A renewed popular discourse on fundamental human rights for all is needed in the face of the erosion of civil liberties by governments and corporate power, said the director of Liberty this morning (28 February 2009).
Shami Chakrabati, a lawyer and campaigner, was speaking at the opening of the Convention on Modern Liberty in central London - a broadly-based civil society event also taking place in Glasgow, Cardiff, Birmingham, Bristol and Cambridge, and other sites across the UK through a live webcast and blogging (http://www.modernliberty.net/).
An ex-Director of Public Prosecutions and an ex-Attorney General were among those taking part.
Ms Chakrabarti warned that the erosion of civil liberties is happening incrementally in Britain, and other parts of the world. She highlighted government compromises on fair trials, free speech and privacy - as well as state collusion in torture in the name of a 'war on terror'.
Addressing the issue of 'Citizens and the State', Labour peer Helena Kennedy QC declared that "liberty is an accretion of battles" and never something simply granted, but claimed by people themselves. "Power can turn even the gentlest of souls into a Nero", she said.
It should never be forgotten that "the state is here at our behest, we are not here at the behest of the state", said Ms Kennedy.
Some 75 years ago this week the Liberty (formerly the National Council of Civil Liberties) was launched by a group of high profile figures of the day including HG Wells, Harold Laski and Vera Brittain. It was led by Ronald Kidd.
In a letter to the Manchester Guardian, it was announced that "In view of the general and alarming tendency to encroachment on the liberty of the citizen, there has recently been formed a Council for Civil Liberties".
The Council’s first act was to take up the role of legal observers on the hunger march that took place in Hyde Park in February 1934.
Recently it has been involved in campaigns against torture, extraordinary rendition, coersive surveillance, the "database state", habeus corpus, defending jury trials and many other issues of public concern.
Other speakers at the Convention on Modern Liberty include author Philip Pullman, Conservative MPs Dominic Grieve QC and David Davis, Ken Macdonald QC, Sir David Varney, musician Brian Eno, Liberal Democrat MPs Vince Cable and Chris Huhne, jourbalist Henry Porter and Anthony Barnett of openDemocracy.
A deliberate attempt has been made to find common concerns across political and other allegiances, and also to acknowledge differences on questions like the Human Rights Act - which Liberty and others support strongly, but which the Conservatives wish to abolish and the Church of England has sought opt-outs from.
The religion and society think-tank Ekklesia is coordinating a conversation on 'faiths and freedoms' as part of the Convention in London - 11.45 today, with speakers Keith Kahn-Harris (sociologist, New Jewish Thought), Savitri Hensman (equalities adviser, Christian commentator) and Vaughan Jones (CEO of Praxis) plus a wide range of participants from faith and non-faith backgrounds.
The full list of partners in the Convention is:
Black Mental Health UK
The Big Opt Out
British Institute of Human Rights
Campaign for an English Parliament
Centre for Policy Studies
The Citizen Organising Foundation
Comment is free
The Freedom Association
Football Supporters’ Federation
Human Rights Watch
Index on Censorship
Institute of Ideas
Institute for Public Policy Research
Leave Them Kids Alone
Mishcon de Reya
Muslim Safety Forum
The New Humanist
Open Rights Group
Our Democratic Heritage
UCL Student Human Rights Programme
UNA Wales: Vale of Glamorgan
The Work Foundation