The Shamima Begum case – why liberals should be defending her rights, if not her freedom

I ought to start by expressing the view that, regardless of what Shamima Begum has, or has not, done, I have little sympathy for her. And, for all the suggestions that she was groomed, or that she was too young to understand what she was doing, Liberal Democrat policy is to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to fourteen from its current level of ten years of age. If she has committed an offence punishable under law, then she should be tried and, if found guilty, sentenced appropriately.

But the Government are arguing something rather different. They suggest that her citizenship can be taken away from her because she is “a bad person” and a threat to national security. That may be true, but the United Kingdom is also a signatory to the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Article 8 of the 1961 Convention outlines how and when a State may withdraw nationality, opening with the sentence;

A Contracting State shall not deprive a person of its nationality if such deprivation would render him stateless.

Paragraphs 2 and 3 explain exceptions to that rule – if nationality has been obtained fraudulently, for example – but it is Paragraph 4 which states the right of the individual to a hearing;

A Contracting State shall not exercise a power of deprivation permitted by paragraphs 2 or 3 of this Article except in accordance with law, which shall provide for the person concerned the right to a fair hearing by a court or other independent body.

The Government seems determined to abrogate that obligation and one might suspect that it is only because she is the child of migrants from Bangladesh. They presumably rely on the exception under Paragraph 3;

that the person has taken an oath, or made a formal declaration, of allegiance to another State, or given definite evidence of his determination to repudiate his allegiance to the Contracting State.

although it would be hard to say which diplomatically recognised State that might be.

The Supreme Court have taken the viewpoint that she should not be allowed back into the country but stayed her appeal on the grounds that she is unable to meet with her legal representatives to pursue it. That feels like a bit of a fudge, but it does at least leave open the possibility that she could return to the United Kingdom one day, albeit given her current circumstances, I sense that it won’t be much of a consolation.

But, for the rest of us whose parents came from somewhere else, a very thin, but nonetheless noticeable wedge has been applied to our status as British citizens. It seems that the Government can, possibly, decide that we are a threat to national security and oblige us to fall back on the nationality of a country we may never have seen, which may not want us and will have no obligation to accept us unless we qualify for citizenship by the usual means.

And yes, this Government wouldn’t do that. But a future Government? At a time when politicians of the far-right are perfectly happy to lie about migrants for political advantage, and see opportunities in doing so, you might understand why minority communities, especially the visible ones, might be just a little uneasy.

As Liberal Democrats, we defend the rule of law, but we also believe that the individual has right to defend themselves against State overreach. Accordingly, I’m pleased to see that Brian Paddick is making exactly the case that I would hope we would make.

Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves that civil liberties and human rights are not just for those whose acts and choices we approve of.

* Mark Valladares is the Monday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.

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27 Comments

  • John Marriott 1st Mar '21 - 4:33pm

    My initial reaction was for a long time “she made her bed…etc”. However, listening to “white noise” aka LBC the other morning, the former head of Intelligence Services made a strong case for allowing her back to face the music. I tend now to agree with him. I’m not quite sure what is meant by “state overreach”. The present position would seem more like “state underreach” in my book. Ms Begum’s is an odd case. It would be hard to define what crime she had actually committed. Perhaps naivety, if that could be classed as a crime. Anyway, the matter at the moment would appear to be closed.

  • This young woman was a child when the events took place and as such was ‘at risk’. She is entitled and deserving of protection…….. though unlikely to ever get it from a Minister who was found to have contravened the Ministerial code for bullying as recently as last November.

    If this case is something the Liberal Democrats should not take up then whatever are they for ?

  • Agree with David, I might be cynical but I feel that the Supreme Court is worried about being seen as too political after the Miller cases and they even said that the Court of Appeal had “lacked respect” for the Home Secretary’s case as a democratically accountable politician, which sounds to me like a strange thing to say.

