Happy 10th birthday Human Rights Act
2 October 2010
Updated x 2 Today marks ten years since the Human Rights Act 1998 came into force, on 2 October 2000. The act brought UK citizens under the protection of the European Convention on Human Rights. For ten years, it has been unlawful for a public authority to breach those rights.
We at the UK Human Rights Blog wish the oft-maligned act a very happy birthday. We, along with our sister-site the Human Rights Update Service, have been covering human rights case-law since 2000.
Thankfully, the new government is no longer looking to scrap the HRA before it reaches adolescence. It may still be supplemented with a ‘British’ bill of rights, but this seems not to be a policy imperative for the coalition. Whilst the HRA has been criticised for protecting terrorists and criminals, it has succeeded in ‘bringing rights home’ so that sensitive social issues are dealt with by our domestic courts rather than Eurocrats in Strasbourg. And any universal system of rights will inevitably serve to protect those we dislike. This is, and should be, the basic principle of our justice system, not something to be debated.
If you are looking to refresh your knowledge about the HRA, please see our introduction to human rights, as well as our index of the rights guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights. The Guardian also has a useful section on the Human Rights Act, and the flash new Liberty website is also a good starting point. The act itself can be found here.
So, many happy returns and all the best for the future, HRA.
Update, 4 Oct: You can find discussions on the future of the HRA from this blog here (Adam Wagner argues that it is the end of the age of terrorism for human rights campaigners) and here (Rosalind English asks whether a human rights to money will ever happen). Both posts are relevant given the plans to be announced at the Tory Party conference to significantly reform the benefits system.
Update 2: Liberty have published the findings of a survey which “shows mass support (96%) for a law that protects rights and freedoms in Britain.” A key question would be how many support the HRA itself, rather than just the rights it incorporates. Either the survey did not ask or the results haven’t been published.
In any event, the fact that 90+% of the public support some of the most basic rights enshrined under the European Convention, when put against the general (it would seem) unpopularity of the HRA itself, suggests that many people may not realise what the HRA actually does. The HRA has been much-criticised, and this may have distorted public perceptions as to who it protects. Anyway, Liberty make the case for better public explanation of the HRA, which could solve this problem. But rights organisations can only do so much, and if the HRA is misunderstood, it falls to the government – particularly one which has previously called for the HRA to be repealed – to engage with the public more.
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- The future of the Human Rights Act, a reminder
- End of the age of terrorism for human rights campaigners
- Coalition agreement calls for Human Rights Act Plus, but will it last?
The Human Rights Act is of limited or no value in curbing the worst abuses. I offer two examples.
Firstly, the Human Rights Act has not prevented the subsequent passage of yet another Mental Health Act, worse than all the others before it. We’d rightly be ashamed if we stripped those whom we suspected of “terrorism”, of their human rights, to the same draconian extent that, using the Mental Health Act, we strip of all their rights those considered guilty of (shall we say?) “thought crimes.”
Secondly, the Act does not incorporate into UK law ALL of the Articles of the Convention, just some of them. It does not (for example) incorporate the Article that confers the right to obtain a remedy for a human rights violation. Arguably, the Act cannot, therefore, be used to challenge (for example) the abuse of The Official Secrets Act to protect a human rights abuser from litigation by his victim, by withholding evidence from a human rights plaintiff.
Thus, in 2004 or 2005, fifty years after a soldier was killed as a result of being abused by the Ministry of Defence as a “guinea pig” in an unethical, unlawful, non-consensual medical experiment, the evidence of this crime was at last declassified. (Until then, the deceased’s family had not been able to obtain justice.) If this pattern is repeated, and given the limitations of the Act, the present-day victims of officially secret human rights abuses of this type, cannot look forward to justice any earlier than 50 years from now.
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