Monthly Archives: November 2016

Derided by the state today, heroes tomorrow: Morning Star 27 October 2016

Despite the PM’s objections, holding British military personnel to human rights laws reflects our common humanity, writes LIZ DAVIES

IN HER leader’s speech to the Tory Party conference, Theresa May said: “We will never again — in any future conflict — let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave: the men and women of Britain’s armed forces.”

Cards on the table: I’m a political activist, I’m left-wing, and — like all lawyers who represent people rather than corporations — I deal with human rights in my day job.

While my work is about housing rights, my comrades in the Haldane Society, in my chambers and in similar chambers and firms do the sort of legal work condemned by the Prime Minister.

She’s riding high when she says that two of the solicitors’ firms which represented Iraqis claiming abuses of human rights by British troops are under investigation by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.

One of those firms, Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), has closed. PIL was run by my friend and fellow Haldane Society activist Phil Shiner.

The investigations into PIL are private and so it is not known what it is accused of.

What is known is that those lawyers, and others, have established, through litigation, the circumstances when human rights should be respected by the British army when it is occupying another country, such as Iraq.

Since 2003, judges have decided that human rights and the rule of law must be respected whenever someone is detained by troops, and when the army is carrying out a policing role.

Those rules do not apply on the battlefield or when troops need to defend themselves.

What the British army cannot do is torture or use inhuman or degrading treatment on people in captivity. Nor can it shoot civilians except in self-defence.

Those are entirely appropriate rules, reflecting common humanity as well as human rights.

The most famous case is Baha Mousa — an Iraqi hotel worker arrested by the British army as a suspected insurgent who died while being detained and interrogated in September 2003.

The subsequent inquiry found that Mousa and other civilian prisoners had been subjected to “an appalling episode of serious gratuitous violence” by the army — torture — which led to his death.

The then defence secretary Liam Fox said to the House of Commons that what had happened to Mousa and the other detainees “was deplorable, shocking and shameful.”

Following that inquiry, the government set up the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) which investigates claims by Iraqi civilians of murder or ill-treatment.

Some of those claims — investigated in the associated al Sweady public inquiry — have been found to be false, such as people claiming to be civilians were in fact insurgents. This had led to the disciplinary proceedings against some of the lawyers involved. But other claims have been upheld.

A recent report found that a 15-year-old Iraqi boy had drowned in Basra in 2003 after soldiers forced him and others into a canal and left them floundering.

This was called “wetting,” a practice apparently used by British troops to humiliate and deter suspected looters. It has no relationship to the rule of law.

Sometimes the soldiers acted in self-defence, sometimes not.

In all cases, those who died are casualties of an immoral and (as Chilcot found) unjustified invasion.

It is important to note that the role of lawyers is to bring what appear to be legitimate claims.

It is for judges to decide whether those claims are, in fact, legitimate. Or, indeed, for the government to decide.

The British government has already settled and paid compensation for 326 cases of abuse, paying over £20 million so far. The government would not settle spurious claims.

Soldiers, as well as civilians, are victims. PIL represented families of soldiers killed in Iraq at inquests.

Soldiers put their lives at risk but their families are entitled to assume that they will not be killed by friendly fire.

Activist lawyers tend to be abused while they pursue controversial cases, and then feted as heroes afterwards.

Gareth Peirce represented the Birmingham Six, Judith Ward and Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four. They were all considered terrorist murderers in the late 1970s and throughout most of the ’80s.

Lawyers, politicians, journalists and other campaigners who argued that they were innocent were accused of being IRA sympathisers, supporters of terrorism.

As we know, all of them were innocent and had been imprisoned for years for crimes that they had not committed.

After the event, campaigning lawyers are held up as heroic or saintly, as the film In the Name of the Father portrays Peirce. Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, is often cited by aspiring lawyers as their inspiration for studying law.

In real life, lawyers representing African-American defendants, challenging institutional racism in US courts, usually working for or with the NAACP, were subject to physical attacks and death threats.

Medgar Evans, not a lawyer but a NAACP and civil rights activist, was assassinated.

In Northern Ireland, lawyers Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, who brought human rights cases against the British government in the 1980s, were both assassinated by loyalist paramilitaries. In the case of Finucane, the government has admitted the collusion of the British security services.

Lawyers have not killed anyone in Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor have they prevented British troops from acting legitimately in conflict.

Human rights abuses of Iraqi civilians — exposed by litigation, acknowledged by judges and by the British government — stand alongside the over 150,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, the displacement of more than a million people and the chaos that continues today as part of the dreadful legacy of Blair’s decision to invade Iraq.

  • Liz Davies is a barrister and honorary vice-president of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. She writes this column in a personal capacity.

Where does Labour go next? Morning Star 25 September 2016

After a deeply unpleasant election campaign, a careful analysis is needed for the party to move forward, argues LIZ DAVIES

