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Lord Steyn: a legal luminary who upheld the rights of the powerless


Lord Steyn in 2005: a man of forthright opinion apparently untroubled by self doubt

The following 2004 broadside was fired by Lord Steyn, described in his Times obituary as an “Outspoken law lord whose liberal views became a thorn in the side of the Blair government, especially over Iraq and Guantanamo Bay”, following Lord Hoffmann’s suggestion that the courts should not interfere with certain Government decisions.

“Courts must never abdicate their duty to protect citizens from the abuse of power by governments . . .The United States government has already created a hellhole of utter lawlessness at Guantanamo Bay by committing such abuse.”

Lord Steyn was born and bred in Cape Town and was one of the few native Afrikaaners who fiercely opposed apartheid. He won a Rhodes scholarship to read English at University College, Oxford and after being called to the bar and sitting as senior counsel in South Africa’s supreme court emigrated to Britain in 1973 to start on the bottom rung of the legal ladder.

Though English was not his native language, his Afrikaans accent remained thick and his ‘delivery’ in court was hesitant, he was admired for his clear arguments and his skill in cross-examination. Having served as the presiding judge on the Northern Circuit, Steyn moved to the Court of Appeal in 1992. He was made a life peer in 1995.

A detainee from Afghanistan is carried on a stretcher before being interrogated by military officials at Camp X-Ray at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (Telegraph 2016)

In 2003 he accused the home secretary, David Blunkett, of using “weasel words” to justify his policy on asylum seekers. Five months later, Steyn branded the US regime at Guantanamo Bay “a monstrous failure of justice” and declared that the system of trial by military tribunal was no more than a “kangaroo court” that “makes a mockery of justice”.

The unkett then blocked his appointment to a House of Lords judicial committee

The senior law lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, was asked not to include Steyn on the nine-judge panel to decide on the legality of detaining foreign terror suspects without trial – the first time a government had ever sought and obtained an alteration in the composition of the House of Lords’ judicial committee.

His other achievements include:

  • being one of the judges who ruled by a 3-2 majority that the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was not entitled to claim sovereign immunity from prosecution;
  • reproving Lord Irvine of Lairg, the lord chancellor who sought ‘an unfettered right to impose rule changes on the legal profession; “He is a member of the executive carrying out the party political agenda of the Labour administration. He is a politician. To entrust to a cabinet minister the power to control the legal profession would be an exorbitant inroad on the constitutional principle of the separation of powers”;
  • claiming, when Britain introduced executive detention without trial in 2001, that the UK opt-out from the European Convention on Human Rights was not justified “in the present circumstances”.
  • arguing, as chairman of Justice, the human rights group, that the Iraq War was unlawful and said that, “in its search for a justification in law for war, the government was driven to scrape the bottom of the legal barrel”;
  • dismissing Tony Blair’s suggestion, just months after the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, that the war had not made London a more dangerous place as a “fairytale”.

A champion of the Human Rights Act 1998, he retired satisfied that it had already “transformed our country into a rights-based democracy”. Hmm . . .

Anthony Lester, QC, wrote: “He has woven the Human Rights Act into the fabric of our legal system. He has a terrier-like tenacity and the courage of a lion. He’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to replace.” Agreed.





Extremism? Three steps David Cameron can take to change hearts and minds

cameron bham 20.7.15First, the prime minister could help to bring about change by apologising for British and American extremism.

He conveniently omits to acknowledge the impact of the attack on Iraq in 1992 – well before 9/11/2001. It was followed by an illegal and ruinous invasion in 2003 and illegal detention and torture in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and less well-known prisons.

He said: “I think we need a clarity of what we mean by extremism” – the actions mentioned above are extreme and over time an extreme response to them has materialised.

Then he added that what we need is people involved in our schools who buy into British values of freedom, democracy, free speech :

Freedom: Babar Ahmad imprisoned in Britain without charge for years

Democracy: ignoring a million strong protest against the second Iraq war

Free speech: as long as it doesn’t ‘rock the boat’ & is politically correct.

Second, Mr Cameron should tone down his extreme support for Israel, which slaughtered over 2000 Palestinians in five weeks and has inflicted many hardships on those living in the occupied territories – except those living well in the illegal Israeli settlements.

children drone killed

Finally he can apologise for Britain’s part in executing young and old without trial by drone strike.


