Contributoria

Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

Scrapping human rights: the Tory threat to British citizens

The Conservative party plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights if it wins the General Election this month. Pennie Varvarides takes a look at what that means

Back in October, the Conservative party released its plan to scrap the Human Rights Act if it won the General Election this month. Secretary of State Chris Grayling said they’d also be prepared to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, unless they were allowed to veto judgements from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

When the party released its manifesto last month, the promise remained – albeit a little vaguer than the vision Grayling had laid out.

We are just days away from voting on who will run the country for the next five years. The party claims scrapping the Human Rights Act is “in the public interest”, but the truth is, it certainly isn’t in yours or mine. The proposal is to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. The Tories brand the Human Rights Act a “criminals’ charter” that can be abused.

A parliamentary review on the proposal notes: “There sometimes appears to be a tension between the principles of the supremacy of parliament and the rule of law, exacerbated by extensive commentary on the Act. This has resulted in friction in policy areas such as asylum, immigration and counter-terrorism. The Bill of Rights would return sovereignty and supremacy to parliament. The Conservatives say that the Human Rights Act has been discredited and it’s time to rein it in.”

Whose human rights are we protecting?

The Conservative manifesto says it would “reverse the mission creep that has meant human rights law being used for more and more purposes”.

I imagine this would include the likes of having to release people from prison if they’ve not been charged and having to investigate crimes and corruption within the government, among other things. Pesky mission creep.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon made it clear in a speech last month that this change would include protecting British armed forces serving abroad from human rights claims, which cost the Ministry of Defence £36 million a year.

David Cameron says that by getting rid of the Human Rights Act, the government will be better equipped at dealing with terrorists, but terrorists will not be the only people affected if our rights are taken away.

“Human rights are for everyone,” explains Sanchita Hosali, deputy director at the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR). “They’re not only for certain groups. They protect all of us. Often we won’t even know the ways they’re protecting us, working quietly in the background, always there when we need them. Relating human rights to specific groups is wrong. They’re for everyone. They’re for the people we like and the people we don’t like – that’s what it means to live in a democratic society where we have a rule of law and we have respect for life.”

Playing political football

By trying to uproot the Human Rights Act and by labelling it as “Labour’s Human Rights Act”, the Conservatives are turning our basic rights as citizens of the world into a game of politics.

Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen says: “Human rights should not be used as a political football. They are not, and never should be, gifts to be doled out by the government of the day. People all over the world are still fighting for their essential human rights, risking their safety and freedom. It took ordinary people a very long time to win those rights here and we shouldn’t let politicians take them away with the stroke of a pen.”

The BIHR agrees. Hosali adds: “It’s troubling that [the Human Rights Act] is used in that way. Often human rights will throw up decisions that those in power don’t like – but that’s the point of them. There may be decisions where those in power don’t like it, but that’s what it means to live in a democratic society governed by a rule of law.”

Fundamental rights in the Human Rights Act

So what are these rights we’ve fought so hard for? Included in the Human Rights Act are fundamental rights and freedoms that all individuals within the UK have access to – such as the right to life, the freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to a fair trial.

After World War II, the UK was instrumental in devising a list of rights – along with representatives from the 47 other countries that comprise the United Nations – that everybody across the world should enjoy.

This became the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was created with the aim of never letting the atrocities of the Second World War happen again. A few years later, these rights were used to form the basis of the European Convention of Human Rights, which was drafted by the Council of Europe – the continent’s 47-strong human rights watchdog. This was led by a British MP and lawyer. This led to the establishment of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and gave ordinary people a legal framework to work within, if they felt their rights had been violated.

This was a lengthy and expensive process, so in 1998 our parliament passed the Human Rights Act. Not only did this bring the process home, but it also resulted in us being able to exercise our human rights every single day, because the state is legally bound to respect them. This means if our human rights are violated, we are allowed to defend them in UK courts.

Amnesty is so worried about the plan to scrap the Human Rights Act, that it has launched Keep The Act, a campaign encouraging politicians to “do the human right thing”. The organisation writes: “Any attack on the Human Rights Act poses a real threat to the freedoms we enjoy in this country. We believe that it must be defended.”

A British Bill of Rights

Not everyone agrees that the Human Rights Act is worth defending, however. The Telegraph says the “British Bill of Rights should have every Briton’s full support”, promising the move would “restore judicial balance”.

