Shami Chakrabarti on human rights

Human Rights. The Case for the Defence (Allen Lane 2024)

(A preview of a forthcoming book review in the Irish Times)

In the middle of writing this review I heard Shami Chakrabarti on the radio, eviscerating some confused Tory advocate of the UK’s proposed new law to remove a few asylum seekers to Rwanda. Chakrabarti was courteous throughout, her politeness serving only to maroon her opponent ever deeper in contradictions of his own making. The exchange brought back happy memories of peak Chakrabarti, the young, brilliant women from a diverse background holding forth fearlessly in defence of civil liberties on this or that TV show at a time when everyone watched the same programmes. This was when a supposedly socialist government was brutally disrupting basic liberties in its pursuit of those whom it suspected were linked to Islamic terrorism: at times it seemed that only Shami (as everyone everywhere called her) and her Liberty cohort of young activists stood between government and a police state. Departure from Liberty was followed by a brief engagement with Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle which did not go well. But it did lead to her securing a seat in the House of Lords where she takes the Labour whip and continues to cause mischief, these days from within rather than without the corridors of power.

Chakrabarti also now writes books, albeit (as here) not exactly boasting about her elevation into the fabricated aristocracy that is the current house of lords (though she clearly likes the place despite herself: her acknowledgements contain an array of those she has met there even if they all come heavily disguised by use of their pre-ennoblement names). The theme of this volume is universal rather than local human rights, and Chakrabarti is excellent on the historical origins of her subject and how it took off in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. The book is at its best showing how the idea of human rights can have a direct bearing on the problems of today, whether they be about war, climate change, poverty or artificial intelligence. In Chakrabarti’s hands, the underlying values are what matter about human rights, forming a road-map to civilised living at a time of change and crisis. I cannot offhand think of a better, more attractive introduction to the subject for those curious to know more about it than the occasional newspaper headline.

Chakrabarti cleverly embraces within the book’s wider remit a robust reassertion of the value of the British Human Rights Act, a law passed in the early, idealistic phase of the Blair/Brown hegemony. This is the measure that will forever be associated with Chakrabarti. Increasingly excoriated since enactment by a plethora of government ministers, its critics now include most Tories and a succession of Conservative prime ministers, the sort of people who want such rights for everyone in the world – except those over whom they themselves have direct control.

A modest and rather legalistic measure, the Human Rights Act continues to draw especial ire on account of its connection to the European Convention on Human Rights, overseen by the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights. The judgments of that court, of which Irish jurist Síofra O’Leary is president, play an influential but not authoritative role in how the UK law is interpreted. Tories and their fellow-travelling lost imperialists are not strong on detail (the Strasbourg tribunal has nothing to do with the EU for example, a basic point they still frequently miss) but they are bright enough to spot the word ‘European’ in the Convention, and also the term ‘human rights’ which feels to them (schooled as they are in their uniqueness) vaguely continental, possibly even French (they have mostly heard of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and can place it in the Paris of 1789, more or less.)

In the years when what we now call Brexit was regarded by all political leaders as the obsession of lunatics, antagonism to European human rights became an easy way for David Cameron and colleagues like Theresa May to show that though they were in favour of staying in the EU, really in their hearts they hated foreigners. Then Brexit marked defeat of the true enemy, though the UK’s win in 2016 makes Pyrrhus’s triumph against the Romans in Asculum (which destroyed his forces) look like not such a bad result by comparison. For all their taking back of control, the Tories cannot even shake free of the European Convention, being bound to it by a desperate Foreign Office keen to meet important Europeans at least now and again, and by US and European intransigence on the issue of the British border on the island of Ireland.

By focusing on human rights as a universal rather than local idea, Chakrabarti does a fine job in indirectly showing how deluded the arguments against UK human rights law is and how vital it is to defend the law. Protecting the Act is a last stand for the culture of equality and dignity which Chakrabarti so ably presents in this book, and from which a counter-attack for a better, more cosmopolitan Britain might conceivably be made at some point in the future. The same is true of the world in general, where the idea of human rights could in the right hands act as a passport out of populist madness.

Chakrabarti has an enviable writing style, her fluency in print matching her bewitching speaking skills; many times I could hear her voice coming through the text. I found myself wondering (perhaps as she does?) whether these skills could indeed be better deployed (as clearly she once thought) within a Labour government. But the thought of her, say, having to justify the inaction of a Starmer administration in the face of Israel’s destruction of the Palestinian people, or some other travesty of human rights values, fills me with anticipatory horror. Shami is better off where she is, pugilistic in her defence of human rights, a key high priest in this, the most important of our secular religions.