A trend is a trend is a trend – until it bends, said the futurist Ged Davis, but two which keep colliding without seeming to bend are the trends about human rights on the one hand, and security on the other. The UK government’s penchant for security related legislation (is it 50 Acts in the last ten years?), and its long-term love affair with security apparatuses and apparatchniks, long before September 2001*, makes it easy to lose sight of the human rights trend. But three separate events this week brought it back into sharp focus.
The first was the UK Appeal Court’s ruling – now the third time a UK court has thus ruled, and despite continuing government pressure – that the UK government acted unlawfully in deporting the Chagos Islanders from Diego Garcia to make way for a US airbase, and that they have the right to return to the Islands (if not to Diego Garcia, which is a US military airstrip). The judges’ language is unequivocal: “the permanent exclusion of an entire population from its homeland for reasons unconnected with their collective well-being cannot have that character [i.e. be regarded as an act of good governance] and accordingly cannot be lawfully accomplished by use of the prerogative power of governance”.
The second was the acquittal of ‘the B-52 Two‘ at the second time of asking. The Two are the peace activists who damaged US planes prior to the war in Iraq in 2003. Their defence was that they caused criminal damage to try to prevent the deaths of civilians in an unlawful war. At the first trial there was a hung jury; at the second they got off. (Two other trials, which also failed at first attempt because of hung juries, are scheduled for re-trial).
And there’s a third strand here as well. My initial response to the way the judiciary responded to the formation of the Ministry of Justice was that they tended to react that way to change. (And it is true that the relevant ministers handled the whole thing appallingly). But I think I’ve done them an injustice, as it were. It was clear from Lord Chief Justice Phillips’s remarks on Tuesday to the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs (widely reported, but not yet available in Commons reports) that one of the factors fuelling his anger was the sense that the priority of the government was not about improving justice, but about further pursuing its security agenda:
“The impetus of this position was anxiety on the part of the Home Secretary to clear the decks so that he could make a concerted attack on terrorism. It was not a decision taken because it was thought that it was a very good idea to have a Ministry of Justice.”
* A copy of Peter Wright’s Spycatcher sitting on a second-hand bookstall at the weekend was a reminder of how persistent thiswas