, defending human rights.

Liberty is a small team of cheerful, committed, clever, generous, dedicated, passionate, brave people, crammed uncomplainingly into a far-too-small, messily over-crowded office in Southwark. They do everything on a shoe-string, they garner enormous respect for what they do, they work bloody hard as a team - and they deserve your support in defending our common values for precious little reward.

You might want to join them, right now we need them more than ever. See this piece from Shami in today's Guardian to remember why.

Happy Birthday Liberty, from lots of fans

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Liberty, justice, torture and bollocks

"We never used to accept that our foreign policy ever had any effect on terrorism...Well, that was clearly bollocks."

Lord West, security adviser to PM Gordon Brown, 27 January 2009

For the last three years I have been saying, on this blog and elsewhere, that there is a bloody obvious direct link between the growth of extremism in the UK, with the attendant danger of terrorist attacks from a tiny hardcore fringe of ultra-radicals who advocate horrific violence against civilians as a 'legitimate tactic', and an unethical UK/US foreign policy that outsources torture, allows the secretive and illegal 'rendition' of people to be held without charge, supports corrupt regimes and causes thousands of civilian deaths as a result of the invasion of sovereign territories, in defiance of international law.

Let's get this straight: I don't think we should change our behaviour, still less our foreign policy, to placate terrorists. I do think we should change our behaviour and foreign policy because it is the right thing to do, the moral thing to do, as well as the smart and sensible thing to do in terms of making us safer.

I have said, repeatedly, and so have many other people far cleverer and braver than me, that the whole strategy of the 'war on terror' is stupidly flawed and ultimately, self-defeating, that human rights and civil liberties are far too precious to be given up in its name - they are our best weapons against living in a permanent state of traumatised paranoia, danger and fear - and that we do ourselves no favours at all by abandoning the moral high ground and sacrificing our sweetest ideals, the very best that we are and can be - on the dubious altar of 'increased security'.

In fact, we are handing those who despise us a propaganda gift by behaving as unfairly and hypocritically as they paint us to be; our leaders have blood on their hands which belies the words from their mouths, and far from keeping us safe and secure, their actions in the last decade have actually increased the risk to the lives and liberties of the very people they are elected, and paid large sums, to lead and serve. There will always be fanatics, murderers and disgusting criminals amongst us. We do not have to stoop to beat them. We are bigger and better than that, or we should be. We damn well ought to be.

After three, nearly four long years of what has felt like banging my head against an establishment wall, I sometimes feel in danger of developing a permanent headache, (which is why I took time out from blogging), and yet it gives me little pleasure to remark that, all of a sudden, some of the establishment seems to have suddenly started agreeing with me, and with all those other people who have been saying what I have been saying.

Last month, Foreign Secretary David Milliband finally said that the war on terror is wrong, then this month he promptly found himself neck-high in the bloody aftermath of that particular eight-year demented orgy of self-justifying lies and violence, when appearing to attempt to hide the evidence of our government and security services' complicity in the torture of a British resident. Milliband actually claimed to a high court that there was a 'threat' by the US to withdraw co-operation in intelligence matters if documents about Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohammed were revealed, then back-tracked, leading to furious demands that the documents about the torture be released after all.

Well, of course they should be. And whilst we are at it, let's get all the horrors and injustices out into the open, have a proper independent inquiry into it all, apologise profusely, say 'never again' and start anew, turn over a new leaf and try to learn some lessons from this horrendous mess. Nobody can say there isn't the appetite for it, and it certainly wouldn't kill us to try it. But they'd never have the guts to try, this government, I expect, even as the tortured Binyam Mohammed steps back onto the soil of the UK, the land he took refuge in as a teenager and shames them all by having refused to die quietly of madness and despair thousands of miles away.

