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THE ATTACKS ON LIBERTY 

 

By Nick Clegg

 

Tuesday, December 23, 2008.

 

60 years ago, in 1948, the world found itself in uncharted territory. Today we are again faced with a world that is unfamiliar. Filled with new challenges, and built on a new arrangement of power. I would like to talk about how that changed international landscape is testing the values we are here to celebrate: Freedom, tolerance, and justice.

 

And about how developed democracies across the world are failing to meet those challenges. Failing to stand up for the rights they claim to cherish. Not just where they are violated abroad, but within their own borders. Not just in America, but across Europe. And right here in the UK.

 

What does our Government have to be proud of on Human Rights Day?

 

Liberty has taken a battering here at home. And as a result we have lost our authority when it comes to the defence of liberties abroad. Britain is no longer part of the solution. We have become part of the problem. I want to outline the steps we need to take to change that.

 

I was 22 when the Berlin Wall came down. I was living at the time as a post graduate student in Minneapolis, in the USA. I lived in a small, freezing ground floor flat with no television. I remember following the dramatic events on the radio minute by minute. Like so many people, it was one of those deeply moving, defining moments which I will never forget. And I remember very distinctly the sense of victory amongst Western Governments. The belief that their values, their model of tolerance and freedom had prevailed. And the darkest days of the twentieth century were firmly behind us. Yet now that triumphalism looks wildly misplaced. Millions of people still suffer abuses and cruelty every day and in every corner of the planet.

 

Poverty. Violence. Repression. The world today is full of unprecedented threats and dangers: Cross-border crime and terrorism. Ever-increasing civil war and the blurring of the military and civilian divide. The indiscriminate spread of disease and environmental crises that are not contained within national borders.

 

And appallingly, still, an unregulated international arms trade that continues to thrive. That makes it feasible for China to offer arms to Mugabe at the height of his tyranny. That lets the UK block an investigation into allegations of corrupt arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

 

The post-Cold War hope that under a benign American Empire we would somehow be led to a safer, more just world, has been dashed. America has itself perpetrated widespread human rights abuses. It is guilty of unchecked military adventurism. And of truly shocking treatment of its enemies, not least in Abu Ghraib. And in Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners continue to languish like caged animals. Including Binyam Mohammed who I know Amnesty have been actively campaigning to have brought home.

 

The Bush years saw the States lead the world away from international law and universal rights. And those failures have hastened American decline, and with it a dispersal of global power that looks very different to 60 years ago.

 

There are new kids on the block. China, India, Brazil Huge new economies with influence to match. Powerful regional actors, like Venezuela and South Africa. And new members of the nuclear club, like Pakistan and North Korea. It's no surprise that the current international financial crisis has seen the G8 make way for the G20.

 

As this new order developed, western democracies are failing to restrain unwarranted aggression - even on the edges of Europe.

 

Just look at the ease with which Russia invaded Georgia. With such little regard for the reactions of America, Europe or the wider international community. This failure to counter authoritarian elites rests primarily on a lack of political will. Western leaders frequently claim to lack the resources to intervene to stop acute human suffering, particularly in Africa. Meanwhile, much of the developing world looks on in cynical resignation.

 

Britain and America can muster the resources to invade Iraq, but not lift a finger to stop flagrant human rights abuses elsewhere. These double standards are compounded by a failure to strengthen the human rights at home which the West is so keen to lecture others about abroad.

 

Take America. The message from the new President-Elect has so far been encouraging. Obama has said he will engage with America's enemies. That he will not hide from America's recent past. And that he will end the abuses of his predecessor's administration. 

 

But if President Obama wants to truly rid himself of Bush's legacy he must also do more to protect the rights of the American population. As long as the United States remains home to the death penalty. The largest prison population outside China.

 

And a Supreme Court which recognizes constitutional rights for citizens only. America cannot command the world's respect as champion of human rights.

The same applies to Europe. Few European states have independent and impartial courts. Many do not respect the European rule of law. And racism is widespread against ethnic minorities. If the EU is to defend the human rights enshrined in its treaties its members must be a shining example of those rights.

 

And they must - as a collective - stand up for these shared values. There is no point in EU members collectively protesting against authoritarianism in Russia one day, for one of them to sign an energy deal with the Kremlin the next. Here in the UK this loss of moral authority has been acute. Looking at the state of human rights in this country today it is difficult to imagine that British lawyers helped draft the European Convention on Human Rights. That in 1951 we were the first to ratify it.

