In this her first book, famed campaigner Shami Chakrabarti tells the story of her fascinating career and the battles she has fought to uphold civil liberties. The memoir is an account of the author’s personal and political journey in what she calls a “challenging time for human rights”.
During a successful career as a barrister at the Home Office, in 2001 Chakrabarti decided to join Liberty, an organisation that campaigns for human rights in the United Kingdom, as its new legal advisor. The first day at Liberty’s tatty office was a far cry from the grandness or her previous workplace and a culture shock in terms of the juxtaposition of the two. What happened next was even more life-altering: her second day was 9/11.
On Liberty reveals the shocking details of how the subsequent ‘War on Terror’ propagandised by Blair and Bush has overhauled the rights of British citizens in an unprecedented yet clandestine fashion. Even those who remember the headlines about various incidents may not be aware of just how many civil liberties have
been recently undermined – or even lost completely – until reading Chakrabarti’s book.
The birth of her son intensified Chakrabarti’s passion for human rights and after two years as the organisation’s lawyer, she became Liberty’s director in 2003. Although without experience of fundraising or leading an NGO, Chakrabarti took to the role with gusto, determined to increase the campaigning profile of the group.
Then, just a week after taking up the new post, came another critical point in the country’s continuing attack on human rights, when protestors against the annual arms fair at the Excel centre were stopped and arrested using anti-terror powers. Liberty brought the injustice to the media, despite its initial denial by the police contingents responsible.
What is absolutely deplorable about the “sloppy gung-ho Section 44” of the Terrorism Act is that it allows the harassment of innocent protestors under such a broad definition – the pursuit of one’s causes.
Perhaps Liberty’s biggest crusade to date is the “Charge or Release” campaign which lobbied against the absurdly long pre-charge detention time which was extended in the aftermath of 7/7. Gordon Brown and his colleagues were trying once again to raise the limit to 42 days; that is to say, locking up a suspect for 1000 hours without contact, legal representation, or even knowledge of their alleged crime.
The degree of this injustice becomes even more absurd when Chakrabarti outlines the huge disproportion in comparison with other states: in Russia the pre-charge detention time is five days, in the United States it is two, and in Canada it is just 24 hours.
After a series of tribulations, Liberty, led by the fearless Chakrabarti, reduced the limit in the UK to 14 days. Although a victory, it is still, as the author admits, unacceptably high, Chakrabarti’s list of human rights violations by the UK state goes on. Her explanations are clear and compelling; while the subject matter is both sad and infuriating. The detail provided is telling of Chakrabarti’s legal profession and also of her success as the director of a human rights organisation. Her passion is admirable and the personal touch given is engaging, thereby providing another dimension to the book. Certainly, the reader’s admiration for the author grows with each chapter.
This story and its message is of the greatest importance, for they poignantly affect us all. Chakrabarti is a precious figure in today’s fight for civil liberties, and a hero for human rights everywhere, making On Liberty a must read for everyone.