Human Rights and Leadership

How horribly, and I suspect deliberately, wrong is the message being delivered on human rights by David Cameron today. He says a) it is ‘foreign’, b) it is causing widespread problems in the criminal justice system, c) that we would be better off if it were scrapped, and d) we should have a British bill of rights instead along the US model.

The problem with this analysis is that:

a) The European Convention on Human Rights was largely drawn up by British lawyers seeking to embed British notions of human rights across Europe following the second world war.

b) The supposed widespread problems of criminals and terrorists being assisted by the Human Rights Act are dramatically overstated. The recent furore over sentencing is not a human rights issue but one for general criminal law. There are some very specific issues around deportation of terrorist suspects or others to countries where torture or execution are possible but scrapping the Act is not the right way to resolve these.

c) If it were scrapped but we remain signatories to the Convention then this means going to the European Court of Human Rights rather than domestic courts for the same issues. This will not help UK citizens. If the intention is to withdraw from the Convention then this has massive implications, not least that it would represent an abandonment of 50 years of policy that European nations should lead by example on human rights, and use their own adoption of the Convention to persuade other countries to work towards compliance.

d) This is what the Human Rights Act already is in effect. It is a UK domestic law that defines a set of rights that we have crafted over many years in conjunction with other partners. Why throw all this out and start again unless there is an intention to have a very different set of rights from those in the Convention?

There is another response to the public concern about the Human Rights Act that has come to be commonly expressed in the media.

This would be to show leadership. To express pride in the British lawyers who worked on the Convention and who have been active over the last half century in spreading human rights across Europe and beyond. To explain to the public that there is a great deal of inaccuracy in what is said about the Human Rights Act (perhaps using the excellent material provided by Liberty on this subject). And to commit to working with our international partners to deal with the specific and exceptional thorny issues where we have found that human rights law provisions prove challenging for law enforcement.

This has turned into a bit of rant but then there are some things you get to feel very strongly about. Moving backwards on human rights is one of them.

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