 

When Labour came into power eleven years ago many people, myself included, thought they might hold true to their promises on human rights. Their early adoption of the ECHR into UK law was undoubtedly a step in the right direction. But the hope didn't last. Not only because this Government has betrayed its people with its illegitimate war in Iraq. Not simply because the UK is shamefully the only EU member state not to have signed up to the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights. Not just because our Prime Minister failed to use the Olympics - a spectacular PR event for China - to defend Tibet. Or because of his refusal to support to an EU-led force in the Congo.

 

But also because of the systematic sacrifice of human rights here in this country. The British public has suffered a sustained assault on their civil liberties. 3600 new criminal offences have been introduced since 1997.

 

Our prisons are bursting. Peaceful protest and dissent have been criminalised. And we are now the most watched people on the planet. All of us have had our rights have come under attack. But no one has suffered more so than foreigners in this country.

 

Britain is fast developing a two-tier rights regime. That's why foreign nationals are the first of us to be forced to carry ID cards. It's why asylum seekers are left hanging around for years by the incompetence of the Home Office. Driven into the black economy when they could work and pay taxes to support themselves. Rather than depend on taxpayers for meagre handouts. And it's why countless economic migrants are exploited by unscrupulous employers.

 

When you begin to list these abuses the picture it creates is truly horrendous. When you think of the Zimbabweans who are being imprisoned in immigration detention centres even though they can't be deported. Or the women who come to the UK legally and find themselves in violent marriages but who aren't eligible for places in refuges. Again an issue that Amnesty have been campaigning heavily on. And then you recognise the astonishing brutality and cruelty that has become a part of our asylum system.

 

And the attempts by our Government to deport terror suspects to countries where they face torture. Mehdi Kazemi is an Iranian the Government tried to deport earlier this year. Despite the fact that he is homosexual and his partner had already been killed for being gay. The Home Office said he would be alright if he was 'discreet'. Their exact words.

 

If our own Government is capable of degrading so many foreigners in Britain, is it any wonder that communities have become more fragmented, tensions exacerbated? We have already seen the Immigration Minister swerving to the right in preparation for the next election. Peddling fear and scapegoating asylum seekers for Britain's ills. What does this Government think is going to happen to the already delicate ethnic tensions as we spiral further into economic downturn? When more jobs go, and frustrations are at a high?

 

Why are they stoking this fire?

 

What makes it even worse is that this is an area where the Conservatives simply won't be outflanked. My concern is that this marks the start of a kind of downward bidding. A "we'll let in fewer than you will" head to head.    We can't let this happen. We need a responsible, mature debate on immigration. Where we recognise it is right to be tough on illegal immigration. But equally the huge contribution that legal immigrants make. We need to bridge the gap between the treatment of foreigners and the treatment of everyone else.

 

I am a liberal because I believe deeply in the universality of basic human rights. Wherever their application is discriminate. Contingent on arbitrary factors like creed or colour. It must stop. So no ID cards. Not for anyone. Not - as the Conservatives would have it - for foreign nationals but not British citizens. No inhumane treatment of suspects of any crimes, terrorism included. 42 days detention must never rear its head again. And we must never deport anyone to countries where their safety from torture is not guaranteed.

 

And - crucially - we need a clear and responsible stand on the Human Rights Act. Not the pre-election political posturing now coming from Jack Straw. Who after 15 months of dithering and delaying on a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. Is now chasing headlines by bowing to the idea that that the HRA is a "villains' charter".

 

The Conservatives want a "British Bill of Rights". They would force victims of human rights abuses to take their grievances to Strasbourg rather than have them settled here. Making human rights a luxury for the people who can afford costly cases. Either Government should stand by the Human Rights Act and make it work. Or they should work across all political parties and with organisations like Amnesty to produce a bill of rights that adds value to existing protections.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Human Human rights are not something you pick up one day and put down the next. They are the unwavering, unshakeable commitment to the dignity of people. They are the principles by which we can call ourselves civilised. But Britain is never going to resume its rightful position as a guardian of these fundamental freedoms until we get our own house in order. Developed nations will never regain their moral legitimacy unless they themselves can respect and value the rights of all peoples, including their own. It's time the UK led by example. Thank you.

 

Nick Clegg is the leader of Liberal Democratic Party, Britain’s third largest party. This is part of the speech he delivered at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Day.

 

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