The prime minister has again confirmed that a future majority Conservative government would repeal Labour’s landmark legislation – the Human Rights Act , 1998 – and replace it with a “British Bill of Rights”, as I reported back in July, and he has previously pledged to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, as I’ve also reported.
And I wrote this earlier today: The lord chancellor is dismantling the rule of law, which discusses how Grayling is preparing to unveil Tory plans to scrap Britain’s human rights laws. The plans would repeal the Human Rights Act and break the formal link between the European Court of Human Rights and British law. Its judgement would now be treated as “advisory” and need to be approved by parliament.
Grayling has already tried to take legal aid from the poorest and most vulnerable, in a move that is so clearly contrary to the very principle of equality under the law. He turned legal aid into an instrument of discrimination. He has tried to dismantle the vital legal protection available to the citizen – judicial review – which has been used to stop him abusing his powers again and again. He has tried to restrict legal aid for domestic abuse victims, welfare claimants seeking redress for wrongful state decisions, victims of medical negligence, for example. And now he wants to take away citizens’right to take their case to the European court.
I have argued elsewhere that even if we were to take a Conservative perspective, it’s still the case that the only way to wed the principle of a “pursuit of economic liberty” with wider justice is by a basic notion of equality before the law, through the equal access to justice. This means that the State must fund the means of contract enforcement and free and fair trial legal costs, for those who cannot afford it. If the State fails to fulfil this contingent function, then we simply cease to be free.
The Tory attack on our universal human rights is not about euroscepticism, terrorists, cats, “common sense” or any of the other Sun and Daily Mail endorsed ideological justifications they are using. It is about scrapping our essential legal protections against the state, with each Tory policy advancing authoritarianism by almost inscrutable degrees, eroding our democratic freedoms further and further.
Director of the civil rights organisation Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, said: “Shame on the prime minister for citing Churchill, while promising to trash his legacy. The convention protects both prisoners of war and soldiers sent off to fight and die with inadequate equipment. But the prime minister believes there is no place for human rights in Helmand – on that, he and Isis agree.”
Amnesty UK’s campaigns director, Tim Hancock, said: “Theresa May made much in her speech about how we must stand up and fight for human rights abroad, it makes absolutely no sense to denigrate those same rights at home.
It’s exasperating to hear the prime minister vow to tear up the Human Rights Act again – so he can draft ‘his own’. Human rights are not in the gift of politicians to give. They must not be made a political plaything to be bestowed or scrapped on a whim. It’s time politicians accepted that they too have to follow the rules and that those rules include the civilising human rights standards Churchill championed.”
In his speech to the Tory party conference in Birmingham, Cameron did not explicitly threaten to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, a move that would have wide-ranging, international repercussions for the UK’s relationship with Europe.
The prime minister told Conservative delegates: “It’s not just the European Union that needs sorting out – it’s the European court of human rights. When that charter was written, in the aftermath of the second world war, it set out the basic rights we should respect.
But since then, interpretations of that charter have led to a whole lot of things that are frankly wrong. Rulings to stop us deporting suspected terrorists. The suggestion that you’ve got to apply the human rights convention even on the battlefields of Helmand. And now – they want to give prisoners the vote. I’m sorry, I just don’t agree.”
Erm… hello, Mr Cameron, but this isn’t just about egocentric ole’ you.
Last time I checked, this was a first-world liberal democracy, and not your “kingdom”, or a totalitarian state. The principle that “all power ultimately rests with the people and must be exercised with their consent” lies at the heart of democracy. Democracy is premised on the recognition and protection of people’s right to have a say in all decision-making processes which is itself based on the central principle of equality of all human beings.
The purpose of democracy, like that of human rights protection, is to uphold the dignity of every individual and to ensure that the voices of the weakest are also heard. Its core values – freedom, equality, fraternity, accommodation of diversity and the assurance of justice underpin the norms of human rights as well.
Democracy is one of the universal core values and principles of the United Nations. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the principle of holding periodic and genuine elections by universal suffrage are essential elements of democracy. These values are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and further developed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which enshrines a host of political rights and civil liberties underpinning meaningful democracies.
The Rule of Law and Democracy Unit stands as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) focal point for democracy activities. The Unit works to develop concepts and operational strategies to enhance democracy and provide guidance and support to democratic institutions through technical cooperation activities and partnership with the relevant parts of the UN, notably the UN Democracy Fund, the Department of Political Affairs and the newly established UN Working Group on Democracy. Legal and expert advice are provided as required to OHCHR field operations on relevant issues such as respect for participatory rights in the context of free and fair elections, draft legislation on national referenda and training activities.
“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
The link is further developed in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which enshrines a host of political rights and civil liberties underpinning meaningful democracies. The rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and subsequent human rights instruments covering group rights (e.g.indigenous peoples, minorities, people with disabilities) are equally essential for democracy as they ensure inclusivity for all groups, including equality and equity in respect of access to civil and political rights.