    Maajid Nawaz has a good take on it:

    “On the case of Shamima Begum, it helps us to analyse the situation with less emotion and more concern for legal precedent. For me, this is less about her, more about the kind of country *we* wish to be. I made all the below points live on air, but this clip starts from point 5:
    1) it’s legally relevant that she was 15 when she went
    2) how can we expect other countries to take back their deported terrorists from us, if we don’t take back our terrorists from them?
    3) what level of public risk voids the right to a fair trial? And is this now a precedent?
    4) what of the potential for rehabilitation?
    5) and finally, what this clip addresses, we’re in danger of creating a two-tier citizenship for the UK:“

  • Joseph Bourke 1st Mar '21 - 7:53pm

    Mark Valladares makes a compelling argument. Many of us had difficulty with leaving in the hands of a minister of state the power to revoke an individuals citizenship and felt that matters of such import must be heard by the British courts.
    Last July, Shamima Begums barrister argued the revocation decision has unlawfully rendered her stateless, and exposed her to a ‘real risk’ of torture or death. The Court of Appeal ruled that the only fair way forward was to allow her into the UK because she could not effectively appeal against the decision from the camp in northern Syria.
    The Home Office subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court to reconsider the Court of Appeal’s judgement, arguing that allowing her to return to the UK “would create significant national security risks”.
    The Supreme Court, said the government had been entitled to prevent Ms Begum from returning to the UK, adding that the right to a fair hearing did “not trump all other considerations, such as the safety of the public”. The courts have acknowledged her right to appeal the revocation of her citizenship from overseas but not her right to return to the UK to do so, leaving her in a legal limbo.
    So this then is the issue – does the right to a fair hearing trump national security considerations?
    The charges made against the government actions in this case are that she was too young to understand the gravity of what she doing in joining ISIS (not that what she did was excusable); she was the victim of grooming and hence not responsible for her actions (she was over the age of criminal responsibility); that a powerless young woman can prevent no threat to national security (arguments can be made on both sides) and that this was a racist action against a British citizen of Pakistani ancestry (albeit made by a minister of Pakistani ancestry). None of these, however, are the issue at stake.
    The questions are – Are there valid grounds for revocation of citizenship under the UN Convention (as Mark’s article poses); and if so are there sufficient national security considerations for denying her entry to the country to defend her case? If the answer is no to both, as appears to be the case then she should be returned to both stand trial for any charges brought against her and to appeal the revocation of her citizenship.

  • Callum Robertson 1st Mar '21 - 9:24pm

    Well said Mark. I wrote this a few days ago advocating for reform in nationality law.
    https://www.liberalreform.org.uk/2021/02/26/the-begum-case-a-self-evident-case-for-nationality-reform/

  • Martin Land 2nd Mar '21 - 2:18am

    Very good, Mark. Now, try it on the doorstep.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 2nd Mar '21 - 7:54am

    On the nail, Mark. The contradictions in the Supreme Court ruling are worrying. Shamima Begum is not a Bangladesh citizen and Bangladesh says she will not become one. Therefore, the ruling makes her stateless. Her threat to national security remains classified, yet some 400 Britons who also went to Syria have been allowed back, and their citizenship is intact. It is also not clear how the Court of Appeal with its highly experienced justices got their interpretation of the law so, so wrong. Unlike in the U.S., the British public know next to nothing about lawyers appointed to the Supreme Court, how they are chosen, what scrutiny takes place and to whom they are accountable. Through a political prism, the Supreme Court decision makes sense. Through a judicial one, it just doesn’t add up.

  • James Belchamber 2nd Mar '21 - 8:20am

    Let us never forget that Sajid Javid left a baby to die in a refugee camp for the “sins” of their mother, while fighting tooth and nail to ensure she never actually faces justice and due process.

    I’ve never seen a better example of conservatism in practice than this evil decision.

  • This is not a case of selling it on the doorstep, this is about doing what is right. Taking the citizenship from a young woman because she made a stupid mistake when she was 15, is just plain wrong. David Raw is right when he asks what are the Lib Dems for if it’s not to fight injustice like this.

