The other crisis: Civil and human rights under attack

Canvassing in South London, I am often asked by residents what Liberal Democrats stand for today. After all, they say, Brexit is no longer a battlefield (although for many it still is), and most of today’s pressing issues are claimed by other opposition parties. Who are we and what do we want to do that is not just anti-Tory? What is our offer, our ‘USP’ to voters that no other political party will prioritise? And why is our message relevant, perhaps more relevant than ever, in today’s world?

Maybe the answer can be found in the history of liberalism: from the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights – defending (religious) freedom against state transgression – to more contemporary ideas – claiming freedom to be and do whatever doesn’t harm others. So here is what I say on the doorstep:

We stand up for your rights.

The right to speak up if things go wrong. The right to breathe clean air. The right to claim asylum if you flee persecution or conflict. The right to be consulted about things that affect you. The right to access information and education. The right to have a decent home regardless of your income. The right to be judged on merit alone. The right to be who you want to be, live how you want to live and love whom you want to love, and the duty to respect others’ rights to do the same.

Have you tried saying this on the doorstep? It is pretty much guaranteed to raise questions about the current state of these rights.

This is exactly the debate we need and Liberal Democrats need to lead.

London, my home for the past 28 years, has always been a liberal city – a space for diversity, tolerance, debate, individuality and community. That is why I came to live here. But this liberalism has come under attack – a creeping erosion of democracy, human and civil rights under the guise of ‘law and order’, nourished by fear, disinformation and the polarisation of society fuelled by Brexit. The tell-tale signs of populism, the same road followed by Hungary, Poland, Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Trump’s United States.

This process culminated in two laws introduced last year. Among the big crises of recent months – cost of living and NHS, war in Ukraine, disputes over Northern Ireland and other post-Brexit chaos – Boris, Liz and Rishi managed to slip past voters’ attention two pieces of legislation designed to restrict fundamental rights.

The first, the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, all but abolished the right to seek asylum in the UK. It significantly curtails refugees’ access to justice and penalises those who arrive in the UK via ‘irregular routes’ – regardless of whether ‘regular’ routes are available. Asylum seekers whose claims are inadmissible (e.g. because they stopped in another country during their journey to the UK) can be ‘relocated’ to Rwanda, a state with a dismal human rights record. The Law Society voiced concerns that the new rules are incompatible with international law such as the Refugee Convention of 1951. Having undermined the credibility of the legal profession before, the government ignored these warnings and praises the ‘deterrent effect’ to future would-be seekers of a safe haven – the message being that the UK is none such.

The second, in the shape of an amendment to the 2022 Public Order Bill, is currently passing through parliament. It restricts the right to protest and is explicitly directed at environmental protest by organisations such as Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain. Measures previously rejected by the House of Lords, such as powers to shut down protests due to ‘serious disruption’ were reintroduced and the government added a clause which would allow police to shut down protests before any such disruption takes place. The definition of what qualifies as ‘serious’ disruption remains deliberately vague – examples include obstructions, delays and disruptions which are ‘more than minor’.

Under the UN Human Rights Convention, everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. ‘Peaceful’ does not mean ‘non-disruptive’, but ‘stands in contradistinction to (an assembly) characterised by widespread and serious violence’ – the Convention clarifies that ‘mere pushing and shoving or disruption of vehicular or pedestrian movement or daily activities do not amount to violence’. Freedom of peaceful assembly includes the right to hold meetings, sit-ins, strikes, rallies, events or protests. It serves as a vehicle for the exercise of many other rights guaranteed under international law. The Public Order Bill effectively renders this right meaningless. If authorities have broad discretion as to what constitutes a ‘more than minor’ disruption, any form of protest can be prohibited.

The next phase of this erosion of rights is looming: the ‘Human Rights Act Reform’, promising a ‘New Bill of Rights’, threatens to do away with more civil and human rights previous protected by our membership in the EU.

As Liberal Democrats we cannot stand by such an assault on our rights. These are not hypothetical, high-level, high-brow topics: they affect every one of us, the most vulnerable first. Next time you are asked on the doorstep to explain our USP, just say: We stand up for your rights, as long as it is still possible.


* Irina von Wiese is a lawyer, human rights activist and former Vice Chair of the European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights. She is a Councillor in the London Borough of Southwark and an Affiliate Professor at the ESCP Business School.

