Shami Chakrabarti: The battle to protect rights and liberty never ends

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I BEGAN working at Liberty on September 10, 2001. I left a position as a lawyer in the Home Office for the human rights organisation – gamekeeper turned poacher, you might say. As everyone who has ever started a new job knows, your first couple of days are about settling in, meeting other departments, perhaps reading the company handbook and working out what your job is and how you are going to do it.

My second day in the office saw the planes fly into the Twin Towers. Thirteen years later and here I am, director of Liberty and – as one tabloid said – “the most dangerous women in Britain”. Writing my first book On Liberty and reflecting on the past decade or so has been an interesting process. I have argued about our rights and freedoms with three Prime Ministers, six Home Secretaries and countless Ministers. I, and my colleagues, have fought ID Cards, attacks on free speech, threats to the right to protest and unfair extradition.

Of all our battles, perhaps the one which best encapsulates the perceived tension between liberty and security (and Liberty and the powers that be) was Charge or Release – our campaign against extending pre-charge detention to 42 days.

In December 2007, the Home Secretary proposed extending the then limit of 28 days to 42.

Lengthy pre-charge detention is the hallmark of tyrants and despots. If Britain were to deal with the threat of terrorism with tactics like this, what message would it send to the rest of world?

Our position was clear – the new internment proposals were unnecessary, counter-productive and wrong. Unnecessary, because there were already a number of existing and potential policy measures that would actually be of more use to police and prosecutors. Counter-productive because interning in the name of “freedom” those who later turn out to be innocent can only work as a recruitment tool for the terrorists. And wrong? We commissioned legal research into what the international picture was – and the results were dramatic. This proposal would put the UK out of step with a whole list of countries; Canada, United States, France, Ireland, Germany, Russia and Turkey.

The campaign wasn’t easy. Challenges included communicating our message effectively to both the public and press, lobbying MPs to vote the right way and resisting the forces of Government, which attempted to bribe and bully us at every turn. We put our entire campaigning energy into this one issue. We used polling, billboards, cinema ads, legal advice, media work – including a comment piece in The Yorkshire Post – and gathered an international consensus against the proposals.

The momentum we generated resulted in almost every national newspaper supporting our position and produced polling which showed only 13 per cent of the public in favour of the policy.

But our ultimate aim was to prevent this twisted policy becoming legislation and that meant convincing politicians to stand firm and vote with their principles. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were firmly against the proposals but we needed Labour rebels to defeat it in the House of Commons.

We sought meetings with any Labour backbencher who would give us even five minutes of their time – and discovered that many were deeply troubled by the Bill. However, defying the whips was quite a step – bargains were being struck and threats made. Nevertheless, we received assurances from many parliamentarians that they would vote the right way.

On the night of that crucial House of Commons vote in 2008 there were many inspiring speeches made from both left and right.

In the end it was a narrow win for the Government, a nine-vote majority. Exactly the number of Democratic Unionist Party MPs, who, it had been rumoured, had made some dodgy deal. However, as a human rights campaigner, it is essential to have bottomless reserves of hope – and on October 13, 2008 the House of Lords voted down the Bill by 309 votes to 118.

The Government quietly dropped the proposals and, finally, we had our victory.

Times change but there are always new battle lines being drawn – EM Forster described it as “the fight that is never done”. And in this, our 80th year, he couldn’t have been more right.

Some of the most pressing threats to our freedoms come from sweeping surveillance powers which will affect every man, woman and child in the country, and a Conservative pledge to scrap the Human Rights Act and diminish everyone’s rights to hold the State to account.

These are testing times for all who care about our human rights. I am asked, often in sad resignation, what can be done?

My answer? Become a member of Liberty – we can do nothing without your support.

So now, more than ever, we ask you – join us and be heard.

Shami Chakrabarti is director of Liberty and author of On Liberty, published by Allen Lane, price £17.99.