February 6, 2009
Geoffrey Bindman

Ipek Cem's guest this week is one of the world's foremost authorities on human rights and civil liberties, Sir Geoffrey Bindman.

Ipek Cem: My guest today is Sir Geoffrey Bindman. He is a leading figure in the protection of human rights and civil liberties. Welcome to Global Leaders.


Geoffrey Bindman: Thank you very much.


Ipek Cem: As we sit today there is a very sad event occurring in the Middle East and over 100,100 people dead, thousands wounded, and this is happening in front of the eyes of the Secretary General of the UN. What is your feeling about the world's inability to react to this catastrophe?


Geoffrey Bindman: Well, I have a very strong personal interest in this matter. I mean I am a Jew. I was brought up in the Jewish religion, although I am now secular, I don't observe the religious aspects of Judaism, but I regard myself as a Jew, and I identify. But I also take the view that a Jew does not necessarily have to support whatever the Government of Israel does. The citizens of Israel are not necessarily Jews, and Jews are not citizens of Israel, and I am very much opposed to the present policies of the Israeli Government. I find the way in which Gaza has been attacked is quite outrageous, it's wholly disproportionate to any threat to Israel from the small number of rockets that have been fired by some people from Gaza. And there has been a ceasefire. It is a problem that should have been approached, in my view through negotiation, through bringing in outside people, bringing in the United Nations, preferably. So I take quite a strong view against the attack that has been launched on Gaza.


Ipek Cem: Israel claims that it is self-defence, and I know that you have co-authored a piece which says it is not self-defence. How to define these terms? Where is the objectivity that can help us define who is right, and who is wrong?


Geoffrey Bindman: Well, there are of course always difficult questions of balance, but the key to resolving international problems, it seems to me, is negotiation balance objectivity, and the way that this particular problem has developed very much seems to rest on emotion. I think that… I am very conscious of the history of the holocaust, and the way in which Jews have been persecuted throughout the ages. In my own family I am aware of discrimination, and I know that the Jews who established the state of Israel, which I think was right and justified, they are people who have felt quite courageously that they are going to resist and challenge any further attempt to discriminate and act unjustly towards the Jewish people. So the state of Israel, in a sense, is itself a kind of defence against persecution. And so… But I think that the holocaust is already quite a long time ago, and I think that the state of Israel has developed in a way which has made it very prosperous. It is like a western centre of economic power, and I don't think now they have to be so defensive and take the view that any threat to the state has to be met with violent force. I think this attitude has got to change.


Ipek Cem: You know also the timing of the attacks, everybody comments that it is the transition period so in the United States, which is the strongest world power, there is not really somebody in charge – it is the transition period – so, how do you think that President Obama will react when he takes office… to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?


Geoffrey Bindman: Well, I think there has been a good deal of political cynicism about the timing of this attack, and I think that it must be related to the fact that Obama has not yet taken office. It must also be related to the fact that there is an election coming up in Israel, and the present government wants to give the impression of being very tough and aggressive, and so on. That seems to appeal to a large proportion of the Israeli electorate. So I think that is a big part of it. I would hope Obama would take a much more sensitive and intelligent approach to resolving the problems than has been in the past. And at the same time I realise that Obama is a politician and he has to please the people who have voted for him, and he must depend to a very large extent on votes from people who support the state of Israel. So he's not going to be… he's not going to be…


Ipek Cem: He will have his hands tied…


Geoffrey Bindman: Pro-Palestinian. He will have his hands tied.


Ipek Cem: Basically, when we look at the world today, we see that in many of these conflicts around the world the power of the UN is not there. Do you… And UN was established to bring peace and justice…


Geoffrey Bindman: Yes. Absolutely, yes.


Ipek Cem: … and to be a barrier against war. How to mend this? Is it a mend-able situation?


Geoffrey Bindman: Well, I think it is. I think the United States has a good deal to answer for. I think they have a lot of responsibility for the decline of the United Nations. They have not given it the support that they should have done, and I think that's where there could be a change. I think Obama will be much more favourable to international solutions to problems, he has already made that clear. So I think that the United Nations will cam and will acquire, I would hope, new strength from the election of President Obama.