  • Alison Willott 2nd Mar '21 - 11:17am

    Completely agree she should come back to the UK and face justice here for all the reasons given above. On a wider point: the Home Office apparently has argued against allowing her to return because of ‘significant security risks’. This raises lots of questions: Is it morally right that the UK should refuse to take back UK citizens because they pose a security risk? More to the point, is it sensible? Surely it poses a bigger risk if they are left with other stateless vigilantes to get together and form a centre of danger? And if Syria wasn’t a war zone, could we even contemplate just leaving our citizens there, because we didn’t want them back? Do we want to have a sort of Guantanamo Bay in the Middle East? Do we agree with the Americans taking charge of British Muslims in the form of the two remaining “Beatles”? Would this decree to keep them out have been applied if they were Caucasian UK citizens?? These people may be appalling, but they are UK citizens and as such are our responsibility.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Mar '21 - 11:39am

    Yep. As a member of the Labour Party I fully agree that a young woman who made a stupid mistake when she was a child should be given the benefit of any doubt and allowed to return the UK to answer any charges and make her case for continued citizenship.

    There are security implications in keeping her outside of the country too. The dangerous argument will no doubt be made that she would not be excluded if she was a white woman. And who thinks she would be?

  • Nigel Jones 2nd Mar '21 - 12:00pm

    For me there are 2 worrying implications of the supreme court ruling. First, it puts too much power in the hands of a government minister. Second that such a minister can use her status as a daughter of immigrants as an excuse to treat her differently from longer-standing British family members. In a moral sense, by joining ISIS who are prepared to kill innocent people, she renounced her British citizenship, so I agree with Mark about having little sympathy for her. Legally we must accept international law that she is still our responibility, set in place due process to try her, investigate whether she remains a security threat and deal with her accordingly. Given the age at which she went to Isis and may have been groomed, she is more likely to receive effective rehabilitation, though her comments when she first appeared in the media did not indicate a major turnaround in her values.

  • “Sorry to see no comment by the party in the media.” – anything even a little bit controversial we have no comment on. It’s pretty useless really. Tim Farron did tweet about it, fair play to him – though his focus was on her race rather than the rule of law argument.

    It’s a concerning outcome. Her age at the time is something that is perfectly reasonable to consider from a legal and moral perspective, but those leading with that argument really are playing into the right’s hands. The basic point is that the rule of law applies to everyone, we can’t pick and choose. As has already been said, she was a British citizen and radicalised in Britain. She has no other citizenship, and is our problem to deal with. She has a right to be able to participant in the legal process. It doesn’t matter whether she deserves it or not.

    @Humphrey – I’m not sure if I can post links here, but if you do a quick google search, the information you’re looking for is available. Our system of judicial independence is much better than the awful partisan system that operates in the US.

  • It’s not a matter of being a member of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrat Party, the SNP, the Green Party or even the Tory Party. It’s a matter of common decency and humanity. End Of.

  • I always thought she should be allowed back in because she is a British Subject. But all the talks of rights in a country where the political class will not even stand up for the rights of people to leave their house, to do certain jobs and see who they choose to without government permission ring more than a little hollow.

  • Barry Lofty 2nd Mar '21 - 12:49pm

    David Raw: Exactly!

  • Catherine Royce 2nd Mar '21 - 1:54pm

    Its very clear as a UK citizen ( which she certainly is) she must be able to return to the UK to face investigation and whatever follows. None of us know whether she is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or most likely something in between, she has a right to justice, just like the rest of us.
    She was a minor when she left the UK, almost certainly groomed by a sophisticated ‘recruitment’ process/group. Her only crime seems to have been to travel on her sister’s passport? It remains to be seen whether she was an active fighter, more likely used as a ‘comfort wife’ for an active fighter and subsequently mother of 3 children, all of whom have died, and all of this before her 21st birthday.
    She needs to be enabled to give an account of what really happened to her, we might even learn something useful. We as Liberal Democrats should ensure that happens, this is about justice and human rights, it certainly is not about what is popular on the doorstep!

