Prospects for 2013: Frances Webber

By Jamie

24 January 2013

2013 needs to be the year the Left reinvigorates its commitment to executive accountability and to the defence of unpopular minorities—or, warns Frances Webber, we are on a very nasty slippery slope indeed.

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By the end of 2012, no-one could plead ignorance of British complicity in extra-judicial killings by U.S. drones in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere, or of our government’s involvement in illegal rendition to torture, whether as a gift to Gaddafi or as a more or less willing partner in the U.S.-led war on terror. Nor can we say we don’t know of the systematic torture of detainees by British soldiers in Iraq, despite (or perhaps because of) the MoD’s paying millions in compensation to hundreds of former detainees. But settling damages claims is only one way the government avoids scrutiny of its part in these recent and ongoing atrocities, all in flagrant breach of international law obligations (and of ministerial assurances). 

If the Justice and Security bill currently going through parliament becomes law, evidence of such wrongdoing by state agents would likely never see the light of day, concealed from those seeking redress and the public in secret hearings. The shibboleth of national security, brought in to prevent political embarrassment, is destroying basic principles of justice: the right of one party to hear and challenge the evidence brought by the other, already gone in deportation and terrorist prevention order cases. 

At the same time, tireless campaigning by the Right against the European Court of Human Rights, leading its president to complain of ‘vitriolic’ and ‘xenophobic fury’, seems to have frightened the court into a less rigorous scrutiny of British cases, and the Brighton Declaration seeks to cement this approach. 

These measures, eating away at the rule of law, are largely unopposed, affecting mainly ‘unpopular minorities’: migrants, Muslims, suspected terrorists, foreign national prisoners. But we all know history’s lessons on the spread of tyranny. And further developments are set to damage the fabric of justice in the UK. Legal aid is being withdrawn in April across a whole range of areas. Those facing rent hikes, redundancy, benefit cuts or deportation will have no access to publicly funded legal advice, never mind representation, no matter how complex the legal issues. Judicial review—a hugely successful, relatively speedy and inexpensive system for challenging executive decision-making—is to be made more difficult and more costly for litigants. Other accountability mechanisms for public authorities—equality duties, for example—face dilution or abolition.

2013 needs to be the year the Left reinvigorates its commitment to basic justice, to executive accountability and to the defence of unpopular minorities—or we are on a very nasty slippery slope indeed. 

Frances Webber is a retired human rights lawyer, vice-chair of the Institute of Race Relations and the author of Borderline Justice: the fight for refugee and migrant rights. 

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