AS the dust settles over this bruising, unnecessary leadership contest, we can get on with what the Labour Party should have been doing over the last few months: opposing the Tories.
Grammar schools, the decimation of social housing, the future of the NHS, punitive welfare provisions and the appalling rise in racism and racist attacks are all issues where Labour has a political and moral obligation to speak up for ordinary people.
When Labour has united against austerity, we have inflicted defeats, most famously over tax credits.
As we unite behind Jeremy Corbyn as our leader, we need to think through three issues: politics, how to manage debate and party democracy.
Politics: after 172 MPs voted for no confidence in Corbyn, Owen Smith during his campaign claimed that — at least on domestic policy — they were not politically opposed to Corbyn. It was his lack of capability as a leader, they said, that had led them to this situation.
Those were weasel words. From the moment that Corbyn announced his candidacy for leader in June 2015, it was obvious that this was a political battle.
It was an ideological contest between the old forces of New Labour (privatisation of public support, welfare cuts, bringing down the deficit) and the new response that 35 years of neoliberalism has only worked for the super-rich and the rest of us — the 99 per cent — benefit from redistribution of wealth, and defending and extending public services and the role of the state.
It was that political divide, along with the obvious foreign policy divisions, that led so many MPs to greet the prospect of a Corbyn-led party with horror.
For a while they seemed to come on board, at least around anti-austerity. At last year’s conference, senior Labour figures started to refer to the Labour Party as the anti-austerity party.
The divisions over foreign policy remained and emerged most notably over Syria and Trident.
This time round, the Smith campaign knew that party members wouldn’t support the last Labour government’s economic policies.
He said he stood for anti-austerity policies; the problem is that party members didn’t believe him.
Corbyn now has a second mandate for his economic policies and for a foreign policy based on conflict resolution, international justice and human rights.
There can be no doubt that party members want the Labour Party to advocate those policies.
A majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) may not agree with some, or all, of those policies but they must respect the democratically expressed views of party members.
Of course MPs have the right to vote according to their consciences (if their consciences tell them to vote in favour of bombing, that’s a matter for them).
But they should take account of the fact that a majority of party members broadly support Corbyn’s policies, and they should be pulling together to articulate those policies in Parliament, on the doorstep and in the media.
Robust and appropriate debate: it’s hard to think of a more unpleasant election campaign. A very careful analysis is needed to move forward.
First, personal abuse is utterly unacceptable. It is a feature of our internet age. For some years now, anyone in public life — MPs, journalists, actors, campaigners — has been subject to profoundly unpleasant personal abuse.
And those who are not the norm — women, black and ethnic minorities, disabled people — experience extra hatred, with misogynistic, racist, prejudiced, hate-filled language.
Pre-internet, those sentiments would only have been expressed in private, or in a pub; equally hateful sentiments but not broadcast to the world.
This summer, all sorts of people have been subject to abuse. Certainly some MPs have received unacceptable abuse for their role in the failed coup. They have also received emails simply expressing disagreement or disappointment.
People in public life must distinguish between hate speech and free speech. Corbyn and John McDonnell have been on the receiving end of personal abuse: from the disingenuous line that the PLP wasn’t voting against Corbyn’s politics but his character, to the Tory MP calling McDonnell “nasty” on Question Time.
Corbyn’s supporters have been subject to the innuendo that we are anti-semitic, violent, foaming at the mouth obsessives.
We’ve been accused of being homophobic, or of tolerating it. I don’t recognise those caricatures. Abuse has been meted out on both sides: sometimes in unacceptable forms and sometimes in robust but tolerable language.
The Labour Party, through the NEC, is going to have to grapple with how debate can be appropriately expressed and that will not be easy.
The extremes of the lines between hate speech and polite disagreement are fairly straightforward. The difficulty is the territory in between.
The NEC must be wary of assuming that, just because someone complains, the comments complained of are really beyond the pale.
Finally, party democracy. When Corbyn was elected last year, he was stuck with Tony Blair’s structures for party policy-making: the hideously opaque National Policy Forum, local parties unable to put motions to conference except on rules or “contemporary” issues, an NEC where only six members are directly elected by party members.
As I write, Corbyn has announced a plan to have the shadow cabinet elected in blocks by the PLP and by the party membership, with another third appointed by the leader.
This could be the beginning of a conversation in the party about how to make policy-making more democratic and transparent in the future.
How can grassroots members be involved in deciding both the broad strands and the detail of policy?
This is the chance for serious change, based on the principles of bottom-up, accountable, transparent and democratic decision-making.
As the new NEC considers a new form of party democracy, it must also refine procedures on suspensions, or refusal to admit into membership.
Of the suspensions that I have seen, the accusation of “support for other political parties” generally refers to previous support for the Green Party.
Surely we want to attract former Green Party supporters? No-one is suggesting that existing Green Party members should be permitted to join, but why not welcome someone who previously voted Green and now wants to join a Corbyn-led Labour Party?
I’ve seen, in my work helping members who have been suspended, how suspension is used as a blunt instrument, a “suspend now and ask questions later” tool.
The Chakrabarti report recommended that there should be due process to any decision to suspend and the NEC needs to consider that carefully.
I hope that the vast majority of suspended members (or those refused admission) will be reinstated and receive an apology.
Finally, parliamentary reselection: MPs who voted for the motion of no confidence knew what they were doing.
Where their local parties disagree, the MPs will have to answer for their actions.
Just as they also answer for their performance in Parliament, their views on welfare, foreign policy, social housing and their professional and ethical standards.
There is neither an automatic right to be a Labour Party candidate, nor an automatic right to deselect an MP (the trigger ballot is the gateway).
Every MP will put the whole of their record before the local CLP and party members will decide.
The one cheerful sight in this otherwise dreadful summer has been the performance of the new shadow cabinet members in Parliament.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, Angela Rayner, Richard Burgon, Clive Lewis and their colleagues have done a fantastic job taking on the Tories from the front benches, something that they cannot have anticipated when they were elected just 18 months ago.
They, with a re-elected Corbyn as leader and John McDonnell as shadow chancellor, and hundreds of thousands of invigorated, enthusiastic and campaigning party members, are the hope for the future.
Liz Davies is a member of Hackney North and Stoke Newington Labour Party. She was an elected member of Labour’s national executive committee 1998-2000. She is an honorary vice-president of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers.