Civil liberties are freedoms that are guaranteed to people to protect them from an over-powerful government. Civil liberties are used to limit the power of a coercive government. Civil liberties are found in democratic states such as Great Britain but are not found in undemocratic states such as the Iraq under Saddam Hussein and North Korea.
Examples of civil liberties (some nations might refer to them as civil rights) are:
- Freedom from arbitrary arrest
- Freedom from arbitrary detention
- The right to a fair trial
- Freedom of association
- Freedom of assembly
- Freedom of movement
- Freedom of conscience
- Freedom of religion
- Freedom of speech within the parameters of the law
Because these rights are part of the fabric of British society, we tend to take them for granted. On rare occasions, the government may take action against a small group of people which it could be argued, infringes on the civil liberties. Since September 2001, various anti-terrorist acts have given the police a far greater ability to ‘trespass’ on peoples’ individual rights. The government argue that this is necessary to ensure the safety of the country. Groups such as Liberty have argued that the government has overstepped the mark and has gone past the acceptable line of what a government can do and can’t within a representative democracy.
By banning Abu Hamza from preaching at the North Finsbury mosque in London, it could be argued that he and his followers are having their civil liberties infringed (freedom of assembly, association, religion etc). However, the government would argue that a higher purpose is being served and that the nation as a whole benefits more by he and his followers being banned from using the mosque.
Similarly, the unnamed Algerian who was released from Bellmarsh Prison in April 2004 after two years imprisonment without being charged. David Blunkett has called the judicial decision to release him a “mistake”. The man was being held under anti-terrorism legislation but was released due to a deterioration in his mental and physical health. But for two years, were his civil liberties being infringed?
The government wishes to introduce some form of ID card within years. In April 2004, it was announced that 10,000 people had volunteered to try the system out. Civil liberty groups have expressed their concern that it will lead to a ‘Big Brother’ society with the power of the government in office being greatly expanded at the expense of society as a whole. The government has defended its plan two-fold. Britain is the only major power in the EU that does not have ID cards and, more important, they are seen as a way of combating terrorism.
In the past, political marches/meetings of certain political groups have been banned for the sake of ‘public interest’ and ‘public safety’. Marches by the National Front were banned in the 1970’s out of the fear that they would cause public disorder. Ironically, the National Front was supported in its right to march by liberals who believed that it was a very dangerous road to go down when a government denied people the right of assembly simply because it might cause a public disturbance. Where would it end? Stopping people having the right to join the party regardless of its beliefs? Stopping that party putting up candidates at elections? Whilst deploring what the NF stood for, there was support for their right to march.
One of the most complicated areas of civil rights is when a civil liberty that one person enjoys causes offence and trespasses on the civil liberties of another. This happened when Salman Rushdie published “The Satanic Verses”. British Muslims were incensed by what they considered to be blasphemy against their religion and asked the government to ban it. Rushdie claimed that he had a right to produce what his conscience supported even if it did cause offence. The government decided that a ban of the book would be the equivalent of censorship and, as a democratic nation, did not want to go down that road.
Further a field, in France the government has banned young Muslim girls from wearing the traditional garb of female Muslims stating that education in France is secular and has been for years and that the wearing of a uniform that is specifically associated with a religion goes against this. Other religious groups that wear clothing that is a specific sign of their religion are in the same situation.
Invariably, it is a truism that minority groups invariably suffer at the expense of the majority when it come to civil liberties.
In recent years, the government has also tried to address what it refers to as social rights. Some of these are:
- Equal pay between genders
- Rights against unfair dismissal at work
- Protection against unemployment
- The right to higher education
- Rights against racial discrimination
- Rights of the consumer against the large faceless corporations
Other issues that have made the headlines concerning rights and liberties are extremely complicated. In Britain, a woman has the right to an abortion. This has been so now for several decades. But in recent years, groups have grown that want an unborn child to have rights which would bring them into direct conflict with a woman’s right to decide.