Prior to her inspiring speech at the Cambridge Union in November, members of CUAI were given the opportunity to meet Shami Chakrabarti, who has been the director of the civil rights advocacy association ‘Liberty’ since 2003.
Although Amnesty and Liberty are separate organisations, it was encouraging to have Shami tell us that both are part of the major national and international human rights movement, which reinforced to us how important unity and collaboration are when it comes to supporting human rights.
As a highly experienced lawyer and campaigner, Shami advised us on how best to approach the current challenge of campaigning to keep the Human Rights Act, which the government is proposing to replace with a ‘British Bill of Rights’. Most importantly, she told us it is crucial that we articulate clearly to people exactly what their rights are under the Act – which luckily for us is the approach we’d been taking with our Human Rights Act Creative Campaign! We also discussed the importance of writing to your MP (especially if they are a Conservative) to express your support for keeping the Act.
In her speech, Shami spoke further about the Human Rights Act, and Liberty’s research into the current changes to it proposed by former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling on the Conservatives website in October 2014. She suggested that the British Bill of Rights may seek to restrict our human rights, or make them dependent on fulfilling the “responsibilities” of British Citizens. She described the proposed “triviality test”, to be set by Parliament, to “stop human rights being use for minor matters”. Shami opposed this, with Liberty having stated on its website that “this objective is impossible to reconcile with the essential purpose of human rights legislation: to protect the individual against arbitrary Executive decision-making”. A clear example of this, which Shami cited, was that of legal recognition of a new gender, which in the past the Government has not allowed on the basis that applicants did not face any “practical disadvantages” from now having their new gender identity recognised. Luckily, since then the law regarding gender recognition has been changed, but this example amongst others suggests how the inability to legally change gender, although clearly incredibly important, was at first considered “trivial”, and similar rights might not be protected under the proposed legislation.
Shami’s speech at the Union also dealt with government surveillance, personal privacy and Liberty’s values and history since its birth in 1934, and the importance of active organising when campaigning for civil liberties. The whole event was incredibly interesting and CUAI are very grateful for the opportunity of talking with her.
You can find out more about Liberty here: https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/