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  • Tristan Ward 25th Jan '23 - 10:07am

    Absolutely agree about the importance of Human Rights – it’s one of the ways you prevent enslavement;

    BUT – we must not cede ground to other parties on (say) the environment – it does not belong to the Greens just because they have “Green ” in their name, for example; or on the importance of a properly regulated and functioning market and free trade – especially when the Tories are in such a mess and many liberally minded Tories are looking elsewhere for a party to support.

    To put it another way, I am not sure an appeal only to those who value human rights is sufficient to build the necessary coalition of voters to get enough Lib Dems selected.

  • Chris Platts 25th Jan '23 - 10:43am

    Agree wholeheartedly with sentiment expressed in the article.Once a more sensible government is elected legislation introduced by the Tories that impact on our freedoms need to repealed as soon as possible.

  • A very good article which highlights the many human rights issues that are being eroded by the present Tory government, the general public should be made aware of what we/they, are losing before it is to late!

  • Graham Jeffs 25th Jan '23 - 12:21pm

    Contrary to what some are telling us, the phrase “I am often asked by residents what Liberal Democrats stand for today” should be of deep concern.

    To think this is obvious or apparent is delusional.

  • Anthony Acton 25th Jan '23 - 1:43pm

    I agree with Graham. I first joined the party in 1961 and in the 62 years since then have never seen us languishing so badly in the polls at a time when the Conservatives are utterly broken. This is an existential crisis for the party. It needs addressing now.

  • Phil Beesley 25th Jan '23 - 1:51pm

    Irina von Wiese: ‘The right to speak up if things go wrong. The right to breathe clean air. The right to claim asylum if you flee persecution or conflict.’

    These are assumed or legally pronounced rights. Much of the time, people just rub up and accept differences or complain about the same things. ‘Do as you would be done by’ liberalism is a significant achievement. It is one which needs defending too.

    I find myself in conflict over the Public Order Bill. I could never argue against the right to peaceful assembly. Or against non-violent direct action. In the case of non-violent direction action, it has to be accepted that action may receive judicial punishment. That is the point, after all, that a concern matters so much that a protestor accepts legal consequences.

    The other side of me is so bored by disruptive protest. When gay men, lesbian women and transgender people went on marches in the 1970s, it was about about saying ‘Here we are’ addressing discussion of non-straight existence. Traffic was disrupted for 20 minutes; end of the news.

    Protest demands imagination as well as repeating the same thing over and over again. Let me get more even boring: stop reorganising the same-old protest. Do something different.

  • Nigel Jones 25th Jan '23 - 2:52pm

    “duty to respect others rights to do the same”. Glad you have included that since rights come with responsibilities so that people have good relations with each other as individuals and in groups. This gets tied up with balance of power, so that groups who have more attention or more power forget others who may be just as much in need of attention so that they too can be free to live good lives.

  • Mel Borthwaite 25th Jan '23 - 6:24pm

    I find the discussion about the ‘right to protest interesting. Most Liberal Democrats believe that it is acceptable – or even desirable – to not allow peaceful protests close to abortion clinics because of the harm these protests could do to others. Having conceded the principle of limiting the right to protest, the question then becomes one of deciding in what other circumstances the right to protest should be restricted. How about protesters deliberately trying to prevent ordinary people travelling to work to earn a living, or to hospital for life-saving treatment, or to attend a funeral of a loved one? How about protesters deliberately blockading a business or firm to try to force it out of business by preventing customers going in or produce coming out? While we all believe in the right to protest, that should not be a right to protest in any way you choose, at any time you choose, irrespective to the damage or impact this may have on others. Other people also have rights so the right to protest must be exercised within the context of the wider rights of the rest of society.

  • Phil Beesley 25th Jan '23 - 8:30pm

    I reserve the right to contradict myself.

    Mel Borthwaite: ‘How about protesters deliberately trying to prevent ordinary people travelling to work to earn a living, or to hospital for life-saving treatment, or to attend a funeral of a loved one?’

    Today the Greenham Common protestors are ‘grannies’. They ran a simple campaign which did not ravel itself in knots. Two campaigns, maybe, about women and peace, camping between a road and a fence.