  • Peter Martin 2nd Mar '21 - 3:06pm

    @ David Raw,

    Yes I agree with you on the point of it not being a party matter. But it was Mark V who has described the plight of a young woman as being a “liberal” issue.

    @ Mark V,

    Yet you’re not being very “liberal” or charitable yourself! You’re unable to summon up much sympathy for the poor girl. Even a hardened lefty like me can manage better than that!

    I’d be prepared to defend her freedom too, unless and until it was proven in a court of law, that she had committed a serious crime and deserved to be imprisoned.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 2nd Mar '21 - 3:39pm

    @ Peter Martin,

    Perhaps if I had described it as a “liberal” issue, you might have grounds to take offence. But I didn’t – the title suggests that liberals should protect her rights and the article outlines why. What stance socialists, Greens or conservatives should take isn’t really within my remit. And, for the record, our rights are not charity to be doled out as you appear to suggest.

    And why should I sympathise with her particularly? Her actions were at the very least foolhardy, and I’m not equipped to judge whether or not she has committed any offences – the Government apparently believes that she has. In any event, I tend to the view that politicians are seldom best placed to judge guilt or innocence – that’s why we have an independent judiciary.

    Shamima Begum has rights, the same rights that you or I have, and you defend them because, once you start differentiating between groups, you create multiple tiers of nationality, one of which is superior to the rest. And, sadly, we see too many examples of what that means in practice to be sanguine about the possibility.

  • Steve Trevethan 2nd Mar '21 - 3:44pm

    “(Lord Justice Reed) said crucially that it was up to the government and not the courts to decide who and what really poses a security risk. This may sound reasonable, but one should keep in mind that it was just such self-serving and counter-productive governmental decisions that created the conditions for the rise of Isis and the caliphate to which Begum and her friends made their fatal journey in 2015.”
    https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/03/02/isis-and-the-uk-the-case-of-shamima-begum/

  • Little Jackie Paper 2nd Mar '21 - 5:18pm

    Mark V

    That point about two tier societies is by some way the most compelling argument. Begum I don’t care about, the slippery slope I do.

    One hopes you will extend your line of thought to vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals and the upcoming de facto ID systems.

  • It’s an issue I would except liberals of all colours to lead on. Whilst Labours track record on the balance between human rights and national security when they were in power left a lot to be desired, the Labour left were an ally on these difficult issues during the Blair era (although the left are quite selective about the liberties they will and won’t stand up for).

  • I thought the courts were there to prevent abuses of power by the Government. It seems Begum is being deprived of her citizenship contrary to UN requirements. The court has therefore not prevented the abuse of power by the Government. I also don’t like a unanimous verdict to overturn the Court of Appeal’s decision. The reason for the Court of Appeal decision being wrong has not been adequately explained beyond the Government having the right to decide. It looks as if the judges have been got at to me.

  • Joseph Bourke 3rd Mar '21 - 12:52pm

    In the US the doctrine of Amicus Curiae (friend of the court) enables The Supreme Court of the United States to permit federal, state, and local governments to submit their views in any case that concerns them without obtaining the consent of either the court or the parties. Private persons may appear as amici curiae in the Supreme Court, either if both parties consent or if the court grants permission. He is not a party to a lawsuit and thus differs from an intervenor, who has a direct interest in the outcome of the lawsuit and is therefore permitted to participate as a party to the suit.
    In a case like this the boundaries between legal decisions and political decisions can easily become blurred. There has been criticism that the UK judiciary is too closely involved in decisions left to parliament =, principally through judicial review https://www.theguardian.com/law/2011/nov/08/supreme-court-appointee-judges-politicised
    It is perhaps not surprising that the courts want parliament to determine these kind of issues. That being the case, it puts the responsibility for seeking a just outcome directly on the shoulders of MPs and Peers and needs a champion to take up the cause of Ms Begum at Westminster.

  • James Fowler 5th Mar '21 - 10:56am

    Good article.

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