What Is Democracy? Think Human Rights Don't Apply to You? Think Again. Liberty's Director Shami Chakrabarti Speaks to HANNAH DAVIES on What Makes a Democracy, the Leveson Inquiry and Planned Coalition Changes

Article excerpt

Byline: HANNAH DAVIES

PERHAPS you're not really bothered that you're filmed on CCTV. After all, what have you got to hide? But what if that CCTV was turned on your bedroom? Or you were followed to the shops or when you are taking the kids to school? Maybe you aren't bothered that legal aid may be restricted? But what if your grandchildren were taken away and you were denied the legal help to try and get access to them? Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights organisation Liberty, believes there are certain fundamental points which keep a democratic society running properly.

And, she adds, they apply to everyone. Speaking in Newcastle this week, ahead of a lecture at Northumbria University, Ms Chakrabarti said: "I think it's very easy for people to think human rights is just about criminals or asylum seekers, or other people "not like us".

"There's a reason for this feeling of exclusion. One example is ordinary people are increasingly not getting legal aid or access to solicitors and justice which is a problem. And inevitably politicians don't run around informing people of their human rights because that would make it easier for people to hold politicians to account.

"You've also got a media which is often hostile for its own reasons because personal privacy can cause a problem. But I think the trick is to look at what those rights and freedoms are and then you can see how they might be relevant to you." Liberty, founded in 1934 in response to police brutality against hunger marchers, has the motto: "We believe in fundamental rights and freedoms - shared values that protect every member of the human family and the society we seek to build together.

"In the UK the Human Rights Act protects us all - old and young, rich and poor, you and me," said Ms Chakrabarti, who came to Liberty in 2001 after working as a lawyer for the Home Office. She was appointed director in 2003. She has a high public profile and has been outspoken against both the previous and current governments in regard to human rights infringements.

Ms Chakrabarti has also been appointed as a member of the Leveson Inquiry panel, which is investigating the role of the Press and police in the phone hacking scandal. This is a job she has described as 'a daunting privilege'.

Although a strident supporter of a person's right to privacy, she is adamant a healthy Press is essential for a healthy democracy from a local level upwards.

She states: "You've got local democracy in the North East, local, government and businesses so it is incredibly important to have local journalism to keep them accountable.

"Some people think democracy is just about having elections every few years and then who wins gets to do what they like.

"Elections and elected representatives are an important part of democracy but checks and balances that keep people and hold them to account are essential."

T HE "War on Terror" has been a huge issue for Liberty to tackle during Ms Chakrabarti's time.

She states: "Throughout the war on terror its been a tough time for human rights in this country. Measures were brought in which weren't just about punishing terror suspects, it was also just about punishing ordinary people. "Measures used in the war against terror were also used on police protesters. But crucial safeguards during the period were lawyers often using the Human Rights Act and journalists exposing sometimes really, really hideous wrongdoing like torture and rendition.

"If you're going to have checks and balances, everybody is going to be held to the same standards, you have to have journalism, you have to have access to justice and you have to have it at every level and all over the country."

Ms Chakrabarti addresses fears that the Leveson Inquiry may limit the powers of a free Press. "I understand a lot of journalists and editors are very anxious about the Leveson Inquiry," she said. …