The BIHR was involved in the commission process of the bill. Hosali says: “We’ve had quite a lot of involvement on the idea of the British Bill of Rights in terms of helping other people to speak up. There wasn’t a huge engagement with the public. In principle, a Bill of Rights sounds great, setting out people’s rights and the duties of the government. But that’s what the Human Rights Act is. We already have that. The idea that you would talk about scrapping current human rights doesn’t signal a positive development.”

The human face

The Human Rights Act has been used to protect thousands and thousands of British people from injustice – from bringing families back together to returning dignity to disabled people whose rights have been violated.

Take the time an elderly couple, who had been married for 65 years, were placed in separate care homes; it was the Human Rights Act that brought them back together. They were able to use the Act to persuade their local authority to allow the wife to move into her husband’s care home, so that they could live together.

Or the young boy with a severe learning disability who was placed into care when his father fell ill. When his father recovered, the council refused to reunite the pair. But when the court concluded the council had breached the family’s human rights, they were finally reunited.

Amnesty is sharing dozens of such stories in a bid to put a human face on the Act. It is, after all, about our inherent rights as humans.

The Act helps us hold the government to account. Without it, the government would be free to do as it pleased, which is great if you want to live in an Orwellian dystopia, but not ideal if you want to feel safe and secure in your own home.

In the speech launching the party’s manifesto, David Cameron made it clear that he isn’t worried about anything as petty as civil liberties. He said: “Other parties might be wary of causing offence, or of being criticised by those who see every single measure as an affront to their civil liberties.”

That’s why he is promising to dismantle the powers of the individual against the state – something he’s been working on for the last five years, such as through cuts to legal aid, making the right to a fair trial something only for those who can afford it.

Amnesty’s Kate Allen adds: “How can the prime minister call on the likes of Hong Kong and Afghanistan to respect human rights, when he is busy dismantling them at home? Human rights should not be dragged into Britain’s internal debate on Europe. The potential consequences are dire. The UK is saying to the rest of the world: ‘Pick and choose your human rights’. The likes of Belarus, Russia, Iran, China, Sri Lanka, Syria and Zimbabwe will be watching with interest.”

Our domestic debates have a huge impact on our international influence. Hosali echoes Allen when she says: “For us to say we don’t need to be bound by these universal rights damages us at home and abroad. It damages the system. If we can say it, what’s to stop anyone else from saying it?”

The government’s track record in the last five years when it comes to human rights has been questionable. Just last month a UN human rights expert damned Britain’s “boys’ club sexist culture” and in 2013, Britain was investigated by the UN on human rights violations in regards to the Bedroom Tax.

Tory plans are “vague and muddled”

Twitter was inundated with angry tweets on the day of the manifesto’s release, particularly from top British lawyers aghast at the plans for the legal system.

One Crown Office Row human rights barrister, Adam Wagner, labelled the plans as “vague and muddled”. He pointed out that the manifesto seemed to retreat from Grayling’s earlier plan to quit the European Convention on Human Rights.

“Thankfully, the ECHR withdrawal plan appears to have been scrapped and Chris Grayling and Theresa May (hopefully) have lost the argument,” he tweeted.

If Britain was to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, questions would be raised of our membership within the Council of Europe. Membership of the council is a prerequisite for EU member states, which means our withdrawal could force us out of the EU and onto the sidelines.

Backward promises

The Conservative manifesto is actually mind-boggling. The party is promising to rip us of our freedoms and our rights, promising to snoop more and crack down on non-violent protest, to crack down on the speakers allowed in colleges and universities.

Under the guise of protecting us from terror, we will lose everything we’ve spent hundreds of years working towards.

I approached the four main political parties for comment, but as of writing this only two got back to me.

The Green Party’s Clifford Fleming, Young Green co-chair, says: “The Tories’ plan to scrap the Human Rights Act is wrong. The Green Party fully supports the Human Rights Act and is committed to upholding and defending human rights in the UK and abroad.”

Liberal Democrat spokesperson Zack Polanski adds: “I think it’s disgusting. The Human Rights Act protects every individual’s right to education, their freedom of expression and their fundamental right to life. To threaten it is to threaten those very things, and we as a party will always defend the Human Rights Act as something we can all be proud of.”

Pennie Varvarides can be found @superpennie and pennievarvarides.com

Pic credit: Phil Warren via Flickr

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