The decline of British human rights

Given its recent record, Britain and its civic society needs to learn lessons from struggles for human rights abroad.

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UK detainee Babar Ahmad has been in prison for seven years without trial [GALLO/GETTY]

As Libya cried “liberation!” and captured its dictator, as Tunisia held its exemplary democratic elections, and as Syria and Yemen fight on relentlessly, we are living in captivating times. After seeing millions of people creating their own freedom, I have regained my faith in humanity. Viewed through the lens of human rights, there are generations who have been subject to totalitarianism, torture and enslavement by their dictators, with repressed civic and political aspiration – who now have broken free, against all odds.

In a world more interconnected than ever, the breeze of freedom has crossed continents – outside St Paul’s Occupy LSX is posted a sign: “Tahrir Square, City of London.” Yet, as I discuss freedom with my North African democracy-longing peers, doubts emerge. Can contemporary British democracy lay claim to any moral superiority, given its recent record? Does anybody care, anyway? As many are entranced by the transitional rebalancing of human rights abroad in countries such as Tunisia, it is all too easy to assume that all is well at home. Awkwardly, it is not – the past decade has seen the depressing opposite in Britain.

We are learning month-by-month about our political elite’s complicity in torture since 9/11 – awkwardly for the former Labour government, those tortured, such as Abdul Hakim Belhaj, were instrumental for the liberation of a nation, and a further case of secret rendition that alleges the kidnap of an innocent detainee with British ministerial authorisation (an admission from our very own security services) utterly beggars belief. Since July 7, 2005, we have witnessed spying on innocent students and minorities targeted for their ethnicity by stop-and-search laws. That, since 2005, we risk imprisonment for protesting outside parliament without gaining prior police permission is laughable in comparison with the hundreds of thousands who marched on their political centres.

Our collective responsibilities ahead must now be reshaped. Campaigning for human rights is not just for human rights organisations and those targeted communities; human rights concerns every single person, expert or not – it’s the foundation of a free society. Our burgeoning but sleepy civic society must awaken its organisations to protect human rights, and realise our breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. British Muslims must move beyond victim mentalities – these are issues of universal human rights applicable to all of us and there must be common concern, for Muslim or not. We must remember our responsibility to hold our government to account. There are some wise words frequently attributed to Thomas Jefferson, third US president: “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

Rule of law 

Though our situation is one that is slipping, moments arrive that redefine our resolve. It is my belief that we face one of the greatest domestic human rights issues in a generation for which we must stand strong – and there are at least 100,000 Britons that are concerned alongside me. To this day, Babar Ahmad, a British-born IT graduate, is the longest serving British detainee, held behind bars for seven years without trial and without charge – awaiting extradition to the United States under the controversial no-evidence-required Extradition Act 2003. The same evidence being cited by the United States was sufficient for the Metropolitan Police to decide against prosecuting him and then to release him in 2003.

Whether the man is innocent or guilty is beside the point. The issue is one of fair process. Each of his alleged crimes are said to have been committed in the UK; therefore, this man should be brought with all the allegations against him before a British court, fairly, and tried here – not in the United States. This is the rallying call of the British Justice for British Citizens campaign. We cannot lose this – and it is not just Mr Ahmad that stands to lose. Britain has arrested a citizen, detained him for seven years and has agreed to extradite him without evidence or trial, dissolving yet more pillars of human rights.

We arrived at our human rights low point with more than just another Home Secretary blunder; what emerged under then-prime minister Tony Blair ran contrary to what we were taught in secondary school of a thousand years of British justice. The degradation of British human rights happened right under our noses, filled with fear of terrorism. While our security services assisted in flying innocent citizens to secret jails in faraway lands, Murdoch’s newspapers struck an illegitimate fear of British Muslims into the hearts of many, and Blair subsequently relayed that “the rules of the game have changed”. We did not pay heed to Franklin Roosevelt’s advice that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, and we fell prey to the politics of fear.

Indeed, in 2006, Peter Oborne wrote that “the government has persistently failed to tell the truth either to itself or to the British public about the terror threat in Britain. These failures of diagnosis have led to failures of response”, words that resonated with many. Critically, as we legislated for the encroachment of human rights for the first time in centuries, our civic society was weak, and lacked an effective collective counter-response. Britain lacked the interreligious, intercommunal and interracial co-operation of the civil rights movement in the United States.

Demagogues today will continue to argue that undermining human rights can be justified. Douglas Murray, whose Centre for Social Cohesion advised the Conservative-led government until recently, argued that “conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board”. They must be refuted with unembellished principles of justice that people such as Churchill established in the wake of the second world war. Nor can we idly turn a blind eye to threats. Muscular liberalism must enable us to challenge those antithetical to our pluralist, democratic and freedom-preserving British principles. Those who hate the free society we live in – they exist in British communities, and include Muslims – must be robustly challenged. But so long as they do not break the law, we must work within the law, not above it.

Involving the community

It took millions to establish human rights in North Africa this past year; in the past month, more than 100,000 Britons have signed a petition to ensure that Babar Ahmad’s case will now get a hearing in parliament, an unprecedented feat. This campaign, that has spread like wildfire, has not only included “concerned citizens” as signatories, but British Muslim students, community leaders, and organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain and FOSIS at the fore, and the support of diverse leaders such as lawyer Sir Geoffrey Bindman, journalist Victoria Brittain, boxer Amir Khan and comedian Mark Thomas.

The human rights test now lies with parliament and our public voice. It is with great irony that if extradited, Babar Ahmad will not be flying to the traditional bastions of torture and secret rendition in Tunisia and Libya – their secret prisons, which our government were complicit in operating, have been uncovered and hopefully closed for good. Rather, the uncharged Mr Ahmad faces the prospect of 23 hours a day – every day – of solitary confinement in the notorious Supermax prisons of the United States. Our campaign has proven that communities are waking up, and again, I am regaining my faith in humanity – let us now win the case in parliament. This is the time for Britain to take a leaf out of the book of others and take human rights seriously again. 

Nabil Ahmed is President of FOSIS, the national Muslim student body (established 1963) in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.