Shami Chakrabarti’s keynote

The draft transcript which follows is unedited or requires further editing. It is provided strictly on the understanding that it may contain errors. In particular, it should NOT be considered a complete or correct record of proceedings.

Anthony Barnett: Good morning Citizens! And good morning to those watching the webcast over breakfast this fine day. It seems to be spring, although you can never be sure in our country, perhaps a springtime for liberty!

And good morning Belfast, Bristol, Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester.

Can you hear me at the back?

Two items of business: Please read the fire drill on the sheets you have all been given with room directions. And please turn off your mobile phones.

We have a packed timetable. I’d like to ask everyone to keep contributions short, respect others and give them a chance to speak too.

I want to say two things in introducing Shami Chakrabarti.

First: we live in a media-dominated age. And the media demand what you can call the personification of arguments. They call it ‘celebrity’. They prefer emotion to reason. And they are desperate to rush-on in their shallow torrent. What you say may be very important. But if the media decide it is ‘yesterday’s story’, often it’s forget it. This creates a tremendous pressure on campaigners who have to stick their ground, insisting on the same message. Shami has taken the pressure – to become an awesome and defining communicator of the need for human rights. We are all in her debt. Thank you.


Second, she heads Liberty – the National Council for Civil Liberties. It is 75 this year.

As it says on the Convention website; “Happy Birthday to Liberty!” But, it is also a lesson on the need for the battle to continue, since the hunger marchers were attacked by the police when they arrived just up the road from here in central London in 1934, and the NCCL was created in response to protect our freedoms. So it could not be more suitable that this renewed effort to secure our fundamental rights and freedoms should be opened by today’s head of Liberty.

SHAMI CHAKRABATI:  I am not going to say “good morning citizens” for many reasons which will become apparent.  Not least because I am not here to check your IDs and see what immigration status you hold. But I am going to take the greatest pleasure in welcoming you to this convention, to this one day coming together of so many individuals and organisations for debate and celebration of dissent – not such a bad thing I am sure you will all agree.

Let’s not turn this into an Oscar speech but some thanks are due.  There are too many people to thank individually, but certainly Henry Porter and his team of organisers. (applause).
Thanks to all the many individuals and organisations who have worked so hard towards this event, but if I may say so, special thanks to my friend Phil Booth and No2ID.


I know many of you have come together with particular concerns about intrusion on privacy and the rise of the surveillance state or – to use a phrase now made famous by Guy Herbert, also NO2ID – the database state. If you’re looking for an umbrella coalition to deal with disproportionate surveillance and unwarranted surveillance and unwarranted rise of database state join NO2ID established in 2004. I have been asked, as I am sure many of you have, about this immunity business. A friend of mine asked me to say whether Modern Liberty was to be to Liberty what New Labour had become to Labour. Imagine my delight at that. So perhaps, old Liberty would say, “No. No to 42 days” and Modern Liberty would say “maybe”. Maybe old Liberty would say “No to ID” and Modern Liberty could say “Maybe just for foreigners or kids, or this and that group of people: not me”. Perhaps – there is unfortunately more – old Liberty defends human rights and Modern Liberty would attack the Human Rights Act. I say No. What do you say?  

Perhaps we could have old Liberty, Modern Liberty, provisional Liberty? Qualified Liberty, occasional Liberty… No, this is not the enterprise. Okay? What we are is a group of concerned people and organisations. There may  huge differences between us perhaps when it comes to priorities, and even some of the policies that are necessary to deal with some serious problems of security, and other societal concerns. But we can come together in the spirit of debate, and democratic dissent: not all agreeing about everything, because we don’t have to – we are not a political party, we are not a new organisation – but coming out of a shared concern at what has been lost, and what could yet be lost if we don’t join in this process of waking up Britain and waking up ourselves.

The former Government chief scientist, the wonderful man, Professor David King – you may have heard of him – he was on the TV for years and years with a warning about climate change and mad cows and mad all sorts of things. He once told me a story about frogs. I’m not sure if it has scientific basis but I found it a wonderful metaphor for what we are dealing with today. Vegetarians please avert your ears.

It is said by the former Government chief scientist that if you introduce live frogs into a sauce pan of boiling water, they very sensibly and instinctively jump out and save their skins.

If, on the other hand, you introduce the same said live frogs to a pan of room-temperature or tepid water and gently apply heat, the frogs will splash around and have a merry time and feel warmer and happier, and gently and slowly boil to death.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how freedom dies.

Not with a bang, but a whimper. Not because someone called it a police state one day and someone else set that up as a man of straw and knocked it down, but because slowly and complacently we give too much away and we don’t come forward with a positive framework of what we are for rather than what we are against.

