Chakrabarti: Mubarek case shows value of universal rights

“The populists have developed another theory of human rights. These new rights may not be universal or fundamental and might allow for the systemic abuse and neglect of those in prison”

The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm, dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused, and even of the convicted criminal, a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishmentÉthese are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it.
Winston Churchill, 1910

Those who campaign in politics and the media to “end the human rights madness”, can be shameless in the exploitation and recruitment of grieving parents for the cause. They would not find the parents of Zahid Mubarek such ready or attractive prey.

But for the Human Rights Act 1998 and its requirement that deaths in custody should prompt a full, public and independent inquiry in which families can participate, the Mubareks would be left with a few crumbs of Home Office comfort. We would have very little knowledge of the catalogue of failures that allowed one 20-year-old man to murder another who was locked in a cell with him.

How often have you heard the suggestion that the notion of human rights in Britain is turning us all into selfish individualists? We ask what our “country can do for us” rather than John F Kennedy’s formulation on what we can do for our country.

Meanwhile, those who hold or aspire to power in our society serve up the choicest platitudes, a perennial favourite seems to be: “There’s far too much talk of rights and not enough of responsibilitiesÉ”

This sound bite rolls off the tongue with obvious ease. Surely common sense dictates that for every human right there must be an equal and corresponding responsibility? Abrogate your responsibility and lose your rights. Human frailty and experience suggest that individuals and institutions fail in the discharge of responsibilities quite often. In addition to the idea that lack of responsibility means corresponding loss of rights to basic protection, dignity, equal and fair treatment, the populists have developed another theory of human rights. These new rights may not be universal or fundamental and might allow for the systemic abuse and neglect of those in prison. By contrast, the orthodox universal version respects the dignity even of those who have lost respect for themselves and others.

Under the contorted, contributions-based rights theory, only the model citizen need apply for protection. Zahid Mubarek with his truancy, drug use and car crime would not be included. Any rights that he was born with or given by the political community would have been lost via his crimes and misdemeanours or left at the doors of Feltham where he was sent for his 90-day custodial sentence.

I spend my life saying human rights belong to everyone. The bitter reality is that in modern politics, some need greater recourse to their rights than others.

Inefficiency in the deportation system (particularly if it leads to “foreign criminals walking the streets”) can cost ministers their jobs. The same is not true of inhumanity in the prison system.

Why did we allow a young non-violent Asian man to be locked in a cell (for 23 hours a day) with a “highly disturbed” young white man, whose racist and violent thoughts were well-displayed to prison staff? Mr Justice Keith’s inquiry report offers damning answers.

Racism, sadism and a lack of professional purpose were too rife in the prison system six years ago. How much better is the picture today? As long as our politics presents a comic-strip portrait of British society as neatly divided into “hard working families” worthy of protection and “neighbours from hell” worthy of nothing, young men like Zahid Mubarek will continue to fall through the cracks.

Shami Chakrabarti is head of Liberty

See Young Offenders Special report

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