Ipek Cem: Is it a political issue, a funding issue, a commitment issue, a combination of all?


Geoffrey Bindman: I think there is a funding issue, and I think the Americans have not given it the financial support that it needed, but I think, much more, it's a question of the major powers being too selfish, and too reluctant to look for global solutions. But I think that may be changing. I think now, for example in relation to climate change, the major powers are more prepared to recognise that you can't solve global problems unless you are prepared to cooperate and work together.


Ipek Cem: You have spent your whole career working for human rights, working for civil liberties. Not only in your own country, but around the world. When you look through your career – and you are currently the Chairperson of the British…


Geoffrey Bindman: …Institute of Human Rights.


Ipek Cem: Yes, exactly. British Institute of Human Rights. Do you see progress? Are you disillusioned?


Geoffrey Bindman: I am, of course, always unhappy that more progress has not been made, but at the same time, I think one has to recognise that in developing an international system of human rights enforCement – if you like – human rights implementation, it's got to be a very long process. It is a process that could take centuries. I mean it is not something you can look at in a short timescale. And if one remembers that the first major world wide development in establishing universal human rights was the universal declaration in 1948, following the Second World War. We are only looking at 60 years, which is a small part of human history, and yet in that period there has been substantial progress. We have an International Criminal Court, for example.


Ipek Cem: Yes. When you look at the European Union – and this is also a legal entity, and having other characteristics as well – and how it's dealing human rights issues, and especially vis-à-vis the accession of Turkey into the European Union, I wanted to get your views on Turkey's human rights record.


Geoffrey Bindman: Yes. Well, I am a little cautious about pronouncing on human rights in Turkey because I am a visitor to Turkey, I am… I have been treated with great hospitality and warmth in Turkey, and I admire many Turkish people that I have met. And I recognise that there are different currents of opinion in Turkey. There seem to be conflicts… certainly conflicts of opinion within different groups in Turkey, different political points of view, and so on. I think that there are problems, so far as Turkey is concerned in relation to the human rights principles that have been established in the European Union, because the European Union has adopted the European Human Rights Convention as its standard of human rights observance, and there are some respects in which Turkish law seems to me to fall short of the requirements of the European Human Rights Convention.


Ipek Cem: Are you talking in particular with respect to freedom of expression and, for example, Article 301 which was amended to some degree…?


Geoffrey Bindman: Yes. I am talking about that, because that is the subject of the talk that I am giving here, and I have looked into that with some care, and I am concerned about the notion that free expression should be limited in relation to criticism of Government. I think it is an essential part of a democratic system that the public, and the individual should be free to speak… to criticise and to comment on his Government. And it seems to me that some of the restrictions in the criminal law in Turkey are too restrictive of that democratic freedom.


Ipek Cem: There has been much progress done, but of course I know that you are here to deliver a memorial lecture named after Hrant Dink, so his name, for example, and some of the issues he faced prior to his assassination have raised eyebrows. But there has been some progress made, but you feel that it is not up to the European standard.


Geoffrey Bindman: Well, I know about the amendment that was made to Article 301. I am not convinced – simply on the way it has been worded – that it goes far enough to remove the threat of prosecution to people who may, in my opinion, make legitimate comments or criticisms of Government activity. I think that it ought to be possible for any citizen to speak freely about the Government. Now, the particular issue that was raised by Hrant Dink, which seems to have led to his assassination – and of course I am not able to comment in detail on precise causes – is one that I realise is very sensitive in Turkey – it is difficult for an outsider to understand that how events that happened nearly a hundred years ago should still resonate as much as they do, and should cause such – apparently – such anger and such tension among people. I don't really understand that and I think some people in Turkey don't really understand it either.


Ipek Cem: It is a highly contested issue and it is a sad event the scale of which is still under dispute, so there is high emotions about that.