I don't know what he was planning when he left the UK a few years ago. If there was evidence enough to charge him with a crime when he was picked up and then give him a fair trial, then that is what should have happened. There is no excuse for - and no point in - torturing him, or anyone else. None. Ever. Torture is a complete waste of time as well as degrading and damaging us all when we condone it, or outsource it to people who will wield scalpels and tighten ropes whilst asking questions our spies prepared earlier. I can say this, and I wish I didn't have to say it, but when you are being tortured, tied up, humiliated, beaten, put in fear of your life and your sanity, you will say and do absolutely anything to get it to stop. You will say anything, tell any lie. That is the way it is and the way it will always be.

A few weeks ago I was asked to go on Newsnight again, and I said in my interview, pointing to furious comments left on a radical Islamist movement's website after a thunderous anti-Government article, that what was going on in Gaza was fuelling huge anger. Entirely legitimate anger in my opinion, and you don't have to be Muslim to feel it - but that anger was being used by radical groups who were busily recruiting on the back of it, and lo and behold, Hazel Blears then comes on, agrees about the anger-foreign policy-radicalisation link - and says

'I am very concerned indeed that the events in Gaza could well be used by those people who want to peddle pernicious extremist views to draw particularly vulnerable young people into that kind of extremism'.

So, finally someone in the Cabinet admits it: radicalisation does not come out of a vacuum, it is an ideology shaped by events, reactions to other actions, themselves undertaken because of policies, politics, power-dynamics, and there is such a thing as cause and effect.

But put away the party poppers, because this is not as good as it looks on the surface. When the government gets to decide who is an extremist, everyone had better be careful.

Yes, everyone. You, woman-who-doesn't-want-hundreds-of-planes-booming-over-her-house. You, man-who-has-lost-his-job because of the catastrophic financial incompetence of someone paid hundreds of thousands a year. You, who-used-to-have-a-pension-fund. You had better be careful with your reasonable and legitimate anger over the next few years. The police are expecting a 'summer of rage' in 2009, and all those shiny new those anti-terrorism laws, the ones that you thought were just there to deal with religious people, political people, angry people who are nothing like you at all - those laws are the ones that will be used to crack down on the people who take to the streets, who raise their voices in protest.

The same anti-terror laws have already been used to harass and harry protesters, poets, photographers, priests, students and parents and grandparents. They can stretch to accomodate you too, if necessary.

You thought they were carefully and calmly drafted, that it wouldn't apply to you? Nothing to hide and nothing to fear?

Wait and see. And pray you are right. Best pray privately and without raising your voice and stay well out of the exclusion zone outside the Houses of Parliament, just to be on the safe side. Don't email friends about your anger and what you're tempted to do, don't talk about it on the phone. Don't make jokes about it, or idle threats. With plans to log every call, every email you make, this summer of 2009 might be the very last chance you have to say that you are upset and angry and furious with the government. So it might be good to start practicing biting your tongue now, just to be on the safe side.

Are you thinking, what the hell? Are the government planning on using anti-terror laws to control and contain an entire citizenry? That's shocking!

Well, then get out there and say something, do something, before it's too late. You don't have to march, and I don't advise rioting. You can write to your MP, your local paper, talk to your friends, your children, voice your displeasure at this torturing, terrorising, mendacious, malevolent executive that lies and lies and lies and wants to frighten and control us all just because it wants power. Non-violent righteous anger and a refusal to condone this by staying silent is what we need now. Enough, just say it, enough. Please.

Because despite what they insinuate, extremely strong feelings do not make a person an extremist, still less a terrorist. Just because those who attack animal testing laboratories are generally vegans or vegetarians with extremely strong feelings about the suffering of animals, it does not therefore follow that every vegan or vegetarian or animal-lover is a suspected animal rights extremist who condones or participates in attacks on property or people. Nobody sensible would ever suggest such a thing. It's actions that count, not words, after all.

