Yesterday Sir Nicolas Bratza spoke candidly about the responsibility of certain UK politicians and media outlets in tarnishing this countries human rights legacy. He called on lawyers and NGOs to help rekindle the fire for human rights at home.
At an event hosted by the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) and the Law Society – “Sixty years of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR): What does the future hold?” – politicians, legal practitioners, civil servants, academics and activists debated the impact of six decades of the UK’s membership of the ECHR.
Professor Francesca Klug reflected on the history and development of the ECHR, noting how UK political parties on all sides have at various points since 1953 supported bringing the Convention rights home, recognising that the common law alone is not enough. Yet sixty years on, UK debates often feature calls to repeal Human Rights Act (HRA), which incorporates the ECHR into our law or to withdraw from the ECHR system altogether. Debate should be welcomed, Francesca noted, but she reminded us how easy it would be to destroy the achievements of the ECHR, and questioned whether this was the legacy we wanted to leave for future generations.
Delivering the keynote Sir Nicolas Bratza, now President of BIHR asked:
“what has happened here at home, to bring about the tarnishing of the legacy which the UK inherited when ratifying the Convention and enacting the Human Rights Act which gave effect to it – that remarkable piece of legislation, which has brought great benefits to a great many people in this country?”
Motivated by malice
Sir Nicolas forensically unpicked the virulent attacks and myths directed at the Convention and Court. Sir Nicolas noted his “profound regret” that myths about the ECHR and HRA have not only been allowed to grow up but have been perpetuated in the popular press and by certain politicians sometimes through “sheer ignorance; but too often motivated by malice.”
Yet there is, Sir Nicolas noted, much that is good and genuine grounds for optimism. Firstly, he emphasised the exemplary work UK courts in applying the HRA. UK judges have, he said, “breathed new life into the Convention” and increased dialogue with the European Court. Second, despite the disparagement of both by some politicians and media, Sir Nicolas was encouraged by public support for the HRA and ECHR system evidenced by the public consultations of the Commission on the Bill of Rights. He noted how 88% of respondents opted for retaining the HRA and some 98% thought that the Convention rights should continue to be incorporated, the support being particularly strong in the devolved nations.
Thirdly, Sir Nicolas paid tribute to the remarkable work of NGOs throughout the country in promoting, explaining and defending human rights, in exposing the myths, and increasing the knowledge of the public on the benefits of the HRA and ECHR. He noted the work of BIHR in this area, including work to mark the 60th Anniversary of the ECHR and our Human Rights Tour, free community education days across the UK.
The future of human rights
Turning to what can be done to restore the HRA (and what it stands for) to its rightful place, Sir Nicolas called on NGOs and lawyers to continue this vital work. He also said politicians must be encouraged to speak up openly in defence of the HRA and ECHR. And the press also carry a responsibility to ensure a more balanced and wider dissemination of information about the positive aspects of human rights protection in this country. Sir Nicolas concluded by saying:
“Rekindling the fire and keeping the HRA and the UK within the ECHR will not be an easy task. It will involve confronting those determined to destroy both. But it will also involve taking every opportunity to make more widely known to the general public the untold benefits which have derived from bringing rights home. It will be a hard fight, but one worth winning. It is more than that; it is a fight which must be won.”
The next panel featured an interesting mix of perspectives from beyond the shores of Great Britain, exploring the impact of the ECHR in its broader context. Professor Philip Leach spoke about the importance of the ECHR in Russia and Eastern Europe, providing a vital means of accountability for people whose families have been disappeared and those subjected to torture. Professor Aileen McColgan also starkly reminded us that these issues were very close to home, reiterating the importance of the ECHR in addressing the conflict in Northern Ireland. Professor Fiona de Loundras spoke about Ireland, where the experience of bringing ECHR rights home has been more of a collaborative experience, informed by a context where the constitution rather than parliament is sovereign. Dr Almut Wittling-Vogel, of the German Federal Government spoke about how the country has only recently began to have negative judgements against it at the Court, which have led to a degree of unpopularity. Interestingly in both cases despite public disagreement over certain judgements, in neither case has this translated into significant calls against the ECHR system in the same way as in the UK.
The “Question Time” panel rounded off the day, with frank and animated exchanges on the UK’s relationship with the ECHR from Sadiq Khan MP, Julian Huppert MP and Mark Reckless MP, chaired by Jane Gordon. Responding to the first question, Khan and Huppert agreed that given UK involvement in drafting the ECHR, traditional British values and common law run through the Convention “like lettering in a stick of rock”. Reckless, agreed that having the ECHR reflect our values and principles is a great achievement but the issue is with way it and the HRA has been interpreted.
Some heated debates followed raising issues around the international reputation of the UK, the lack of MP knowledge on the details of cases which are often criticised, the rule of law, Quatda, and government actions undermining the courts. The panel concluded with a question from Paul Langton, whose identification as “a member of the public” raised a cheer from the audience. Paul said “joe public” is frustrated with the rhetoric, what we need is a balanced debate. He quizzed the panel on how we ensure public education so that people can first understand human rights before getting into debates about repeal and withdrawal. Sadiq Khan said human rights can change culture, from the actions of a Minister in deciding policy to ensuring older couples can live together and victims of sexual violence have protections in the legal system.
The day was rounded off with concluding comments Stephen Bowen, BIHR’s Director, who said BIHR is unapologetic about celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the ECHR, but that doesn’t mean that the Convention, Court or HRA are perfect. He noted that whilst the nature and form of laws is something to be debated, that is not what is happening in our domestic debates. He said too often we see political bullying on human rights, when what we need is political leadership. He reminded us that those who speak loudest do not necessarily represent public opinion. Indeed the #ECHR60 hashtag had trended in the number one spot for the UK yesterday.
He ended by reading a letter from 90 organisations, published in the Daily Telegraph, an indication that there are those willing to speak up for human rights. He ended with a call to action to all people to play their role in securing our human rights legacy for future generations.
Sanchita Hosali is the Deputy Director at the British Institute of Human Rights
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