Book review: On Liberty

On Liberty by Shami Chakrabarti
On Liberty by Shami Chakrabarti

On Liberty, by Shami Chakrabarti is published by Allen Lane, £17.99, pp208.

Shami Chakrabarti was born in 1969 in London to parents who emigrated from India. She gained an LLB from the London School of Economics before being called to the Bar by Middle Temple in 1994. In 1996 she began work as a barrister for the Home Office. She took up a position with the National Council for Civil Liberties – Liberty in 2001 and became Director of the organisation in 2003.

True to its broad title, On Liberty ranges over the work of the human rights campaign group in the wake of 9/11, namely the struggle between the organisation and the attempts by successive governments to dismantle safeguards built over 800 years; freedoms in the 21st century; and one or two philosophical issues posed by the author of the book’s famous namesake, John Stuart Mill.

Chakrabarti makes it clear throughout that the concerns of Liberty are not oblique or frivolous – as the government and media may try to portray them – but are frequently the stuff of nightmares. And while we might feel that we ourselves will never incur the sanctions and punishments reserved for terrorists, once passed their future interpretation and application is unforeseeable, not to mention the draconian possibilities of their legislative offspring.

In other words, sloppy law and public apathy can set our democracy on a slippery slope.

In 2005, in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in London, Prime Minister Tony Blair said: “The rules of the game are changing”. The rules, Chakrabarti writes, were our “fundamental rights and freedoms”. So began Liberty’s campaign against the government’s attempt to circumvent normal criminal procedure and institute a 42-day pre-charge detention policy for suspected terrorists. Chakrabarti puts paid to common notions that the organisation and the wider movement to protect civil liberties is the preserve of champagne socialists.

Derided in the past as the “liberati”, whose concerns were “airy fairy” – a phrase reiterated by David Cameron in the wake of the Snowden revelations – Liberty’s stroke of genius was to run a newspaper and billboard campaign that showed, using a bar chart, the astonishing disparity between the pre-charge detention proposals and the existing periods in other jurisdictions. In Canada, for example, the maximum period was only 24 hours. Amid the turmoil of the financial crash in 2008 the policy was eventually dropped.

Chakrabarti makes the case that the “War on Terror”, begun after the attacks on the World Trade Center, has created a “permanent emergency” – giving the government carte blanche to legislate our civil liberties away. She cites the extradition treaty the New Labour government signed up to with the US whereby UK citizens can be sent for trial to American shores without scrutiny while the Constitution protects US citizens from similar treatment by our authorities.

Perhaps it is no wonder Chakrabarti affectionately refers to the Home Office as “Mordor”. For example, the case of the “NatWest Three” saw a trio accused by US authorities in 2002 of defrauding their employer out of $7 million. Despite being British citizens accused of defrauding a bank based in London they were extradited to the US. The NatWest Three’s grievance with the one-sided extradition policy was as legitimate as underdogs like Gary McKinnon, an Asperger’s sufferer who was accused of hacking into US military computer networks but who was spared extradition after a decade in which he benefited from widespread and high-profile support. However, some sections of the media and public and even lawyers, writes Chakrabarti, suddenly forgot about equal entitlement before the law, perhaps seeing the possibility of extradition as comeuppance for the bankers. Liberty intervened in the NatWest Three’s case because it takes the principle of equality before the law seriously.

And, like John Stuart Mill, whose utilitarianism is brought into question when he says that if all humanity held a certain view and one individual another, they would not be justified in silencing him, Chakrabarti concedes that, faced with a nightmare scenario in which a terrorist has primed a nuclear bomb for detonation and torture might be the only means of eventually diffusing it, she does not know how she would act.

But she does know that the law should remain unchanged. While she could “… choose the path of cruelty over ingenuity and thereby save millions…” which would probably result in a “’perverse acquittal’” she is resolute that, even in such a scenario, the law must punish those who torture.

She writes: “But for fantasy scenarios where dark practices are acceptable and routine not to become reality, I must be required to weigh the grave potential consequences for me alongside those for the suspect.”

The scenario is a hard case, meant to stress-test the rule against torture, but would probably break it. It is doubtful these “grave potential consequences” would deter many people under extreme circumstances and even more doubtful many would want to see such a person deprived of their liberty after safeguarding it for so many, even if they had used torture. But where torture has actually been used, in less desperate circumstances, it has produced unreliable evidence which makes it an unreliable tool.

The salient point here is that torture and measures like detainment without charge nurture a hatred that can beget atrocities.

  • You can read the SLN Spotlight on Shami Chakribarti, published in our 28 July edition, here.
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