British Home Secretary visits HLS



David Blunkett, British Home Secretary and Member of Parliament, delivered a speech on “Human Rights and the Terrorist Threat: Defending the Democratic State and Maintaining Liberty-Two Sides of the Same Coin,” before a crowd of students, faculty, and members of the community in the Ames courtroom. With British security covering the exits, Blunkett spoke of the need to maintain democratic ideals while being pragmatic to the demands of an age of terrorism.

“We’ve moved into an era where we don’t have a choice,” about whether to balance security interests with notions of freedom, said Blunkett, noting that terrorists have made that choice for us and the question now is one of degree. “We’ve endeavored to use the democratic process to protect human rights,” said Blunkett, making clear that while the balance has tilted to security interests, it must not come at the expense of fundamental rights.

His fingers going over notes in Braille (Blunkett is the third member in the history of the British Parliament to be blind), Blunkett pointed out that the terrorist threat is global in reach. “The terrorist threat has not been merely to the United States or Britain,” said Blunkett, noting that since the attacks of September 11th, most victims of terrorist attacks have in fact been Muslims.

Dealing with these threats therefore requires the concerted efforts of the international community, as most terrorists do not listen to reason. “How do you punish a suicide bomber who has taken the lives of others [when he is dead]? How do you argue with him?”

Blunkett’s position as Home Secretary has required him to work closely with the United States. Blunkett mentioned how he spent Boxing Day (a holiday celebrated the day after Christmas in the UK) talking to Tom Ridge and discussing possible cancellation of flights from Britain to the United States due to security concerns. This story was used to highlight one of Blunkett’s themes, that of the constant tension between taking steps to prevent attacks and appearing heavy-handed, versus allowing things to go on as normal and possibly having people die due to lax security.

“The real challenge for the left of center politician [in the US and UK]” is to face these challenges and not renege on principles, said Blunkett. Those on the left must confront these tensions and ensure that both human life and human rights are protected.

Born blind, Blunkett pushed himself to get through school and became involved in politics at an early age, joining the Labour party at 16 and winning election to the Sheffield Council at 22, making him the youngest councilor ever in Sheffield. Blunkett has been the author of many of Britain’s recent anti-terrorism laws. Elected to Parliament in 1987, Blunkett served previously in the Blair government as Secretary of Education.

Jacqueline Bhahba, executive director of the University Committee on Human Rights Studies, which sponsored the talk, spoke to the Harvard Law School Website about Blunkett’s importance to British politics: “David Blunkett is a central and controversial figure in British politics today. He has played a leading role in defining Britain’s response to 9-11, challenging many aspects of the British status quo.”

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