Watch Shami Chakrabati accept her honorary doctorate.
It is only fitting that this Honorary Doctorate from the University of Glamorgan is linked to Liberty’s work on the Human Rights Act. The HRA and European Convention of Human Rights have come under an unprecedented barrage of fire during recent months and years. Such attacks are often ill-informed and inaccurate, but they are rapidly seized upon by politicians and commentators alike as proof that the legislation should be scrapped. So for me and my colleagues the fight to defend this vitally important document – and debunk some of the damaging spin and myths around it – goes on. And I believe that our universities and students have a major part to play in helping us.
The Human Rights Act provides every one of us with so many fundamental freedoms. Free speech, fair trials, no torture, and respect for private life – all rights that we take for granted. Yet there are those who are intent on undermining the Act, persuading us it that it places criminals above victims; political correctness above common sense; Europe above Britain. As the Director of Liberty I know this legislation in detail – and I can’t find the part that details how the unfettered freedom of the criminal few overrules the protection of the decent majority.
On the contrary, the Human Rights Act protects the core values that distinguish our country as a democracy. Without it, there would be little to stop popular governments from passing legislation designed to empower themselves, or from undermining the democratic process itself. The Act exists to safeguard the vulnerable from the powerful; ensuring those who govern are accountable to law. There are countless examples of it protecting victims from State neglect and giving them redress. The mother of Naomi Bryant – who was murdered by a convicted criminal released on licence – only obtained an inquest into her daughter’s death because of the Human Rights Act. If not for this inquest, the numerous failings by the agencies involved in the release of Naomi’s murderer would never have come to light.
So, where do Britain’s universities fit in? Students have a huge role in contributing to society. Young people must be informed so they can question those that make the decisions that affect their everyday lives. They must be equipped with the necessary knowledge to scrutinise the law-makers, and our universities should be places where ideas can be explored and challenged.
It is certainly much tougher for students today than it was when I was at university two decades ago – just look at tuition fees. Young people have plenty to be angry about. But they also have the ability to make change happen. In these unpredictable times we live in, the value of educating our students – of promoting academic freedom and empowering them to hold those in power to account – should not be underestimated.
Shami Chakrabarti is Director of Liberty.