Written by Bisha Ali


Book review: On Liberty

On World Human Rights Day, Bisha K Ali explains why we should all read On Liberty by Shami Chakrabarti, director of British civil liberties advocacy organisation Liberty.

At a time when extremism and questions about our collective national and political identity constantly carousel as headlines, On Liberty by Shami Chakrabarti is the urgent and vitally important voice of reason that our civil liberties demand.

Liberty – originally the National Council of Civil Liberties – was founded in 1934 in response to the actions of the Metropolitan Police to the Hunger Marchers who walked across England in order to protest against the devastating affects of the Depression.

In 2001, on the day before the events of 9/11 fundamentally shifted international political landscape, Shami Chakrabarti began her first day at work for Liberty. In On Liberty, Chakrabarti untangles the work of Liberty in the new millennium with clarity and compassion and unpicks the battles fought, lost and won for civil liberties amidst changeable waves of political pressure, propaganda and corrupt fear-mongering. Beneath these waves, Chakrabarti seems anchored by clear evidence, legal thought and a dedication to the fundamental, immutable value of the Human Rights Act.

In the past few months, proposals to do away with the Human Rights Act as it applies to the UK have been used to shift newspapers across the country. It is because of this immediate threat that this work seems even more important. The brief and concise argument throughout On Liberty is one that anyone who cares about the world we live in needs to digest.

Chakrabarti systematically debunks the numerous myths surrounding the Human Rights Act that our politicians use to fuel their reach for greater power and benefits for those already in positions of privilege. She picks apart the notion that they are to be trusted to act in the interests of the public and not themselves, by highlighting, for example, parliament’s attempt to introduce a 42 day detention period without charge for cases ‘interpreted’ as terrorism. The attempted covert manipulations of MPs and the revolting deal-making surrounding the vote in favour of these measures is a prime example of how important the work of Liberty is today.

Indeed, the speaker of the House of Commons attempted to stop Chakrabarti from sitting in the gallery during the debate, lest her participation force “Labour MPs to be distracted by visible presences.”

In the wake of 9/11 and again six years later after the 7/7 attacks in London, Chakrabarti’s presence – visible, audible or otherwise – became a calm voice of clarity, showing no compromise when it came to the maintenance of human rights amidst the deafening calls for bending of the laws for those accused of terrorist offences.

“I learned that if you don’t speak up for the terror suspect, there may be no one to speak up for you and that politicians’ promises won’t even come close to hard-edged legal human rights protection when it’s you or a loved one who is in trouble.”

On Liberty is a lifetime of thought and passion, distilled into a brief and concise book. Chakrabarti shares some of the personal, but only in so far as it influences her dedication to her work. This is a work full of compassion and humility, and one that calls upon us all to think more clearly and critically about what we are told is in our best interest. I believe her conscience should be at the heart of our national and international discussion on civil liberties.

“The world is shrinking and ever more interconnected. We have to decide whether to seek protection as human beings everywhere or live with the vulnerability of being foreigners in every country other than our own. I know which state of being I choose and in which direction I want my country to lead.”

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Written by Bisha Ali

Bisha K Ali is a writer and comedian. Off stage, she can be found under a duvet with a notebook.