The first human right is the right to life
Friday 4th August 2017
Liberty director MARTHA SPURRIER talks to Ben Cowles about attacks on Britain’s civil rights, the Grenfell tragedy and the shameful detentions at Yarl’s Wood
IT WASN’T so long ago that the Tory government harboured the maniacal machination of tearing up the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 and replacing it with a British Bill of Human Rights.
Thankfully, the last election seems to have thwarted this particular madcap scheme to join the same club as Benjamin Netanyahu, Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kim Jong Un and a host of other homicidal leaders, at least for now.
However, the threat of human rights violations in Britain remains. The snoopers’ charter, the Trade Union Act, the gutting of the NHS, the housing crisis, the ravaging of the environment and the immigration detention state are just a few issues that make this clear.
And so I went to speak with Martha Spurrier, a former barrister, director of human rights advocacy group Liberty, about the current state of human rights in Britain.
Spurrier became the head of Liberty in May 2016 when its former director Shami Chakrabarti stepped down to join Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party as the shadow attorney general.
How do you feel about the Conservative-DUP coalition?
We have some real concerns about policy positions that the DUP has taken, along with some parts of the Conservative Party.
They’ve opposed the Human Rights Act, which is obviously profoundly concerning for us, and for every ordinary person in this country.
We have profound concerns about their position on LGBT rights, women’s rights, on equality, on abortion. Having said that, there are also some things that they are more kind of in line with what we would see as progressive values.
They opposed the bedroom tax, for example, which is really good because that really hit vulnerable people.
I think the main thing is that if the agreement is not going to be around social issues, if it’s going to a kind of confidence and supply agreement around economic and security issues, then I think the debate will really focus, in the next few months and years, on counter-extremism.
We anticipate, from across the party spectrum, that there will be an attempt to dilute people’s human rights in the name of security.
You mentioned the bedroom tax there. How is that a human rights issue?
There are two types of human rights. There are classic civil liberties which are all about people being able to exercise their freedom. So that’s the right to protest, to freely express your religion, to join a trade union, a political party and your right to liberty.
And then there are the other side to the rights which are the positive obligations. That’s the areas where the state has an obligation to step up and protect people.
And areas like the bedroom tax, or questions being asked about the terrible fire that happened in Grenfell Tower, about housing, about whether people have enforceable rights to make sure that their housing is safe, to make sure that there is a social security system that keeps them from being homeless, from starving, keeps them healthy; those are also human rights issues and we may not think of them as human rights but they are, and they affect all people.
Is what happened in Grenfell Tower a human rights issue?
No question. But it’s a fast unfolding situation. We don’t know what’s gone wrong. We don’t know what the cause of the fire is. So I can’t say anything with certainty at this stage, other than it’s plainly an abject tragedy.
I don’t think that we can ignore that these are residents in social housing mostly, who are particularly dependent on the state to make sure that they are safe, who don’t have a loud voice and who don’t necessarily have straightforward access to power in the way that other groups of people in society do. So there is a socio-economic class aspect to this, I would have thought.
The first human right is the right to life and the state has an obligation to protect that right. If you house people in towers where you might be burnt alive because you can’t get out safely, then the state has failed to protect your life and it’s the worst failing you can imagine.
It’s a class issue isn’t it?
It certainly looks that way. This morning I was just remembering the fire at Yarl’s Wood — the immigration detention centre which houses women — in 2002. I remember there had been a decision taken when it was built not to install sprinklers as a fire deterrent.
It’s another example of the state treating human life cheaply and saying this is a group of people who may not have the power to complain in a vocal or influential way, be that because they’re an immigrant or because they’re part of some other community that is disenfranchised in some other way, or treated as not credible and that’s where it’s easy to cut the corners and that’s where human rights abuses happen.
So yes, I think it’s definitely looking like it’s a class issue in this case. But I think it’s broader than that.
I saw a documentary recently about the working conditions inside Britain’s immigration detention centres. A lot of them employed cleaners from the local community but what they’ve managed to do is to get the immigrants detained in there to work for £3 an hour or less.
The whole mechanism of the immigration detention state, the way the centres are run, is often unsafe, unclean and overcrowded.
You have people detained for years, serving sometimes the equivalent of the criminal sentence for murder, except they haven’t committed a crime, never even seen a court, never hit the headlines and often have their mental health completely destroyed in the process.
It’s a kind of machine for human rights abuses and people don’t really know about it. It’s a country within a country itself, the immigration detention state and its shocking. It’s a real stain on this country.
It feels self-perpetuating. I met some people in Calais, from Iran, who had cuts up their arms from trying to swim the channel and for what? To end up in one of those detention centres?
And that’s why we do see a real crisis of compassion in relation to those issues. But I think if you sat down that person you met in Calais and anyone else across this table and the Calais person said: ‘This is what I’ve faced in my own country and this is what I’ve risked to come here,’ I think people would get it.
I think people need to extend their compassion and to think about things in a compassionate way. I mean, there were women throwing babies out of their windows from Grenfell Tower. Who cannot respond to that on a human level?
And it’s the same for refugees; it’s the same for victims of torture who are then banged up in immigration detention centres.
If people can think of the human connection, then that is the way forward. That’s the challenge for campaigning organisations — to make the humanity of it real for people.