5 November 2005

Taking our liberties back

By Jacqui McCarney

Today, there will be colourful street theatre on the steps of Norwich City Hall from Norfolk Humans Right Protection Group to highlight the Government's seeking new legislation and worrying new powers - detention without trial, curfews, restrictions on movement, further limitations on protest, the newly endorsed use of torture, psychological profiling of children, a national identity database, the removal of privacy, and ID cards.

All these powers represent striking reversals to the advance of human rights in our relatively wealthy privileged society. Are we heading towards a new security state and why?

Many feel that democracy is threatened when the political and economic leadership of this country is advancing an agenda at odds with what people actually want - this government feels a need to arm itself with the kind of powers that are employed by, well, undemocratic states.

Increasingly whether it is privatising health and education, housing determined by the market rather than people's needs, engaging in unjustified wars, increasing terror risk at home, too little action on climate change, wilfully ignoring commitments to disarmament treaties … and on many other topics, this government is directly opposed to what people want.

People really want good public services, and public control over those services - yet, hospitals, education, affordable housing, public transport, social security and reasonable retirement are all under attack. Our social services, whether directly or under the guise of private finance initiatives, are being transferred into the hands of the private sector in whose benefit they will operate.

The effects of uncontrolled privatisation can be seen no better than in the United States. It has the most expensive health care system in the world, and is also the rich-world leader in social poverty. Of rich countries, it has by far the greatest disparity between the very poor and very rich. This sustains levels of violence that can otherwise only be found in third world countries, and a prison population way above the average for the rich world.

It is quite incredible and alarming, that the American model has become the model on which our future services are being based. Study after study reveals that violence is directly related to inequality in wealth and income. Do we want our society to follow the American pattern?

Extended drinking hours and liberal gambling laws, largely in the interests of private business, look certain to worsen the problem too.

The government response is Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, curfews, proposed databases in the Children and National Identity Register Bills.

Increased powers to confine and monitor the population in secret, with low burdens of proof for wrongdoing, are a serious encroachment on the hard won right for innocence until proven guilty and basic rights of privacy.

What about terrorism and its prevention? Has the Government put its own priorities higher than reducing the terrorist threat? Given that they were advised by Intelligence agencies, diplomats, other governments and many commentators that invading Iraq would increase terrorism, here and in the Middle East, it would appear so.

In fact, our government backed the US invasion of Iraq in brazen disregard of the likely increase in terrorism. Further, it is increasingly clear that the UK and US governments went to war on false pretences. The charging, last week, of Lewis Libby, chief-of-staff to Dick Cheney, with perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements to a federal grand jury shows the level of deceit used to engineer the US people's consent for the invasion.

In embracing the War on Terror, our government followed the knee-jerk American response to 9/11, and has singularly failed to address the well known and well documented causes of terrorism. Now, the ordinary people suffer the prospect of arbitrary detention and arrest through the judiciously regressive anti-terrorism legislation, and, worse still, they face the possibility of suffering terrorist attack itself.

Once again, we see the solution consistently offered by states to the threat of violence - the resort to force and greater powers of confinement. Yet, the policies which have lead to this environment of insecurity have been pursued without a democratic mandate, and largely in opposition to what people actually want. The government has, in short, been taking liberties.

In today's street theatre called 'Innocent until proven Guilty', Giant scales, representing Scales of Justice will be brought out to weigh up the hard won rights of all individual citizens against the requirements of the 'war on terror'. Here in the streets of Norwich, we are showing the government that we want our liberties protected.

This article was written with help from Liam Carroll, a member of Norfolk Human Rights Protection Group.