Are human rights to blame for the riots?
16 August 2011
Many explanations have been proposed for the recent British riots, including poor policing, Twitter and violent video games. Yesterday, the Prime Minster suggested that the Human Rights Act is to blame.
In a major speech, he said that when considering questions of attitude and behaviour, “we inevitably come to the question of the Human Rights Act and the culture associated with it“. What is “exerting such a corrosive influence on behaviour and morality“? No less than “the twisting and misrepresenting of human rights in a way that has undermined personal responsibility“.
I have four points to make about the speech.
First, this is a pretty bold statement. The Prime Minister does not explain in any detail how the causal chain runs between legislating the protection of human rights to the collective looting of a Footlocker shop. His case is not quite as tenuous as historian David Starkey’s indictment of rap music, but it is pretty thin.
And it is hard to see how the main bugbears of human rights detractors, such as the inability to deport foreign criminals as a result of family rights, have anything at all to do with the riots, even in the most tenuous sense.
Secondly, the Prime Minister may be right but not in the way that he intended. If there is any connection to be drawn between the riots and “the twisting and misrepresenting of human rights”, a case could be made that it is mainstream politicians’ longstanding opposition to the Human Rights Act that has done real damage.
Cameron says that we are “proud to stand up for human rights”. But when was the last time he or a senior politician publicly supported the decision of a judge in a human rights case? The Prime Minister has been variously “uneasy“, “appalled” and “physically sick” over recent rulings. Alex Salmond, his counterpart in Scotland, has been just as scathing; he said that the UK Supreme Court made judgments “in favour of “the vilest people on the planet”, prompting today’s resignation of Lord Steel from his post advising the Scottish government. It is hard to see how respect for the rule of law – lacking in the first days of the riots – is encouraged by such comments.
Many politicians have campaigned to scrap the Human Rights Act for years. They have been cheered on by journalists in the tabloid press and Daily Telegraph who have consistently maligned and misrepresented human rights law. This corosive hum of discontent has obscured many of the good things human rights law has achieved, including prompting the laws which convicted the phone hackers.
Thirdly, whatever the Prime Minister says and however much he rages against rights culture, very little will change during this administration. As The Economist’s Bagehot points out,”politicians confident that they can actually change something tend to avoid phrases like: “We’re working to develop a way through the morass by looking at…”
The Coalition’s Bill of Rights Commission, the Prime Minister’s answer to the problem posed in his speech, is effectively impotent as it has no remit to recommend full or even partial withdrawal from the European Convention or European Court of Human Rights. This was an early concession to the Liberal Democrats, and given its adversarial composition – effectively four members who like and four members who dislike the Human Rights Act – it is hard to see how the Commission will reach any creative solutions to the problems which have emerged since the Human Rights Act began operating in 2000. As the Prime Minister said, change will be “frustratingly slow”.
Finally, any politician who claims to be “proud to stand up for human rights” should remind the public that nearly every protection under human rights law – for example the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of religion – need not be enforced by a public authority if a policy legitimately and proportionally protects the public.
This is a reasonable get-out clause for public authorities and particularly the police, who have a wide discretion to do things like publish photographs of alleged rioters . So human rights, if properly enforced and not misrepresented, should allow for the protection of the public whilst still ensuring that the state has not “abused and eroded fundamental human freedoms and historic civil liberties“. That is a quote from the Coalition’s 2010 Programme for Government. May 2010 is starting to seem like a long time ago.
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