The year we tore up the rule book

Posted by Martha Spurrier on 15 May 2017

Last weekend, Liberty members joined us in Sheffield to debate gender-based violence, State surveillance and much more at our AGM. Here’s what Liberty’s Director, Martha Spurrier, had to say at the end of an inspiring day.

It’s been quite a year.

Politics has put pollsters out of business as we’ve careened from one surprise result to another – whether it was the EU Referendum, the election of Donald Trump or the announcement of a snap election.

This is the year that we tore up the rule book.

It’s easy for us to feel, as the rules get broken by the people who are meant to uphold them, that we’re all at sea.

How do we speak truth to power when we can’t even be heard above the din of fake news? How do we champion protest when dissent is condemned as disloyal? How do we give voice to the marginalised when populism rules supreme?

It can feel like some of things we thought were settled can come back round. Like when the Prime Minister visited Donald Trump earlier this year, and torture reared its ugly head.

I woke up to the Today programme and, no doubt in the pursuit of balance and neutrality, the BBC had one person condemning torture and one person defending it.

Suddenly the thing that every civilised nation has disavowed was part of a cordial conversation on the world’s most genteel radio station.

In that moment it felt like we’d lost something so, so important.

In moments like these it can feel a bit like the roof is falling in. And in those moments I reach for the things we have in place to protect us.

I reach for Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which outlaws torture. I reach for the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act.

And I realise that – as we renegotiate our European relationships, as we confront an executive with little opposition and face members of the public who feel left out and left behind – we have to fight hard just to keep those pillars standing.

Rule breakers

But I’ve learnt that rules are all well and good until the people who are meant to follow them don’t. And I’ve learnt some rules are bad and shouldn’t be followed at all. 

So, contrary to what you and I would think are the plain rules of the Human Rights Act, this year Theresa May got involved in a case to say that victims of rape don’t have a right to see the perpetrator brought to justice.

This is the year that, even though we have a right to liberty, more than 30,000 immigrants were locked up without the approval of a judge.

It’s the year that, despite there being an obligation to expose torture and ill treatment, investigations into abuses of civilians by our troops were shut down by the Ministry of Defence.

All of this is against the rules. But all this rule-breaking is enough to make an activist out of a conformist.

The year of the activist

Which is why I’m optimistic. I think this is the year activism goes mainstream.

It’s the year when all of us will defend the rules that protect us, and use them in the fight for a better world.

But where the rules are there to thwart our freedoms or strip away our protections, we will fight them with an anarchist’s zeal.

The fight has already started against the Snoopers’ Charter, a set of rules so threatening to our freedoms that it shouldn’t be on our statute books at all.

Together with the thousands of people who have pledged to support our case, Liberty will put an end to this lawless mass surveillance regime.

We’re going to fight every stealthy attempt to turn citizens into border guards.

We’re going to work with grassroots campaigners to expose new criminal offences for what they really are – discriminatory attempts to target minority groups and sow division in our communities.

We’re going to shine a light on the terrible conditions in immigration removal centres – where we warehouse migrants indefinitely, incarcerating asylum seekers, children, people with serious mental health problems and victims of trafficking, rape and torture.

This is a time of upheaval, but it’s also a time of hope. Tens of thousands of people are signing petitions, setting up campaign groups and making their voices heard.

Now is the time to come together, to be part of something bigger than me or you or your family or your neighbourhood. Together our voices will be heard, our votes will count and our work will bring change for the better.

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Martha Spurrier

Martha Spurrier