A lot has been lost in the last ten to 15 years, no question. Fair trials compromised, sometimes out of existence. We are heading for perhaps the 8th year of punishment without trial in Britain as, next week, the Government asks Parliament to renew control orders that allow people to be individually punished by house arrest without charge or fair trial. That is just terror suspects. Let alone the dilutions to normal trial procedures and quasi trial procedures applied by ASBOs to kids and so on.

You know speech and peaceful process has been hindered. I never thought this would be a country where people could be arrested for standing at the Cenotaph and reading out the names of the dead that died in the war. Many of you have come here today with your concern regarding what has been lost in terms of personal privacy. Today, if you think you can hold your privacy in your left hand and the rest of the human rights framework in your right and choose one over the other, I give you one vital achievement for the human rights convention and those of us using human rights laws to battle for our privacy everyday. And that is the case of S V. Malper against the Chief Constable of West Midlands and against the UK Government. There is nothing in the Magna Carta about personal privacy. Wonderful instrument though it may be it’s very much of its time. It protected your right to be charged promptly but there was nothing in there about personal privacy: we took our privacy for granted in the oldest unbroken democracy on earth. Even our wonderful Law Lords – represented, I am glad to say, here today by that hugely respected senior law Lord, Lord Bingham – even our Law Lords did not realise what was at stake and what was so dangerous and wrong about a database growing by day, by stealth, DNA, the most intimate material that can be held about all of us, innocent children, over a million innocent children, innocent adults who have never even been charged let alone convicted of a criminal offence. This database, with no public debate, no proper Parliamentary authority, is growing by the day. In Britain, it was thought this did not matter. It took a European court of human rights, including Continental people with memories of the Nazis and the Stazi to understand how dangerous that database could be. Anyone who thinks you can have privacy without human rights is, frankly, bonkers.

Sad though it is to say it, in this war on terror – in this age of compromising a few fair trials here, a bit of free speech there and so much personal privacy, ID cards, snooping powers used and abused to police school catchment areas, sold to us in the name of the war on terror – we have started compromising on the one non-negotiable principle of the entire framework: the right not to be tortured.


Mr Binyam Mohammed’s case has shocked Britain – not just people here but all over Britain – it has shocked Britain which does still believe in its rights and fundamental right not to be tortured. It shows that governments will cover up, it shows that governments will obfiscate, and it shows one very important thing as well: the compromises, where possible. Because people thought that rights and freedoms could be just for people like us. Rights for English men, rights for Americans and citizens and nationals rather than fundamental human rights for human beings.


Of the extradition now affecting Gary McKinnon, who is going to be shipped off to the States with his autism, this awkward hacker. That is possible because it was sold in the names of dealing with dark skinned terror suspects.  RIPA was sold in the name of dealing with serious criminals.  I D cards were sold in the… He never said I D cards are okay as long as for foreigners he said no to I D for anyone, it is unnecessary, it is disproportionate it is dangerous but the Mohammed case shows that if we renege on the Human Rights Act for human beings and substitute them with a British Bill of Rights and responsibilities, which is interesting by the way, do we not owe the government enough responsibilities already.  With all those acts of Parliament spewing out more police powers and duties and obligations that we owe to the state and each other, do we now think that we can’t even have a small bundle of non-negotiable humans rights without contingent responsibilities to the state.  I say no.  I say hell no.  What do you say?

AUDIENCE:  Hell no!

SHAMI CHAKRABATI:  When these salesmen come calling from either party, and from out the party system with their British bills of rights and responsibilities what is that if not a British rights for British workers.  Not much more Binyam Mohamed in there you might think.  I say remember that the greatest threat to our rights at freedoms comes when we allow them to be traded away for other people, for dirty foreigners first.

And British rights and American rights and French rights and nationalistic rights and rights for free born English men – that Ladies and Gentlemen is the road to Guantanamo bay. (applause)

Now I have read page 11 of today’s guardian and I know a few enthusiastic or desperate attempts at PR when I see them and how much easier it is to court – what was it, “celebrity”, you said Anthony? to get attention by generating a bit of antagonism between us.  That is not good enough for me.  That is not the way we defeated 42 days and that is not the way we will protect rights and freedoms in Britain.  We will not trade away the Human Rights Act when the salesmen come calling with their carpet bags with their swindles of contingent rights and rights for the worthy – the people that they deem worthy.  Certainly we won’t at Liberty the National Council for Civil Liberties, 75 this year.  Perhaps not everyone agrees with me but I ideally hope that most of you do and I hope that what you take away from today is something positive about alternative policies about alternative ways forward and you go and do as I say and as I do, join the political parties and make a difference there.  Whoever you vote for in my experience the government always gets in (laughter).

But if I have one message for you today above all others it is to quote to the Prime Minister; ‘human rights are universal and no justice is forever’. Thanks very much.