Shami Chakrabarti is a British lawyer who – from 2003 to 2016 – headed Liberty, an organisation founded in 1934 with the mission to safeguard civil liberties and human rights in the UK. A devoted human rights campaigner who has been called ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’ by the Sun newspaper, Shami was at the forefront of a number of campaigns and is an outspoken optimist about the future of the movement to safeguard fundamental rights and freedoms in the UK. Awarded a CBE in 2007, she is also the Chancellor of the University of Essex, Honorary Professor of Law at Manchester, Honorary Fellow of Mansfield College at Oxford, and a Master of the Bench of Middle Temple. Her first book, On Liberty, was published in 2014.
On 12 May 2016, she delivered the annual Ruth Adler Lecture at the University of Edinburgh on the topic of Human Rights and Dangerous Women. The following text is an edited extract from the lecture. The full lecture can be watched online here courtesy of the Global Justice Academy of the University of Edinburgh.
“The most dangerous woman in Britain”
I have lived a fortunate life doing work that I believe in and sometimes even being rewarded for it. But the greatest honour I ever received was from the Sun newspaper which once called me “the most dangerous woman in Britain”. It was the gift that kept on giving for more years than I care to recall. Travelling across the United Kingdom and beyond, discussing delicate topics in difficult times (because human rights had tragically become controversial), it was wonderful to have such a sterling ice-breaker:
“Be afraid, be very afraid…” I would say. “The Sun newspaper once called me…”
The range of responses this was to elicit from people I met could be a book in itself. For instance, there was the politician in Derry/Londonderry who remarked:
“They only said you were the most dangerous woman in Britain….I really was.”
She went on to tell me of her criminal conviction for conspiracy to cause explosions. Momentarily I was transported back to school; a tiny swot intimidated by a tougher girl behind the bike sheds. But not for long. This woman was now in Government building peace and justice with a sense of history and of humour.
But one of my best ever receptions came in the great city of Liverpool where my particular badge of notoriety (i.e. the opprobrium of the Sun newspaper) prompted a rapturous ovation before I’d even begun to speak. And thanks to human rights principles and the rule of law, the Hillsborough family campaigners, many of them grieving mothers and sisters. have now finally been vindicated in their struggle against historic and monstrous abuses of police and media power.
So imagine my consternation in the run up to the 2015 General Election when the Daily Mail reassigned my title to a certain charismatic politician north of the border. To add insult to injury, the First Minister of Scotland is even a little younger than me. With her feminism and eloquence, Nicola Sturgeon was the undoubted star of that campaign. Subsequently, this very internationalist Scottish nationalist came to my aid in rejecting all whispers of a dirty deal with the Conservative Government to replace our Human Rights Act with diluted Scottish and English Bills of Rights. Human rights are not Scottish, or English or even European. To mean anything, they must be universal. This is one of the reasons why powerful elites find them so dangerous.
Fundamental rights as ‘dangerous rights’
Fundamental rights and freedoms undoubtedly endanger unfettered power and those who would otherwise use and abuse it with impunity.
The world is dangerous. The planet is warmed; the credit is crunched; and humans are divided by breathtaking levels of inequality and by wars both real and metaphysical. The world is especially dangerous for women. From before birth to the grave we are pre-selected for abortion in large parts of the globe and then deselected from dignity and opportunity in terms of health, wealth, personal security, work, representation and law.
Dangerous women and the fight for rights
But women are dangerous too and never more so than when organised and armed with human rights values. In the words that screenwriter Abi Morgan gave to Carey Mulligan in Sarah Gavron’s great film “Suffragette”:
“We’re in every home. We’re half the human race. You can’t stop us all.”
That wonderful movie obviously told of the fight for the franchise but also so much more. It was an exquisite study of “radicalisation” and how it can spring from inequality, injustice and “othering”.
Nicola Sturgeon is not the only dangerous woman or human rights defender in her party. Her Westminster colleague Joanna Cherry QC MP said the following in her maiden Commons speech in 2015:
“My message to the House, and in particular to those on the Government Benches on whether to repeal the Act and leave the ECHR, can best be summarised by the words of my fellow countrywoman, Mary Queen of Scots, when she was on trial for her life before and English court: Look to your consciences and remember that the theatre of the whole world is wider than the kingdom of England.”
Mercifully, and unlike in so many parts of the world, human rights activists are not yet on trial. But if I were in the dock, it is my friend and mentor Helena Kennedy QC to whom I would turn. I grew up watching her television advocacy of legal ethics explained in plain English. I heard her speak as an undergraduate and then went on to enjoy the privilege of working with her on many vital civil liberties campaigns.
Diane Abbott MP is the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development and another great political champion of human rights. Her 2008 Commons speech against the Labour Government’s attempt at pre-charge detention of forty-two days remains one of the most powerful I have heard delivered:
“…Of course the people whose rights some of us are trying to defend are unpopular and suspect. But if we as a parliament cannot stand up on this issue, and if people from our different ethnic communities cannot come here and genuinely reflect their fears and concerns, what is parliament for?”
Rt, Hon, Theresa May MP might also be described as a “dangerous woman”. A likely contender to be the next Conservative leader, she has occupied the hot seat of Secretary of State for the Home Department for some years with considerable distinction and calm. I have disagreed with her about many things but found her a model of courteous disagreement in person.
When like previous Home Secretaries, she found the prohibition on torture an impediment to the deportation of an undesirable radical cleric, Abu Qutada, some in her party urged her to flout domestic and European Court judgments. To her significant credit, she did not. Instead she negotiated for the provision of an amendment to the Constitution of the Kingdom of Jordan. This outlawed torture and evidence gained by that odious method being used in criminal trials. But instead of appearing in Parliament as a human rights hero, as someone who had not just obeyed the law but progressed it even in another land, she managed to snatch moral defeat from the jaws of victory. In her view, the whole process had taken too long. She is thus committed to scrapping our Human Rights Act.
I also disagree with her attitude to privacy. I know that it cannot be an absolute, and must sometimes be interfered with in the interests of security, tax collection and other societal interests. But a world without any privacy is one without intimacy, dignity and trust and a life in which rights to secret ballots, medical and legal confidentiality and freedom of conscience will also cease to exist. Her suggestion that the innocent have “nothing to fear” from unchecked surveillance powers can well be disproved by the story of Doreen Lawrence.
I don’t think it hyperbolic to describe my friend Doreen Lawrence as the greatest race equality campaigner that Britain has ever known. When her son Stephen was brutally murdered by a racist gang and the police failed to investigate, she launched a campaign not just for justice for her family but for all of our families going forward. And when this dangerous woman began to make progress, causing irritation and embarrassment with her spotlight on negligent and racist policing, that institution turned its attention to her. Undercover police officers were placed in her campaign group, in her friendship circle and in her home. All this without any need for external judicial warrantry despite the greatest intrusion of all.
Still her relentless courage and campaigning led directly to the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 and then the Equality Act 2010 placing positive non-discrimination duties on public authorities for the first time.
Optimism for the future
These, and so many other women, have all played a phenomenal part in modern British human rights discourse and unsurprisingly they are seen as dangerous to many in power. But with refugees drowning, not in some far away ocean, but in the Mediterranean, and food banks next to investment banks in one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, brave and restless voices are in greater need than ever. I hope to be one of them and to hear from many more.