Geoffrey Bindman: Exactly. Yes.


Ipek Cem: … and I think in particular what you were referring to is the amendment from "Turkishness" to "Turkish nation"…


Geoffrey Bindman: Yes. I think that was the amendment, and you feel that it still is lacking, but a lot of legal structure helps a nation move forward, but it is also – as you know – it's education, it's tolerance, it's living together, you know, talking together, arguing together…. How do nations – any nation, because there is issues in developed nations as well, racism and other issues… How do you develop this culture of tolerance, culture of listening? Yes. Well, I've spent quite a good part of my life in Britain in developing legislation attempting to control racial discrimination, and it has had some success. It does seem to me…. We are dealing with a very difficult issue that perhaps has caused problems for human beings everywhere for centuries, and that is the mixture of fear and suspicion that people have about other people whom they identify as belonging to different groups, or rival groups, and so on. And a lot of this seems to me to be based on false perceptions, on ignorance, on fear. It's difficult to come to terms with it otherwise than by education, by encouraging other people to get to know each other, but also, I think, it is important to have a framework of law which tries to create equality in the distribution of public services, in the way in which employers treat workers, in the way in which landlords treat tenants, in the way in which people do business with each other, so that racial or ethnic factors – as far as possible – are excluded by law from the way in which people behave in the public sphere. I mean it is very difficult to deal through law with private behaviour. But in the public sphere, in the economic sphere, it seems to me there are things you can do by law to limit, or eliminate discriminatorary behaviour which allows treatment, you know, unfair treatment of particular groups.


Ipek Cem: How do you find your own country's record in terms of really going through with that?


Geoffrey Bindman: Well, we've had a lot of problems in the past. I think that now, in Britain, there is quite a high degree of acceptance of difference in background, and I think that for example there used to be a fairly rigid class system in Britain, and I think that to a very large extent has disappeared. There is still a certain amount of ethnic hostility because we have had a lot of immigration in Britain from the Indian sub-continent, from the Caribbean, and so on, has been bad experiences of discrimination by white people against black people, and so on … I think that has reduced. I think there has been progress.


Ipek Cem: When you look at the wounds of the world today, of course the invasion of Iraq and the continuing events in Iraq raise the eye-brows. How do you find the human rights situation in Iraq? How… What can be done? It is such a big topic. People maybe don't know where to attack it from.


Geoffrey Bindman: Yes. Well, I've always been completely opposed to the war in Iraq, and I think that the attack on Iraq by the United States and, I think, British support for it was a mistake, and it was wrong, and it should not have happened. On the other hand I am not a great supporter of the late Saddam Hussein, and he did some very bad things, and I think that what is happening now in Iraq is… there have been many tragedies, there are still appalling loss of life, but there is also appalling social disruption still taking place, and I think that the only lesson really is that the Americans, and the British, and the other people who have formed part of kind of invading force should leave and the Iraqis should attempt to sort out their situation. I am afraid that may lead to more problems, but ultimately I think they have to solve their own problems in Iraq.


Ipek Cem: Some people argue that if there is a hasty withdrawal, like you just mentioned now, there will be even more and more problems and the country will be in chaos. Do you have a certain plan or idea in mind – not as a politician, but as a person who studies social events and events like this around the world?


Geoffrey Bindman: I think that they have already, I mean that there has been already, an official plan announced to withdraw, and there's a timescale and so on. And that seems to make sense, to give some advance warning, and then hope that the Government of Iraq and the authorities there will be able to prepare for the inevitable time when there are no foreign troops there. So I think that is the best one can do, really, is to plan ahead for a withdrawal, and then withdraw. I don't see that there's any alternative to that.


Ipek Cem: The Human Rights Watch just announced its 2008 report, and the United States was found to be guilty, let's say, or was accused of many atrocities, including for example the Guantanamo Bay Prison. Which Obama has declared that he might close down. What do you think will be done about that, and does that really… when you as a nation or as a politician make a decision to open such a facility, and they have also accepted that torture is taking place on many cases… you know, is it OK to say, "Oh, sorry! I made a mistake", and just go on?


