Martha Spurrier is a barrister and campaigner, who in May 2016 took on the role of Director at independent human rights organisation Liberty. A passionate defender of access to justice and the rights of women, children and disabled people, Martha has organised campaigns opposing cuts to legal aid and the scrapping of the Human Rights Act.
How have you found your first few months as Director at Liberty?
Less than a month after I started, the UK voted to leave the European Union amid a torrent of xenophobic rhetoric from politicians on all sides, and against a backdrop of divisive and discriminatory rhetoric, policy making and legislation in the months and years leading up to the referendum. In the days that followed the vote, we saw a disturbing spike in hate crime. It felt as though our society had become hostile overnight.
Liberty has been working for years to combat a surge in divisive political speeches and policy making from successive governments – and a priority for us now is to begin undoing that toxic legacy. We will be working to purge our laws of ‘hostile environment’ measures that pit neighbours against neighbours, turn ordinary citizens into immigration officers, and foster fear and discrimination in our communities, our schools and even our families. Top of the list will be ending the worst manifestation of systemic xenophobia – the use of limitless immigration detention, unquestionably one of the worst stains on our human rights records.
Like many of the battles that Liberty has fought and won in the eight decades since it was founded, this is daunting. But it is also winnable. Over the past few months I have had the privilege of meeting Liberty members across the country, getting to know Liberty’s brilliant team, and selecting a shortlist of fearless campaigners for our Human Rights Awards. I have been inspired at every turn, and I feel more hopeful than ever that we are united in our efforts to unify our society around human rights values.
What threat does Brexit pose to the protection of human rights in the UK? What would the consequences of repealing the Human Rights Act be?
Liberty’s Policy Team is currently assessing the potential implications of Brexit, and a major part of Liberty’s work in coming years will be ensuring our rights protections are safeguarded. The vote to leave the EU was not a mandate for the Government to diminish rights protection, and we will not let them take away any of the hard-won protections that come from the EU, or anywhere else.
Of course the European Convention on Human Rights – which the Human Rights Act enshrines into law here – is entirely separate from the EU. But this Government has recently revealed it intends to opt out of the Convention during future conflicts, which would weaken rights protections for soldiers and civilians let down by the Ministry of Defence.
And we know Ministers remain fixed on scrapping the Human Rights Act. From what we know of its replacement – the so-called British Bill of Rights – it will turn universal rights into privileges for a “deserving” few and make it far harder for everyone to hold the powerful to account when they fail to protect our rights. If we are to remain a civilised nation that prides itself on tolerance, dignity and respect, keeping the Human Rights Act is essential.
What are your other priorities at Liberty?
Liberty will continue to be a fearless, credible and incisive voice on human rights issues. We will carry on representing people who have suffered human rights abuses so that their stories can be told and lessons can be learnt, and wherever those in power seek to trespass on our rights, Liberty will be there to hold them to account. Over the coming months, we will focus particularly on campaigning for a lawful and effective state surveillance regime that keeps us safe while respecting our privacy; we will work with grass roots organisations and community groups to call for a genuinely effective, evidence-based policy to counter violent extremism that respects free speech and prevents marginalisation; and we will demand that the police investigate and prosecute hate crime, rape and domestic violence properly so that our streets and our communities are safe.
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Interview by Sam Walby