In Defence of the UK Human Rights Act

Chris Grayling and Theresa May have been linked to plans to repeal the UK Human Rights Act should the Tories win a majority in 2015. Amusingly, these plans have come to the fore just as David Cameron promised that the Tory humiliation in Eastleigh would not prompt a Great Leap to the Right to head off the challenge from UKIP. So what is the UK Human Rights Act, why is it important, and why is it so unpopular among Eurosceptics?The UK HRA came into effect in 2000, and effectively enshrined the European Convention on Human Rights into UK Law. The Convention covers everything from the right to life and the right not be tortured to the prohibition of slavery and the right to freedom of assembly. It is an incredibly important document. It codifies rights that many people throughout the world do not yet have. Indeed, some European countries and their near neighbours – notably Belarus – do not comply with the most basic rights protected in the treaty. It means that, in theory at least, European signatory states are bound to respect an individual’s right to privacy or freedom. It means that, should an individual feel they have been unjustly convicted of a crime, there is a European Court to which they can appeal. This applies whether an individual is a UK citizen or not, whether the crime is relatively minor or heinous. Herein lies the problem.

Human rights are, by definition, universal. Every human has human rights. These rights apply equally to a teenager who steals a stereo and a cleric who preaches that bombing public transport and murdering innocent people is a good idea. This is a very difficult reality to accept, but it is fundamental. As soon as we start to differentiate between different types of human who are more or less deserving of their rights, we find ourselves on the proverbial slippery slope.

Our esteemed Justice Secretary Chris Grayling recently stated his belief that human rights are ”about some of the appalling things happening around the world – people being brutalised for their political views, people being put in jail”. This fundamentally misses the point. Human rights are of course about these things. But the various international conventions don’t just protect people from the headline-grabbing abuses. They also protect people from indignities other than death or imprisonment. Enshrined in the Convention are protections against restrictions on religious practice and belief, protections for the freedom of assembly and association and protections against the ‘collective expulsion of aliens’ (i.e. foreign nationals), among many others.

It is worth mentioning at this point that successive British governments of all parties have associated themselves with some of the most repressive regimes around the world. Saddam’s Iraq was supported by the UK before he was bombed and sanctioned into submission. Tony Blair’s government courted Muammar Gaddafi. The UK sells arms to the Bahraini regime which is still in the process of arresting its citizens who are engaged in legitimate, peaceful protest. Saudi Arabia, Israel, Sri Lanka…the list goes on. It seems that whatever party is in charge, dedication to protecting human rights only stretches so far. From Land’s End to John O’Groats perhaps?

Perhaps not. In the UK we imprison people without charge under anti-terror laws. Currently, the government is planning to institute Secret Courts in its Justice & Security Bill. If the bill is passed, the state will be able to decide whether cases it deems sensitive should be heard behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny. There are plenty of precedents for secret tribunals. Unfortunately for the Coalition they are from Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, among other such luminaries.

So, why do some politicians hate the UK HRA so much? It subordinates UK Law to the European Convention on Human Rights, and makes the European Court of Human Rights the highest court of appeal on such issues. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth from politicians desperate to assert Britain’s independence from the EU. Of course, this has everything to with principle and absolutely nothing to do with pandering to nationalist politics of the lowest kind. Firstly, let me be clear. The EU is far from perfect, and this article is not a defence of the EU as a whole. It is not democratic enough, and it isn’t subject to enough scrutiny to ensure that it represents the people of Europe as well as it could. Doubtless there are some regulations and rules that could be streamlined, simplified or scrapped altogether. But why pick on human rights? Why not the Common Agricultural Policy or endemic corruption?

The answer is simple – human rights laws are an easy target. They are easily simplified and can be diluted into media-friendly one-shot cases. Take Abu Qatada, the Jordanian Muslim cleric who has been in the UK since 1993. He was first arrested in 2001 and has since been in and out of jail. The state has been pushing for his deportation to Jordan since 2007. However, the European Court of Human Rights has recently ruled that Jordan has not provided satisfactory assurances that Qatada will not be tortured in Jordanian custody. The government cannot now deport him until they successfully appeal, or satisfactory assurances are provided.

I am not saying that Abu Qatada is a nice man. It may be that he has inspired, encouraged or planned violence. I do contest that if the state had enough evidence to convict him of an offence, they would have done so. As yet they have not. But whether he is guilty or innocent is completely irrelevant in this context. The fact is that UK law should guarantee the physical safety of anyone in state custody. Whether the state ‘likes’ Abu Qatada or not is completely immaterial. Indeed, the very principles of UK law demand that such considerations should not impact upon the proper application of the law. Even if Qatada had been convicted of an offence in the UK, the state would still have a duty to ensure his wellbeing.

For me, the final nail in the coffin of the anti-HRA argument is the volume of cases that are actually referred to the European Court of Human Rights each year. In a recent blog warning against political game playing on this issue, prominent human rights lawyer Adam Wagner says that the Court actually only tries about 10 cases annually. The rest are dealt with in the UK. Yes, they are constrained by the European Convention on Human Rights, but rightly so. I would challenge anyone to read the document and find one right they object to. The targeting of the HRA is a red herring.

Unfortunately this issue will not go away. With our rolling program of elections and high political stakes, those politicians of a Eurosceptic bent will most likely use the European Court of Human Rights and the UK HRA as a punching bag. Cases like that of Abu Qatada make it an easy target, and who wants to let pesky facts or common sense get in the way? It’s far easier to ignore the complex reality of the EU in favour of a political quick win.

2 responses to “In Defence of the UK Human Rights Act”

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  2. […] of these early starters – although as a lefty myself I wouldn’t be, would I? I’ve recently written about Theresa May’s desire to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights, […]