Once named “The Most Dangerous Woman in Britain” (a title now stolen from her by the First Minister of Scotland), Shami Chakrabarti still has enough energy and passion to scare even the most stoic politician. A former Home Office civil servant, Chakrabarti is now the Director of Liberty, a UK civil rights organisation, and author of the recently published On Liberty. It is this book specifically, and her role as civil rights activist more generally, that brings her to the Book Fest this afternoon. Joining Kate Mosse in the Baillie Gifford Main Theatre, Chakrabarti addressed the current plans to scrap the Human Rights Act by the British Government and the importance of not compromising human rights, even in the face of terror and threat.
As you perhaps would expect of a woman who has devoted most of her life to human rights activism, Chakrabarti is extremely passionate about her cause, a passion that soon spreads to her audience. However, she also speaks with extreme clarity and knowledge, a trait which perhaps reflects her life on the “other side” as a Home Office lawyer. On Liberty addresses the current threats faced by human rights in Britain and elsewhere in light of the Edward Snowden revelations, Britain’s suggested exit from the EU, and the heightened terror threat levels. Chakrabarti argued that the fight against the scrapping of the Human Rights Act is the most important civil liberties battle of our generation, and one that cannot be taken lightly by anyone even remotely concerned about the human rights of the individual.
Later that evening, Chakrabarti also took part in a panel discussion entitled ‘Security v Human Rights: How Can We Maintain Our Privacy?’ Chaired by Professor Charles Raab of the University of Edinburgh, Chakrabarti was joined by Sir Menzies Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, and Dr Andrew Neal, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, to discuss the challenges faced by human rights in the information age.
The starting point of the discussion, which more or less everyone on the panel agreed upon, was that the event was somewhat badly named. By using the phrase “Security v Human Rights” you automatically put the two in opposition to each other, implying that either value can only be achieved at the expense of the other. However, despite largely agreeing in the opening sequence, the debate very soon heated up, as especially Chakrabarti and Campbell took different stances on various topics, including regulation of the Internet and the adequacy of the checks-and-balances existing in policy-making today.
Lasting for one and a half hour, the event touched upon some important issues concerning privacy, security, and human rights. However, one thing that became clear, and which was also pointed out by the panel, was the need for better knowledge amongst academics and policy makers about technology and the threats faced to human rights online. The issue of policy makers always being “one step behind” must be addressed in order to face problems we are only starting to comprehend, which will defined how we talk about human rights in the future.
Photo: Alan McCredie, Edinburgh International Book Festival