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the outspoken human rights campaigner shami chakrabarti
With the yet another draconian law passed in the name of fighting terrorism, it’s easy to think you’re powerless against the whims of an increasingly harsh government. And the one woman that keep popping up to remind you you’re not alone in feeling suffocated by them, is one Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of the human rights group Liberty,
A human rights barrister who pairs a no-nonsense approach with charm, her cropped hair and penetrating eyes combine a tough interior with femininity to striking effect, leaving politicians quaking in their suits after every meeting. In fact, she was named ‘Most Inspiring Political Figure’ in a recent Channel 4 poll.
She may be a petite 38-year-old who looks unassuming enough, but whenever there’s a political injustice being swept under the carpet, you can rely on Shami to be on the frontline, making sure the issue comes to a head in the faces of those responsible. If New Labour thought they could just slip in legislation that affect our human rights – they’ve come to accept that Shami will be there to dispute them, armed with a megaphone and highlighting the plight of the common man.
In person, however, it’s refreshing to see she isn’t the type to bite your head off. With a kind smile, she assures: ‘I’m actually a very happy person. But when I’m on TV, talking about these issues I all serious and people think I must be angry or miserable all the time!’
Born in north London, the second generation immigrant has first encounter with human rights issues at the age of 12. She was watching the police hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, when her father told her to question her decision to agree with the death penalty. She recalls: ‘I asked why and he replied there is no justice system in the world that will be 100 per cent perfect and you have to imagine what it would be like to be the one person in a million who was wrongly convicted of this terrible crime. Imagine. Nobody believes your innocence; you’re convicted and led to the scaffold.
‘That’s what got me thinking about human rights; how we balance individual freedom and public safety.’
With the seeds of individual freedom sown in her mind, she soon had her sights set on tackling the unfair laws from the platform that came with being a lawyer herself. It wasn’t easy. ‘Because of the recession, despite my qualifications I found there were no jobs waiting for me. One day I was pulling pints for lawyers, the next I was a barrister, gravitating towards public law because I knew I’d be working directly with the government departments, keeping a watchful eye on them.’
Her first big challenge came when she took up a legal position in the Home Office. ‘Friends wondered why I wanted to be a lawyer in the Home Office, especially with the most authoritarian politician, Michael Howard, as Home Secretary,’ she recalls ‘It also was doubly ironic that as a British Asian I’d be working with a guy who was being nasty to asylum seekers and immigrants.’
Nevertheless, this gained her the privilege of witnessing New Labour’s first-term Human Rights Act, which quickly came under fire. ‘Everything he (Michael Howard) did was overtaken by Labour home secretaries thereafter. It turned into an arms race, which goes in one direction.’
Unable to bear the ethical dilemmas of working with two parties at loggerheads, she left to join Liberty in 2001. Two years later she became its director.
For those who’ve adopted apathy as a way of life, be warned there’s plenty to get riled up about. Shami points out: ‘Britain is the oldest and greatest democracy in the world with a noble practice of free speech and fair trials. Citizens have grown complacent with these privileges and don’t realise that without them, they‘d have virtually no human rights left.’