Jaqui Smith, the British Home Secretary, seems desperate to introduce 42 day detention without trial for terrorist suspects. This is the same government that bangs on incessantly about "Britishness", and they seem entirely to misconstrue the very nature of being British. Despite the calls from Whitehall for lessons, tests and pledges in schools, being British is not about things we do. The core values of Britain are those things we do not do. We do not rig elections. We do not torture people, and we do not imprison people without fair trial. This is not some new-fangled right, it has nothing to do with the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights, or the UN Charter. This is an ancient right, Magna Carta was first sealed in 1215, the latest version dates from 1297, 2 articles remain in force. One of these is article XXIX which states:
"We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right."
Nowhere does it say "except for certain crimes", there is no wriggle room in the phrasing of "any man" to say "apart from those who look a bit Arabic".
Not only is the right to a timely trial ancient, the need for it is enforced by what happens when it breaks down. Elizabeth I and James I's persecution of catholics and protestants respectively kept England in a state of turmoil and near-revolution, Oliver Cromwell's disdain for these rights in Ireland were the cause of death and hatred that would last hundreds of years. More recently British governments suspended these basic rights to deal with the very real threat of Irish Republican terrorism. Internment was a disaster and a rampant recruiting poster for the IRA, Diplock courts were little better. The true success of dealing with terrorism came only through fair criminal trials, and political reform.
A small number of imams are preaching to a disenchanted youth, afflicted mainly by urban poverty and racism and labeled failures by failing schools, that the west, and their own government is out to get them. By denying basic rights to members of these communities we build a case for these pernicious preachers of hate. The problem runs deeper than this; as a nation we oppose human rights abuses in Burma (Myanmar), we demand rights for the oppressed Tibetans, and call for human decency in Darfur. If we ourselves cannot guarantee within the United Kingdom the rights we have so often fought for around the world, we are nothing but a nation of loud-mouthed hypocrites.
There is here and now, as there was in 1971, a genuine terrorist threat, the figures quoted by the Home Secretary of the numbers under surveillance are real (however they are not new, having been announced by various security chiefs at times dating back to 2006). However just as in 1971, to deal with this threat to our traditions by suspending those traditions is to give succor to terrorism. The threat must be countered without losing our decency, by allocating more resources to the security services, by allowing the use of properly obtained (i.e. with a warrant) phone tap and other intercept evidence in court, and most importantly by producing evidence and allowing fair defence.
So if you live in the UK take a stand NOW. Write to your MP, lobby members of the House of Lords, point out to them the great traditions of British justice, and the threat that comes from abandoning those principles; say to them "this is something that I will not do and I will not let you do it in my name". Ask them to vote against this bill when it comes before them. Only if we have British action for justice in Britain do we have any right to call for Global action for justice in Darfur.
And wherever in the world you are, take the same stand, don't let fear and hatred triumph over the rights that you and past generations have struggled for. If we do then we risk permanently disfiguring the beautiful freedom we enjoy.
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