GEOFFREY ROBERTSON, QC | September 9th 2008
"The basic freedom that we lost, thanks to the Bush administration's reaction to 9/11, was freedom from torture", explains Mr Robertson, a lawyer ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Autumn 2008
Intelligent Life asked 11 eminent people from different walks of life to look back over their adult lifetime and name the freedom we have gained and lost that means the most to them. They were free to take freedom in any sense, political or cultural, social or technological. What mattered was that it mattered to them.
THE LAWYER: GEOFFREY ROBERTSON, QC
Aged 61, leading human-rights barrister and author of "Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice"
The miracle of the UN Declaration of Human Rights is that it sets forth the freedoms that remain fundamental today. It is the centrepiece of the post-war triptych, alongside the Genocide Convention requiring intervention to stop mass murder and the Geneva Conventions which insist upon humane treatment for prisoners-of-war. These treaties are as relevant today as they were 60 years ago.
There is nothing I would change in the UDHR. The Geneva Conventions are a bit dog-eared--they guarantee the right of prisoners to smoke and I suspect that is one right that has been attenuated by the development of medical science. But the basic freedom that we lost, thanks to the Bush administration's reaction to 9/11, was freedom from torture. The puerile and vicious ill treatment visited upon the detainees in Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib amounted to a shocking breach of the UDHR and the Geneva Conventions. Of course that was not a freedom lost personally but we are all entitled to be free from the knowledge that our allies--or any government--is inflicting torture. That is why we speak of universal human rights-everyone is affected when they are violated without remedy by a particular state.
One universal freedom we have gained, and quite recently, is the right to put leaders on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity without them being able to claim immunity as a head of state. In the old days they could do what they liked to their own people: if they did leave the bloody stage, it was with an amnesty in their back pocket and their Swiss bank account intact. Recently, ways have been found to end this impunity and people like Pinochet and Milosevic and now Radovan Karadzic are being made to account for their crimes. It has been a slow process: international criminal justice is far from perfect and has many enemies, but it offers the only prospect that in the future, people may be protected from the likes of Omar al-Bashir and even Robert Mugabe. Freedom from tyranny is the most important universal right that we are slowly gaining.
Up next: the freedoms gained and lost by Tariq Ramadan, professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University ans author of "Islam, the West and the Challenge of Modernity".
Picture credit: Robin Dude/flickr
Co-ordinated by Horatia Lawson