Obama, Cameron’s “great friend” – if he toes the line

obama cameron eu

Deplored: once again Britain’s senior politicians – pre-election – seek to reaffirm ‘friendship’ with those who – after subverting and overturning South American democracies, created or acquiesced in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and destabilised the Middle East by supporting Iraq – then illegally invading that country.

US president Barack Obama lavished praise on David Cameron during his recent visit to UK prime minister to Washington, calling him a great friend and “one of my closest and most trusted partners in the world”.

But he has little to offer compared with Germany, said to be seen as America’s main ally in Europe, following doubts over Britain’s membership of the EU – Brexit [British exit]. 

Philip Stephens noted recently in the FT: “the Tory election manifesto leaves the US administration at best incredulous and sometimes scathing. Why on earth, the president has been heard to ask, would any British leader flirt with the idea of pulling up the drawbridge against the EU?”

He continues: “Stripped of diplomatic niceties, the American view of Europe is that, since Germany pays most of Europe’s bills, Chancellor Angela Merkel more or less runs the show”.

US officials question whether UK will continue to be a reliable military ally

Mr Cameron has agreed to supply a further 1,000 UK troops to NATO exercises in eastern Europe over the next year countering Russian military involvement in the region and to provide more drones to help with surveillance missions against Islamist militants fighting in northern Iraq, but the American government has other concerns:

  • the precedent set by parliamentary votes limiting British participation in the coalition against the Islamist extremists in Syria and Iraq;
  • the UK’s increasingly limited naval power – not even one aircraft carrier until 2017 so is unable to deploy and recover aircraft, act as seagoing airbase and no effective maritime patrol aircraft – more diplomatically: Jane, “UK’s maritime patrol capability gap;
  • Britain can offer only a few ageing Tornado bombers to assist with aerial bombardment.

Some see the Swiss model is a favoured alternative, minus its safe haven banking practices.


Be honest about America’s record – and ours

rogue states coverIn 2000 Chomsky presented an analysis of the United States and its allies as the world’s ‘rogue states’.

George Monbiot continues:

“Obama’s failure to be honest about his nation’s record of destroying international norms and undermining international law, his myth-making about the role of the US in world affairs, and his one-sided interventions in the Middle East, all render the crisis in Syria even harder to resolve.

“Until there is some candour about past crimes and current injustices, until there is an effort to address the inequalities over which the US presides, everything it attempts – even if it doesn’t involve guns and bombs – will stoke the cynicism and anger the president says he wants to quench.” So writes George Monbiot in an article highlighted by a Moseley reader.

It made the following charges:

  • that US used millions of gallons of chemical weapons in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It also used them during its destruction of Falluja in 2004;
  • that the Reagan government helped Saddam Hussein to wage war with Iran in the 1980s while aware that he was using nerve and mustard gas;
  • that the US remains outside the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court;
  • that it committed a crime of aggression in Iraq;
  • that US troops committed war crimes during the invasion and occupation of Iraq;
  • that prisoners were held without trial, abused and tortured in the US run prison in Guantánamo Bay, where – as of August 2013 – 164 detainees remain.


Some years ago, Ken Veitch wrote in the Friend:

 rogue states veitch


Has Britain been a lesser rogue state?


Time for change.


Whistleblowers be very afraid – state & corporate repression is rife and truth-telling on a larger or smaller scale will be punished

And so it goes – as Tariq Ali said yesterday afternoon – damping down dissent from hackers and whistleblowers. Ali sees activism as being under siege – with the attempted extradition of Julian Assange as the latest instance. 

He continued to imagine the reaction if the threat to enter a foreign embassy had been made in Beijing or Moscow . . .  Who cannot understand the fear of Assange after the precedents of forced rendition, Guantanamo Bay, the appalling humiliations inflicted, the condoned torture and long imprisonment without trial? 

Julian Assange performed a public service in revealing the truth of what goes on behind the scenes but it is resented and rejected by those exposed- just as in a less dramatic way, the long procession of whistleblowers who feel they have to reveal abuse or neglect. 

This cartoon is filed in my ‘Humour’ folder but is does depict the alarming attitude to whistleblowers in most countries – it literally shows that the knives are out for whistleblowers – merely for speaking out in the public interest: state & corporate repression.