More recently, in March 2012, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution titled “Human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” which reaffirmed that democracy, development and respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms were interdependent and mutually reinforcing.
The Council called upon States to make continuous efforts to strengthen the rule of law and promote democracy through a wide range of measures. It also requested the OHCHR, in consultation with States, national human rights institutions, civil society, relevant inter-governmental bodies and international organizations, to draft a study on challenges, lessons learned and best practices in securing democracy and the rule of law from a human rights perspective.
Human rights, democracy and the rule of law are core values of the European Union, too. Embedded in its founding treaty, they were reinforced when the EU adopted the Charter of Fundamental Rights in 2000, and strengthened still further when the Charter became legally binding with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.
I think that the Conservative Party, even if they managed a narrow majority, ought to be expecting to find it very difficult to pass such a seriously partisan bill. That they aren’t troubles me greatly.Graylings’ documented proposals have drawn a furious response from the Tories’ coalition partners. Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat justice minister, said: “The Conservatives don’t care about the rights of British citizens – they care about losing to Ukip. These plans make no sense: you can’t protect the human rights of Brits and pull out of the system that protects them.”
Europe’s human rights laws were designed by British lawyers to reflect British values of justice, tolerance and decency. We will not allow the Tories to take away the hard-won human rights of British people when in the UK or anywhere else in Europe.
Andrea Coomber, director of the civil rights group Justice, said: “Conservative party policy now says: ‘We support minimum human rights standards, but only if we define their content.’ A patchwork of national rules would mean no standard at all; every human being, subject only to the whims of national interest. This vision would reset the clock to 1945, before Eleanor Roosevelt, Churchill and Maxwell-Fyfe ever put pen to paper.”
Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, said: “Once again David Cameron is pandering to UKIP instead of standing up for the rights and best interests of the people of Britain. The truth is that our courts have been free to interpret rulings by the European convention on human rights for 50 years – the Human Rights Act did nothing to change that fact.”
Labour’s Human Rights Act ought to be a source of pride. It is a civilised and a civilising law. It ensures that Britain remains a nation where key universal benchmarks of human decency and protections against state abuse are upheld by the courts. There is already a modern British bill of rights already. It is called the Human Rights Act (HRA).
The rights protected by the Act are quite simple. They include the right to life, liberty and the right to a fair trial; protection from torture and ill-treatment; freedom of speech, thought, religion, conscience and assembly; the right to free elections; the right to fair access to the country’s education system; the right to marry and an overarching right not to be discriminated against. Cameron has argued that it should be repealed just 10 years after its implementation (the HRA came into force in October 2000) … so that he can pass another Act.
No other country has proposed de-incorporating a human rights treaty from its law so that it can introduce a Bill of Rights. The truly disturbing aspect of Cameron’s Bill of Rights pledge is that rather than manifestly building on the HRA, it’s predicated on its denigration and repeal. One has to wonder what his discomfort with the HRA is. The Act, after all, goes towards protecting the vulnerable from neglect of duty and abuse of power. Are we really believe Cameron (Or Farage, who also states that he intends to repeal the HRA, given the opportunity) is more likely to build on existing rights and freedoms or to destroy them?
The front page agendas of the Sun and Daily Mail indicate quite plainly the latter. And they have established form. Tory policies violate International Human Rights standards, a fact that was met with only sneering contempt and denial from our authoritarian government. I’ve written at length previously about the Tory-led persecution of some of our most vulnerable citizens.
It seems to me that their callous indifference to the welfare of UK citizens is coupled with a drive to avoid international scrutiny and accountability, as well as at a national level. The government are certainly seeking to insulate themselves from legal challenge, and restrict the ability of citizens to hold to account future governments that break the law. And this general trend of creeping authoritarianism doesn’t bode well, coupled with the intent to scrap our protective rights, here.
The rights protected by the HRA are drawn from the 1950 European convention on human rights, which was a way of ensuring that we never again witness the full horrors of the second world war, the rise of Fascism and overwhelmingly, one of the greatest stains on the conscience of humanity – the Holocaust. Winston Churchill was one of the main drivers of the Convention, it was largely drafted by UK lawyers and the UK was one of the first countries to ratify it in 1951.
This was the establishing simple set of minimum standards of decency for humankind to hold onto for the future. The European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) was drafted as a lasting legacy of the struggle against fascism and totalitarianism. Yet the HRA is quite often portrayed by the Right as a party political measure.
However, whilst the Human Rights Act is ultimately recognised as one of the greatest legacies of Labour in government, Cameron seems oblivious to the fact that Human Rights are not objects to be bartered away. They arose from struggles that were begun long ago by past generations who gave their lives for these rights to be enshrined in our laws.
Pictures Courtesy of Robert Livingstone