Recently, a prominent UK Cardinal, Keith O’Brien, publicly lashed out at nations that have legalized gay marriage – such as Canada – declaring, among other things, that such nations are “shaming themselves.” Oddly, the Cardinal was not only using Catholic dogma to preach his views. He based his arguments on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where, in his view, marriage is defined as “a relationship between man and woman.” These comments come at a time when a debate over gay marriage is raging in the UK, which currently permits civil unions between homosexuals but not marriage. Read more here.
One might ask: If this universal statement of human rights can be used to deny civil liberties to homosexuals and promote inequality, is it serving its purpose?
After a historic legal ruling in December 2011, in which the UK Court of Appeal ordered the UK government to request the release of Yunus Rahmatullah, a Pakistani man who has been held by the US without trial at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan for eight years, attempts at actually securing Rahmatullah’s release have officially failed. Lord Neuberger – the second most senior judge in England and Wales - had ordered the writ of habeas corpus to ensure Rahmatullah’s release, yet, yesterday, effectively accepted that matters could not progress after the Americans simply refused to hand him over. The Court ruled that it had no power, after all, to order the man’s release, with Neuberger publicly stating, “The melancholy truth is that the events since we handed down judgment appear to establish that when the UK defence forces handed over [Rahmatullah] to the US authorities in questionable circumstances in 2004 they most unfortunately appear to have sold the pass with regard to their ability to protect him in the future.” Ultimately, as Neuberger said, the court could not reach “beyond its jurisdiction” and that did not “extend to the US military authorities in Afghanistan.”
This incident has no doubt led to considerable controversy in the UK. Notably Clive Stafford Smith, the director of Reprieve – the legal charity that brought the habeas corpus petition – publicly stated: “Translated into plain English, what the judges are saying is that Britain committed what seems plainly to be a crime in 2004, but has now given up the power to release the victims from illegal detention”.
A leading UK civil liberties organization – Liberty – recently launched a new campaign called “For Their Eyes Only” to oppose UK Government proposals which, according to Liberty, would “deal a fatal blow to justice and transparency in [the UK] civil legal system.” Liberty declares, “If the policy makes it onto the statute book, the Government will be able to throw a cloak of secrecy over litigation to which it is a party by gaining control over what material can be disclosed to the other side and in open court. This will be achieved by making Closed Material Procedure (“CMP”) available in all civil cases.” Read more about Liberty’s campaign here.
Liberty, also known as the National Council for Civil Liberties, was founded in 1934 and acts as a cross party, non-party membership organisation at the heart of the movement for fundamental rights and freedoms in the UK. Liberty campaigns to protect basic rights and freedoms through the courts, in Parliament and in the wider community in the UK, through a combination of public campaigning, test case litigation, parliamentary lobbying, policy analysis and the provision of free advice and information. Find out more here.
In accordance with a European Court of Human Rights decision holding the UK could not deport Abu Qatada to Jordan for fear of denial of civil liberties and human rights violations, such as torture, immigration officials in the UK have released the Islamic cleric on bail after more than six years of detention without trial. This incident has caused a series of mixed reactions over the role of the European Court of Human Rights and the sometimes strained relationship between national security and due process and civil liberties. For a sense of this controversy, read more here; here; here; and here.
In keeping with the general positions of the Supreme Courts of Canada and the United States, the UK Supreme Court has ruled that an accused who acts of their own free will in waiving their right to legal assistance does not have to have had access to legal advice before they can be held validly to have waived that right. The recent case concerned inter alia Article 6 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which guarantees the right to a fair trial. Though Article 6 does not expressly state that a person must have had legal advice before they can be taken to have waived the right of access to an attorney, in order to be effective as a waiver of a Convention right, the acts from which the waiver is to be inferred must be voluntary, informed, unequivocal, and graced with the minimum safeguards that correspond to the importance of the right at stake. Ultimately, this case sheds further light on the lack of an internationally recognized human rights standard on the issue of waiver that supports the argument that access to legal advice is an essential prerequisite to an effective waiver of the right of access to an attorney when detainees are being questioned by police.
As recently reported, all taxicabs in the City of Oxford, England are to be fitted with cameras meant to record video and audio in the cabs at all times. City officials claim the move is meant to monitor crime, and material will only be viewed if there has been a complaint. In addition to the clear cost to taxpayers, civil liberties groups deem the move a “staggering invasion of privacy.” Read more here.
As recently reported on a leading UK civil liberties website, Britain’s Metropolitan Police have purchased a system which can identify, track and possibly shut off every cell phone in a 10-square kilometer area. The system has raised concerns over potential abuses and violations of privacy. Read more here.
Lady Hale, the only female justice to sit in the UK Supreme Court, recently called for more diversity in appointments to the Court. Read more here. The UK Supreme Court, a court with no ethnic minority justices and only one female justice, was established in 2009, assuming the judicial functions of the House of Lords. The issues of diversity on the Court and a possible “democratic deficit” in how the country’s most senior judges are chosen, seem to be issues gaining prominence on the political agenda in the UK.