Our government's actions have included: condoning torture, allowing extraordinary rendition to secret hell holes. Allowing British residents and British subjects to be swept up and carted off to foreign countries without a prima facie case being made in this country. Playing fast and loose with the right to trial by jury, the right to privacy, snooping, spying on us with a million cameras, taking our private data and selling it and losing it, and wasting our money and lying about that as well. Lying about the case for war, lying about the weapons of war that we export to states with appalling human rights records, and much more besides, and what have we done to try to stop them? A few marches, a few voices raised in protest.

Not much then.

Dame Stella Rimington, the ex Director of M15 for goodness sake, said that the government is exploiting people's fear of terrorism to restrict civil rights, handing a victory to terrorists, and she is quite right. I was asked to go on More4 News last week and discuss this point with Keith Vaz, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, whom I gave evidence to when the government was debating whether it was a good idea to introduce a law allowing people they had their eye on to be held without charge for a month and a half - and I said that I wondered sometimes who the British government were more afraid of, terrorists or the anger of the British people.

I think terrorists are criminal scum. I think the British people are braver and better and bolder than anything that a cowardly, lying idealogue can throw at them. And that they know what is clearly bollocks and what is worth fighting for, living for, if it comes down to it, dying for, not that we are at that stage yet, thank God.

Fortunately, there is a rising tide of men and women who have mobilised, who are speaking out, who are fighting back - and you can get involved.

This Saturday, the Convention on Modern Liberty happens. Hurray!
Meet the new freedom fighers
Check out the marvellous Henry Porter blog
Visit the website - tickets for London have sold out, but this is nationwide.

And there's also more stirring stuff this weekend - I will be at the Convention on Modern Liberty and also leaping into a taxi halfway through the day to make a speech at
10am-8.30pm, Saturday 28th February 2009
at the Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London, E1 6LA
(The nearest tube stations are: Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Old St. & Liverpool St.)
As climate, food and financial crises start to look like a GLOBAL MELTDOWN ...
Come to 6 BILLION WAYS and start making another world possible!


Including discussions on:

Speakers include: Prof Tariq Ramadan (Islamic theologian), Mark Thomas (comedian/activist), Susan George (anti-globalisation writer), Karma Nabulsi (Palestinian academic), Meena Raman (environmental activist Malaysia), Ken Livingstone (former Mayor of London), Tariq Ali (writer/activist), Trevor Ngwane (Anti-privatisation forum South Africa), Yash Tandon (South Centre Uganda), Tony Juniper (environmental activist), Neal Lawson (Compass), Jean Lambert MEP (Green Party), Prof Gilbert Achcar (SOAS), Bianca Jagger (EU Goodwill Ambassador), Amit Srivastava (India Resource Centre, India), Jeremy Corbyn (Labour MP), Colin Firth (actor), Salma Yaqoob (anti-war activist) , Alistair Crooke (Conflicts Forum, Lebanon), Daud Abdullah (MCB), Usama Hasan (City Circle), John Pandit (ADF), Moazzem Begg (ex-Guantanamo detainee), Gareth Peirce (human rights lawyer), Baroness Lola Young (media/cultural activist), Taysir Arabasi (Palestinian Farmers Union), Nora Fernandez (Debt Commission, Ecuador), Andrew Simms (nef), Tarek el-Diwany (author) and many more ...

FILMS: War on Democracy, Palestine Blues, An Independent Mind, With or Without Fidel & In Prison My Whole Life

10am - 7pm Workshops, debates and discussions.
7pm - 8:30pm Final plenary with keynote speakers

Attendance is FREE but REGISTER and find out more here.
See the full programme by clicking here.

6 Billion Ways is organised by City Circle, Friends of the Earth, the Jubilee Debt Campaign, People and Planet, Rich Mix, War on Want and the World Development Movement.

There's plenty of ways to get involved and there's plenty of people jumping at the chance to do so. There's so much going on that there are 2 major events happening on the same day this weekend, and they're both going to be rammed. There is an energy and a spirit abroad, at last, thank God.

I'm proud and grateful to be a small part of this. Let's roll.

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