    Compare and contrast. When people use cyanoacrylate to stick themselves to a glass wall or tie themselves up on a major road, it comes across as tiresome exhibitionism. About as smart as some artwork.

    About 700 people turned up at the first UK gay rights marches. I don’t know whether that is more significant than the hundreds of thousands who attended anti Iraq war campaigns. Perhaps a few marchers overlapped.

    When I was growing up, two civil servants sacrificed themselves to tell the truth: Sarah Tisdall and Clive Ponting.

  • I agree with Irina – and with Graham. True, Liberals and Lib Dems have often struggled to find a clear national image against the easy stereotypes of Labour, Tory and Nationalist. But at times – under Thorpe, under Ashdown, to some extent under Kennedy – we’ve had a clearer image. Liberty for all, empowerment for all, strong and co-operative communities, need expressing in a few strongly-promoted policies. Rights are part of that. Actually, it’s wider. The attack on civil rights is part of an attack on free democracy. Read Adam Przeworski’s “Crises of Democracy”. You’ll find an equivalent in the Tories’ policies for almost every act to undermine and fix democracy committed by regimes in Poland, Hungary and Turkey. Example: completely unnecessary photo-ID requirements to vote, with allowable ID defined so as to make voting by students very difficult.

    Mel has a point: legal limits on the right to protest can be justified. For example, you can’t parade in paramilitary uniforms, a law introduced against the British Union of Fascists but later used against the IRA. But any protest involves some disruption. Traffic will be held up. People will be late for work. Protesting against a polluting company outside its main office entrance will trouble staff trying to enter. Using these as an excuse for banning the protest is very dangerous and the power must be subject to judicial review on grounds of reasonablenes, not down entirely to the police or a minister.

  • Whether protest is legal or not is somewhat besides the point – some of the suffragettes carried out acts which were undoubtedly illegal then and now with the bombs they planted; Nelson Mandela and the other anti-apartheid activists planned to sabotage critical national infrastructure before they were caught and imprisoned; Martin Luther King and many other US civil rights activists spent a lot of time in various jails for crimes they definitely did commit.

    All of course are nowadays considered heroes because their cause is now accepted by enough of the establishment … with their methods and their illegality and often violence brushed under the carpet as much as possible to pretend that they achieved their goals purely through peaceful letter-writing and maybe some non-disruptive waving of signs.

    For a more modern example, the Iranian protests have been mentioned here a few times, and no-one has yet said that they agree with the protestors’ cause but feel that their burning of police stations along the way crosses a line. It’s been a while since any UK protestors actually burnt down a police station at all, of course, but I can’t imagine many here would praise them if they did, given the opposition some entirely non-violent modern UK protests regularly attract.

  • John Harris 26th Jan '23 - 2:58pm

    I completely agree we should strongly oppose the continued erosion of human rights by the Tories. But we also need practical and simple policies that people can relate to in their everyday lives. My suggestions are:
    • Two additional council tax bands, with the extra funds going to social care
    • Negotiate improved trading arrangements with the European Union and provide support for small businesses trading with the EU
    • A Standard Sizes/Weights Act for packaged food [as there is for bread], to combat shrinkflation.

  • The new and extraordinarily disruptive methods of protest adopted by environmental campaigners clearly requires the existing legislation to be updated. If we argue otherwise then it will not go down well on the doorsteps. Damaging property and obstructing people’s right of way is not “peaceful protest”. My answer to what do liberals stand for is “the rule of law not the rule of the mob”.

  • Robin Stafford 26th Jan '23 - 8:46pm

    It’s says a lot that voter preferences from polling have gone straight from Tory to Labour and that the LD vote seems to have gone sideways or backwards. That suggests that laying low and hoping the soft Tory vote may not work as a strategy. Whilst the Tories are undoubtedly undermining human rights, the right to health, housing, education, security and a decent job are what counts one the doorstep. Beveridge in short.

    The party needs some clear and challenging offerings in these areas if its going to attract voters disillusioned with major parties.

  • Peter Hirst 28th Jan '23 - 3:27pm

    Along with the rights agenda, we also need more devolved government and a more equal society. Focusing on rights alone makes it impossible to deliver. Valuing people must cross these boundaries and we are the only Party that has credibility in this area.

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