Those who would give up essential liberty…

Two opinion columns in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, one by Ross Cameron on Vladimir Putin and one by Paul Sheehan on terrorism trials, shared a common theme of minimising the importance of human rights.

Ross Cameron, a conservative Christian former Liberal MP, wrote about Putin’s 10 years of wielding power in one form or another, claiming he is the “finest leader” Russia has had in 300 years. I’d hesitate to call the potted history of Putin’s background and achievements hagiographic, but it comes close. Cameron sees fit to concentrate on Putin’s admittedly impressive economic reforms while ignoring economic mistakes, and glossing over the less salubrious events under his watch. It is only in the last descriptive paragraph that any mention is made of the state of civil rights in Russia, and even then it is in the form of apologia.

Nowhere does Cameron express any misgivings about Putin’s crackdown on democracy (under the traditional despot’s guise of encouraging it), or the brutal practices in Chechnya, or the explosion in corruption at all levels of society. Cameron praised Putin’s commitment to the rule of law, but appears blind to the repeated violations in the media, commerce, and elections. There is no mention of Putin’s pursuit of the original oligarchs, probably because to do so would open up discussion about Putin’s grooming of a new cadre of monopolists, in keeping with his “national champions” ideology.

It strikes me that Putin is basically Havelock Vetinari.

Cameron states that he can’t see why anyone “could regret [Putin’s] continued influence in Russia and the world.” In the absence of a counter-factual, you have to weigh up the pros and cons of what happened. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has plenty of entries on both sides of the ledger. There is nothing to be gained by closing your eyes to the negatives.

Paul Sheehan, an experienced journalist and author, has a much better piece that is somehow more disturbing. He comes down firmly on the side of exceptionalism in the ongoing debate about how to treat people accused of terrorism, and the wider questions it raises about our legal system, tradition and philosophy.

His core argument is that having a rights-based legal system is a weakness in the fight against crime. I say ‘crime’ and not ‘terrorism’, because although Sheehan is only talking about that particular crime, his argument is a general one. And he’s right – we do hamper our crime-fighting efforts by assuming innocence until proof of guilt, by insisting on reliable evidence, by having equality before the law, by having strict procedural rules. It would be much easier and quicker and more effective to dispense with this historical detritus. We would certainly convict a lot more people.

Of course, such an argument is wrong. There is a reason our venerable legal system has accumulated all these protections – because the consequence of removing them is injustice, plain and simple. Sheehan’s proposal is essentially that terrorists are so outside the criminal norm that our standard responses are inadequate. Clearly he doesn’t see the conceptual danger in this. The first pitfall is the right at the start – what is terrorism? Which acts are going to be defined as crimes that negate normal human rights? Where is the cut-off? Such practical questions highlight the absurdity of classifying some people as worthy of legal protections and others not.

The next, more insidious pitfall would appear at some point in the future, maybe sooner than later – if we can treat accused terrorists like this, why not others? After all, there are many heinous crimes, many that are more damaging to society than most acts of terrorism. I’m typically wary of slippery-slope arguments, but on this occasion I believe stepping back from our absolutist legal doctrines could lead to an unravelling of key freedoms gained over a thousand years of judicial progress. That is a much bigger danger than anything terrorists can inflict.

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9 Responses to Those who would give up essential liberty…

  1. Kavit Munshi says:

    Terrorism is being used as such a “shoe-in” for draconian laws to be ratified, it sickens me. We shouldn’t allow governments to have such power over the populace they govern.

    Having said that most people seem to be happy with giving away freedoms for an illusion of safety.

  2. Jarrah says:

    Yes, Sheehan mentions this when he said draconian laws would be “a winner with the electorate”.

    Personally, I think this eagerness to give away hard-won freedoms at the slightest scaremongering is due to people thinking they are not giving away anything of value, or that they have nothing to fear because they don’t realise how important the rights are.

    What really pisses me off is that the trade-off is illusory – no-one can make you safe from crime, no matter how much control over your life you give them! So we could easily abandon justice and human rights, only to gain nothing at all.

  3. john walker says:

    Putin surely is both typical of russian leaders and not nearly the worst, ‘best of’ is (even if he did deserve it) is not much of a title in this exhibition class.

    No question the threat posed by ‘terrorism’ is very handy cover .

    “no-one can make you safe from crime” well , they could kill the whole species, it would be very peaceful.

    However: I have read that in Italy the introduction of a french Civil Code style of approach, to innocence and proof ,did result in a fair bit of success against the ‘family’s’ .
    And that the English formulation of presumption of innocence was reintroduced under some suggestions that this might not have been totally about the ‘rights of innocence’
    Do you know if this is true?
    Are there some aspects of the Civil Code that might be worth looking at for alternative thinking

  4. Jarrah says:

    What little I know of the civil code is from learning about our common law, so I can’t really comment on how it might be more effective in fighting organised crime. But I’m interested in the idea. Do you have a link?

  5. john walker says:

    Sorry I dont. It was in an article a of few years ago, about the mafia and the then new Italian Government. From memory it centered on the problems that were created by the English system for dealing with interconnected and ruthless groups , it perhaps might have been about the right to remain silent.
    I am also not in the loop about civil code.
    In the case of things like refuge status and ‘terror’ the french idea of an investigating magistrate with power to resolve matters of fact rather than simply matters of argument might have some merit? Refuge status is for example not really a question of guilt/innocence.

  6. john walker says:

    PS have you taken a look at the Google settlement circus? Whats your take on it?

  7. Jarrah says:

    No, I haven’t. What is it?

  8. john walker says:

    Australia’s authors have until the end of this month to decide whether to opt-in or opt-out for the rest of eternity. The settlement has been described as bafflingly confusing and obscure. There has almost no coverage or effort to alert Australian authors who are not members of the Australian Society of Authors. The settlement is an agreement made in American court that is apparently binding on Australian publisher books. I’m surprised that neither the government, nor opposition have picked up on the sovereignty issues involved. The NZ government and most of the rest of the world apart from Australia, Canada, US and UK has blankly refused the recognise this agreement. NZ authors apparently led the charge and were very vocal in their opposition. It is strange that no-one here appears to have heard anything.

  9. Pingback: Sheehan goes from bad to worse

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