Geoffrey Bindman: Well, no it certainly isn't alright. I have had personal experience in dealing with some of the consequences of Guantanamo, and I have met some of the former detainees. Indeed I am in contact with them. And I think that there are a number of aspects to the problem. I think the most disturbing part of it is the United States, which has a fine record of integrity in its legal system, and of constitutional care given to human rights… the Constitution of the United States, the Supreme Court, the American legal system in some ways is a model for the world in how the law should be used to maintain high standards of human rights, but I think that it has failed on this occasion. It has been very slow to deal with complaints about Guantanamo. Now I think the legal… the law in the States has gradually developed to a point where Guantanamo could no longer happen, as it were. I think rights have been given to detainees to have their cases fully investigated, which was not there at the beginning, but the blame lies with the Government of George W Bush in having established Guantanamo, and having allowed the treatment of people there, and having allowed it to operate outside the legal norms that, as I said, I admire in United States.


Ipek Cem: Well, you just said that you have had some dealings with detainees, are you representing them, or is your firm representing them?


Geoffrey Bindman: We have represented some, yes.


Ipek Cem: What were some of the atrocities that have been made public by them?


Geoffrey Bindman: There has been a pattern of interrogation of suspects in Guantanamo which has been authorised, was authorised by Rumsfeld, and other people in the US Government which involves torture. I mean, for example, water-boarding, which I don't know if that's a term that's familiar to you, but that's a kind of way in which prisoners have their heads put into water and they can't breath and they are frightened and they feel pain to such an extent that they will do anything to stop it. And that's torture. Torture has been allowed as a means of persuading these prisoners to give information, or to confess, and so on. Now everybody now knows that you don't get people to tell the truth by subjecting them to torture, because people will say anything to avoid torture. And in a Court, it would never be allowed as a means of reaching a finding of guilt. So torture seems to be completely counterproductive, even for the purposes for which it is designed.


Ipek Cem: In your opinion, I always wonder what percentage of the people taken to Guantanamo Bay are actually guilty of the charges…


Geoffrey Bindman: Well I think very few, and I think that's demonstrated by the fact that they brought very few charges against… and indeed that was the whole purpose of Guantanamo, was so that they could arrest people and detain them, and not have to prove any case against them. We know that many of the prisoners at Guantanamo were people who were in effect sold, that money was paid to… by the American authorities to people who handed over so-called…


Ipek Cem: Ransom…


Geoffrey Bindman: Ransom? Well it wasn't so much ransom, it was more a case of…


Ipek Cem: Bounty.


Geoffrey Bindman: Bounty or bribery, or whatever. And so these were just people who… lies were told about these people and they were taken to Guantanamo and because there was no proper legal structure there, or chance to have their cases investigated, they were just left there and denied justice.


Ipek Cem: 9/11 was a major event that many governments use as the reason for these new measures so to speak, that they have introduced to curb civil liberties, and to find suspects, in cases where maybe they are not suspects. How does this terrorism, or scare of terrorism, play into the legal system?


Geoffrey Bindman: Well, I think it's … I think you are right that these terrible events, like 9/11, can have a very bad effect on governments because they… obviously they have a duty to do whatever they can to stop such events happening, and we all recognise that, and we all want that to happen, but also this can be used… governments can feel free to over-ride civil liberties because they feel the public will allow them to do anything to stop these terrible events happening, and they will trust governments to know what is the right way to stop terrorism. But that is extremely dangerous, because governments – people in Government – are looking to their own popularity, very often, they are not looking to the interests, the longer term interests of society to have a balanced and just legal system. So the legal protections suffer when there are these big atrocities, and in most cases the abandoning civil liberties does not help to solve the problem of terrorism.


Ipek Cem: On that note I'd like to thank you so much for this interview.


Geoffrey Bindman: It's a pleasure.


This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, NTV networks and Ipek Cem cannot vouch for its accuracy.