Haw Fought The Law & The Law Won: The Crackdown On ActivismPosted: April 4, 2011
[First published in the Morning Star, 02/04/2011]
There was a strange scene at London’s Chatham House on Wednesday morning.
Israeli president Shimon Peres stood inside at a lectern, a man accused of war crimes for his role in Operation Cast Lead; the 2008 assault which saw missiles rain down for 22 days straight on a city about the size of Sheffield, killing between 1100 and 1400 Palestinian civilians and injuring countless more.
Police kept watch outside the building — but they weren’t there for President Peres.
They were there for the 30 or so members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the street outside, peacefully protesting and calling for his arrest.
The campaigners say they were kettled; the police deny it.
But in an odd twist of fate the conflict seemed to crystallise the twisted mentality behind the government’s policing bill being debated in the House of Commons a few streets away.
The Policing Reform and Social Responsibility Bill [PDF] is one of those dull-but-worthy-sounding bits of legislation which spans the whole spectrum of law enforcement.
Yet sandwiched in between liquor licensing regulations and drug misuse is a crackdown on the right to protest outside Parliament and a section seemingly designed to hamstring international law.
Paired with Home Secretary Theresa May’s musings on Monday about barring “known hooligans” from attending rallies and marches, it doesn’t seem like hyperbole to say that Tory policy is quite simply a law unto itself.
The first section is hard to see as anything other than smashing an ant – an ant that happens to underpin the entire framework of democratic society – with a sledgehammer.
Let’s get the bickering out of the way: Labour started it in 2005 with the Serious Organised Crime and Policing Act, a deliberate attempt to silence anti-war protester Brian Haw.
Section 132 of the Act made unauthorised public demonstrations illegal within one kilometre of Parliament, with a few areas exempted.
The Act went well beyond public safety, allowing the Met to decide how long it could carry on for, the number and size of placards allowed and even how many people were allowed to turn up.
May’s bill does away with that one-kilometre radius — but it replaces it with a set of restrictions even more shameful in their specificity, zeroing in on Haw and his fellow protesters in Parliament Square with all the subtlety of a trainwreck.
That’s not an exaggeration: the Bill specifically introduces a range of prohibited activities in “the central garden of Parliament Square, and the footways that immediately adjoin the central garden of Parliament Square”.
And just in case there was any confusion, it includes “public assemblies which started, or were being organised, before this section comes into force.”
So what are these prohibited activities? Flag-burning? Hanging in effigy? Not quite.
Clauses 141 to 148 specifically bans erection, possession or use of tents “or other such structure for the purpose of facilitating sleeping or staying in that area”.
It bans bedding, loudhailers and PA systems – at the discretion of police officers, of course – and allows the courts to ban a protester convicted of such crimes from returning to the Square at all.
The intent is not to ban protests – heavens, no – but to make them less of a nuisance.
Except that’s the whole point of protest; to drive the powerful to accede out of self-interest or embarrassment. The crowds in Tahrir Square didn’t pack it in for the sake of decorum, and Western governments – ours included – acknowledged that.
So when both Labour and the Coalition crack down so blatantly on critics of their own democratic exports, there’s really nothing left to say.
There is plenty to say however about the sleight of hand in Part 4, Clause 152: “Restriction on issue of arrest warrants in private prosecutions”.
This section stipulates specifically that magistrates must seek permission from the Director of Public Prosecutions before issuing arrest warrants for piracy, breaches of the Geneva Conventions, hostage-taking, attacking UN workers, hijacking and torture.
The Director must then consider the public interest in issuing the warrant, which all sounds very sensible at first.
But the Director’s consideration of ‘public interest’ is not one of mere morality: it also considers the likelihood of prosecution. And if that’s the preserve of the government’s handpicked attorney-general, and the suspect happens to represent a “friend and strategic partner”, well, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
In any case there’s little reason for it other than another act of political expedience: magistrates don’t hand out arrest warrants willy-nilly. In fact only two such warrants have been issued in the last ten years, and neither suspect – the Israeli general Doron Almog and his compatriot, the liberal opposition leader Tzipi Livni – were actually arrested.
But even its value as a symbolic act was apparently too much for foreign secretary William Hague, who decided prima facie that the system was being abused:
“We cannot have a position where Israeli politicians feel they cannot visit this country and indeed not just Israel, but this could apply to many other nations as well.”
The situation was “unsatisfactory” and “indefensible”, he continued.
“We will take every opportunity to help promote peace and we will now examine how to deal with the totally unsatisfactory situation that has had the effect of barring Israeli politicians, among others, from visiting the UK without weakening our commitment to hold accountable those guilty of war crimes.”
And fair enough. After all, what kind of justice treats your friends the same as enemies?