Today is Human Rights Day, marking the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sanchita Hosali, from the British Institute of Human Rights, an independent charity working to bring rights to life beyond the statue books and courtrooms, reflects on our domestic human rights debates and those voices that are often missing from the conversation.
Last week saw 72 MPs vote in favour of a motion to repeal the Human Rights Act. So today, on Human Rights Day, 72 civil society groups have written to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister urging them to safeguard the Human Rights Act. As we await the report from the Commission on a UK Bill of Rights, what unites these 72 groups is concern and disappointment that “what should be a healthy debate about how best to secure the human rights of each and every one of us has, for far too long, lacked political leadership.” This “jeopardises the progress we have made at home in ensuring that our human rights obligations lead to real change for people in their everyday lives.”
How often do we hear about the real change the Human Rights Act (HRA) secures for people in their everyday lives? More often than not human rights headlines and political sound-bites feature controversial cases, complex technical narrative, and the assumption that people simply do not care or are hostile to the HRA. Yet work with communities and the public sector shows that the HRA is very real, personally relevant, and fundamental to the day-to-day lives of people and the wider society. For example the recently launched Make Human Rights Happen features everyday examples of how the HRA helps to secure justice when people are treated with cruelty and indifference, how it can transform ideas of empowerment, accountability and localism into a daily reality.
In a modern and diverse democracy like the UK it is important to create spaces to tell these stories, to have discussions about how the HRA is working, to debate what it means to have a law that protects universal rights. In the last two years BIHR’s annual Human Rights Tour has taken almost 3000 bookings from people across the UK wanting to engage in such discussions. We have learnt that people are interested, and they do care. No one is under the illusion that the HRA is a cure-all, sometimes difficult decisions need to be made, ones which will create disagreement; but this is part of what it means to live in a democracy where there are legal limits on power, which respects hard-won universal, basic rights and the rule of law. People have been writing their messages to political leaders on bunting, being used in local celebrations on Human Rights Day, and a London event at 1pm on Parliament Square.
We are seeing these messages about the importance of the HRA being reflected in what the public has been telling the Commission on a Bill of Rights (CBOR). Despite the lack of resources invested in the CBOR process, there is a clear message of support for keeping the Human Rights Act. Whilst the Commission has thus far declined to release its analysis of the consultation responses, groups like BIHR have looked at the responses. BIHR’s analysis of the 2011 consultation suggests that around the 80% of the 900+ respondents said there is no need for a UK Bill of Rights (mainly because the Human Rights Act functions like one) or that if there is to be any new law this should sit alongside and build on the Act. A similar result has emerged from the 2012 consultation which closed in September.
To help people get to grips with the 2012 consultation BIHR launched a postcard action under our #Act campaign. People sent hundreds of messages asking the CBOR to recommend retaining the HRA. These weren’t just pro forma postcards; many people added personal comments about why the HRA is important. Social workers revealed how the HRA helps them do their job better. People whose parents fought in the Second World War to secure the rights in the Act expressed their concerns about replacing the Act with something that takes our protections backwards. Parents with disabled children shared how the HRA is vital for their families. And there were even former sceptics who, having found out more about the HRA, realised its value. A recurring theme was concern about attacks on the HRA by certain quarters of the press and politicians, and ensuring that these were not taken as the basis for scrapping a law which reflects basic rights and values. In total there were just over 2000 responses to the 2012 consultation and it looks as though 90% respondents clearly said the HRA should be retained.
It remains to be seen how civil society’s support for the HRA is reflected in CBOR’s final report and what the Government will do with this information. It is clear that the future of the HRA, the UK’s relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights and its Court, will remain on the political agenda. As we enter the next phase of these debates, whose voices will be heard, whose voices will count?
Sanchita Hosali is the Senior Policy and Legal Affairs Advisor at BIHR. Today’s Human Rights Day letter from civil society groups has been coordinated by the BIHR, and includes the likes of Liberty, Amnesty International UK, the Law Centres Network, the Law Society, Age UK, Disability Rights UK, Unlock Democracy, and regional and community groups working to secure the rights of people across the UK.
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