Britain – no longer a haven for human rights?

So I intended to mostly focus on US current affairs with this blog, since that’s where i’m living and it felt like I might have a more interesting perspective as a foreigner. However, the announcement by the new Conservative government in the UK last week regarding the potential repealment of the Human Rights Act (HRA) left me speechless. And so ironically I felt compelled to write about it.

When it comes to human rights, as a Brit, there are many events and times in our chequered history that represent, colossal sized blemishes. During the heights of imperialism the way we treated inhabitants of the countries we colonised was nothing less than despicable. While not to excuse any of this behaviour it also has to be understood within the context of its time. The world in general pre-1900s was one of attrition, nationalism, racism, and intolerance. However, in the latter half of the 20th century huge strides have been made towards establishing basic universal human rights and by this time Britain was at the forefront of helping to institute these. After being one of the first countries to stand up to the atrocities of Nazi Germany, in the years ensuing that catastrophic war it was pivotal in the establishment of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR was drafted by the Council of Europe, led by British MP and lawyer Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, as a way to prevent the types of atrocities from WWII from ever happening again.

Yet now here we are, 55 years later, with the Conservative leadership less than 2 weeks into their first term as a majority government attempting to repeal the HRA. This would essentially effect the UK’s withdrawal from the ECHR. Their proposal is to replace this with a British bill of rights that would limit the involvement of the Strasbourg courts to involvement in only “serious cases”. The impetus for this as far as I can tell stems from three areas: the blocking of prisoner deportations from the UK by the European courts, attempts to pressure the UK to give prisoners the vote, and a general aversion to “meddling” in the UK’s affairs by Europe.

There are many issues with this approach to dealing with these perceived problems. The deportation of prisoners has generally been blocked or held up due to concerns over the torture practices regularly employed in the receiving countries. The protracted deportation case of Abu Qatada to Jordan being probably the most high profile of these. While the 8 year process was clearly expensive and frustrating what resulted was a treaty signed with Jordan that ensured no torture methods would be utilised and that a fair trial would take place. Crucially, not just for Qatada but for all future cases too. Ultimately this is a positive result for Human Rights both in this case but also more broadly. On the other-hand an outcome that would have seen Qatada deported years earlier only to have been tortured with the implicit, if not explicit, approval of the UK government would have been horribly regressive.

When it comes to prisoner voting, this is perhaps a more contentious issue. However, to me it seems to be highly counterintuitive for a couple of reasons: the ban is a “hangover from history” (the Economist), and most importantly the primary purpose of prisons should be rehabilitation. The ban was first created in 1870 and therefore stems more from tradition than principle. This has led to some odd idiosyncrasies such as some prisoners being allowed to vote dependent on their crime, while others who are under intermittent custody are allowed to vote only if the election falls on a day they are not locked up. These types of oddities really undermine any illusion that this is a well thought through modern law. More importantly however is the fact that disenfranchising criminals only serves to further extricate them from society and promotes the culture of punishment over rehabilitation. The primary purpose of our prisons however should be the latter if for no other reason than to reduce recidivism and ultimately crime. Including prisoners in the democratic process would go a long way to shifting the mentality of prisoners towards becoming involved in legal and democratic structures and therefore disincentivising further criminal activity.

The notion of European courts “meddling” in our affairs I also take issue with. This is a viewpoint peddled by UKIP, the right wing tabloid press, and some of the right wing elements of the Conservative party and can be simply put down to the general anti-European stance of these groups. However, there are many reasons to disagree with this stance. Firstly, human rights should be universal, we should remember why we first created the ECHR. Amongst other things, to give all people the right to life, the right not to be tortured, to a fair trial, and to freedom of expression. If the purpose of a new bill is to remove any of these then the issues we are facing with this government are more severe than we thought. If the new Justice Secretary, Michael Gove’s belief that we should reinstate hanging in the UK (last publicly stated 20 years ago) is anything to go by then perhaps we should indeed worry! Secondly, international conventions, treaties, pacts, trade agreements, (and currency unions) are some of the most important factors in making the years since WW2 the most peaceful in Europe’s history. Rather than opposing them simply out of a dislike for Europe that verges on xenophobia we should remember the bigger picture for why multilateral agreements such as the ECHR are such a powerful force for peace.

Finally, possibly the two most grave issues with this reactionist and short-sighted move by the Conservative party are: they are taking it upon themselves to interpret the convention in terms of what constitutes “serious cases” and the precedent they are setting for the other 46 members signed up to the ECHR. The former point essentially means that if the British bill of rights was to come into force then the UK would be relying on career politicians rather than some of the best legal minds in Europe to determine human rights definitions. Not only does this make no intellectual sense but we should also be highly concerned by the idea that these decisions would be made by a government which by definition have political concerns rather than purely ones based on ethical justice. Finally and probably most importantly Britain should remember its place in the world. It has long considered itself, rightly or wrongly, a home of freedom and liberalism. But unless it practices what it preaches it loses the right to consider itself as such and to judge others by these standards. This could have far reaching consequences for the future viability and success of the ECHR. This slippery slope is one I seriously hope we manage to avoid.


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