the Disillusioned kid: Freedom? Yeah Right!
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Saturday, December 10, 2005

Freedom? Yeah Right!

International Human Rights Day is celebrated every year. As such it's much like Christmas, except cheaper and fifteen days earlier. December 10 was chosen as the date for the festivities in order to mark the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10 1948. The day is a popular choice for awareness raising efforts by human rights organsations. The local branch of Amnesty International, for instance, were braving the cold and apathy of Chelmsford high street earlier today hoping to make Christmas shoppers aware of the scorgue of violence against women and repression in Georgia. Recognition of the day is not just limited to liberal groups. The Freedom to Protest Conference, held in London in October, decided - insofar as several hundred people can "decide" anything - to call for actions in defence of the freedom to protest to take place today. (A call taken up by at least one group, namely Brighton's smashEDO.)

The issue of freedom to protest has become an important one over the last few years, particularly in the aftermath of September 11. At this year's Labour conference, for instance, more than 600 people were detained under anti-terrorism legislation, most of them anti-war activists and anti-Blairite OAPs. Elsewhere, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 has been used against such seriously organised criminals as Maya Evans who was convicted of breaching Section 132 of the Act after reading aloud the names of the 97 British soliders who had died in Iraq while standing next to the Cenotaph. Just to underline the sheer ridiculousness of the Act, I discovered last week that it also includes a prohibition on the use of megaphones within a mile of Parliament which applies even if you are on an authorised protest routed past "the mother of all democracies."

As if to underline the importance of demanding our freedom's today, yesterday saw the authorities launch their latest attack on anti-war protester Brian Haw. Haw has maintained a vigil outside Parliament for four-and-a-half-years, broken only by three admissions to hospital and numerous court cases as both defendant and witness, in protest against the sanctions imposed on Iraq and the subsequent war. You might conclude that he's a little strange, not without good reason, but it's clear that his intentions are sincere and that he is a threat to nobody. Nevertheless, at first light yesterday Haw was arrested and taken to Charing Cross police station to answer charges of "breaching the peace" (the ultimate catch-all offence). Haw asserts that he was arrested after he challenged two police officers who were quizzing a woman who had come to participate in his vigil.

Although Haw was released within an hour the arrest fits into a pattern of harrasment which reached its apotheosis with the introduction of SOCPA. The sections on protest near Parliament seem to have been designed primarily to end Haw's vigil. MPs, apparently, are perfectly happy to support the invasion and occupation of foreign countries, but aren't so keen on being reminded about the consequences of that support. Much easier to shoot the messenger than face up to their responsibility for the deaths of untold numbers of Iraqi children. Or so they thought. Shoddy draftsmanship meant that when the High Court came to interpret the Act they concluded that it only applied to protests beginning after it came into force. As Haw's protest began in 2001 he was exempt. How they must have laughed back at the Home Office...

Haw's case is merely one of the more high profile examples of a wider crackdown on a freedom which should be at the very core of any system which describes itself as "democratic." John McDonnell MP, chairman of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, told the Independent, "Freedom of speech has never been under such attack in the UK and it is shameful this is happening under a Labour government. We need a concerted campaign in Parliament and if necessary in the courts to counter this full-frontal attack on our centuries' old democratic rights." While I have a lot of time for his analysis of the state we're in, I'm not so hot on his proposed response. Frankly I don't trust the spineless obeisants who mingle in the halls of power as far as I can throw them. I certainly don't trust them to defend my civil liberties, the unexpected discovery of their collective backbone when they went to vote on detention without trial notwithstanding. If we want to retain our hard won freedoms then we are indeed going to need a concerted campaign, but Parliamentary action will form only a small part of it. Fortunately the beginnings of such a campaign are already emerging.

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