There is a commission on a bill of rights for the UK. It is in the midst of a consultation process, and visited Belfast this week. Have you noticed?
The commission’s establishment and composition provoked adverse comment. The mood of open hostility to existing human rights law merged with the potential for engineered political standoff, as the commission members are split between those who support the Human Rights Act and those who oppose it. A commission born from political compromise looks primed for stalemate. Not the best way to initiate a new constitutional conversation.
Viewed from Belfast, the enterprise seems odd. Think of how a “British bill of rights” sounds here. We survived an extensive bill of rights process, launched over 12 years ago and interwoven with the complexities of our particular circumstances. Asked to submit advice on a bill of rights, the Northern Ireland human rights commission did so. The carefully crafted proposals remain on the desk of the secretary of state. Our advice is determinedly Human Rights Act plus (it did not impress Dominic Grieve when he paid us a visit). The London-based commission has no doubt read it. From our perspective, it is tempting to wish this new project well and leave it at that. Can we have our own bill of rights first please?
However, support can be given to cautious and strategic engagement. Northern Ireland should be represented on the advisory panel. As we know, the UK is not the constitutional place it once was. Devolution – and the steady rise of nations and regions – eased Westminster’s grip. There is pressure to move even further, and the monolithic past is now broken into a rich diversity. Variety is a welcome reality of UK life. So what, you might ask?
Proposing a UK bill of rights in such a context raises profound constitutional questions. Have they been thought through? Even the initial stages require skilful management. An appreciation of constitutional and national pluralism is vital. What of the potential outcome? No credible human rights activist or organisation will endorse anything that resembles a backward step. How could they? The Human Rights Act is legislation to be proud of. Subtle and crass attempts to undermine it should not prevail. That message may well emerge clearly from the consultation.
Before all that, one forgotten thing in London. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 held out the expectation of a bill of rights. The commission could quite easily endorse the advice delivered from Northern Ireland and, as others have done, urge rapid progress towards completion. Why not?
New and more pluralist constitutional conversations are unfolding across these islands. If we lift our gaze, listen and engage as equals, we just might grasp the opportunities. In these awful times, we should not abandon our faith in humanity, and try not to lose heart or confidence. As the drums of national retreat sound across Europe (and the UK takes over as chair of the Council of Europe), noticing the human person seems more like the pressing constitutional imperative of our age. Let us not forget why we have human rights, and why we need them still.
In realising our aims, it must not be either/or. The priority is to prevent the degradation of our human rights. The Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights should be defended. In the process, why not show them what enhanced and robust human rights protection looks like. Why not spell out what new bills of rights include? I guess they may not like it. They said they wanted a bill of rights debate, didn’t they?
The time has come throughout the UK for strong public leadership on human rights, and a mature debate on radical constitutional change. Given the desperate state of our world, perhaps time too for a new global human rights revolution. Who will stand in this troubled age for our common humanity? What do you think?
Professor Colin Harvey is Head of the Law School, Queen’s University Belfast and served as Northern Ireland Human Rights Commissioner 2005-2011
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk/law and is reproduced with permission as part of the Guardian Legal Network.
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