A whiff of brimstone: Andrew Neil critiques human rights on prime time TV
15 March 2012
The road to hell as we know is paved with good intentions and here they are, laid bare by the Daily Politics broadcaster in his exposition of everything that has gone wrong with the Convention since it was forged in the crucible of two world wars.
Post war prosperity ensured that genocide and dictatorships did not arise again. But the Convention has become a “political poison” that goes to the very core of how the country is governed.
In “Rights and Wrongs” Neil declares that he is trying “to cut throughout the hype and confusion” surrounding the subject, and his approach is undeniably forthright and populist. No doubt he will be castigated severely for poor reporting. But to be fair, he points out that the media had exaggerated some judgments – you can’t avoid deportation merely by owning a cat, but you can if you have a settled family who happens to own one. He also cites a number of decisions from Strasbourg that most people in this country would support, or at least think nothing of these days – gays in the military, the abolition of corporal punishment in schools, freedom of the press (particularly the ruling that saved Andrew Neil from jail during the Spycatcher affair in the 1980s).
But – inevitably – the documentary focussed on the cases of Abu Qatada and Aso Mohammed Ibrahim, the asylum seeker whose car hit and killed 12-year-old Amy Houston, and who successfully resisted deportation because of his right to a family life.
As Neil points out,
If judges continually make rulings that the mainstream decent majority regard as unacceptable, the danger is that majority is going to become increasingly hostile to the idea of human rights
And John Reid, Blair’s last home secretary, now regrets this country’s adoption of the ECHR. He tells Neil that human rights gives “absolute rights” to one individual, even when that individual threatens the rest of the 64 million population. If there were to be some “major atrocity”, and it was revealed that part of its causation was government’s inability to detain or deport people there would be a public backlash, a public demand that we derogate completely from the Convention.
Would that be so unthinkable? Andrew Neil doesn’t think so. There are 47 countries signed up to the Convention, and not all of them live up to its ideals. Some countries “are notorious for turning a blind eye to Strasbourg decisions when they’re inconvenient”. So why do we gold plate the Convention here, under the HRA?
But surprisingly no-one in this programme puts the case particularly strongly, either for abolishing the HRA or withdrawing from the Convention. Some MPs and lawyers cleave to the notion of ancient British rights. But it’s not as easy as the “political romantics” think, says Neil. You can’t just tear up the Human Rights Act and rely on the Magna Carta. The very limited rights in that ancient contract between King John and his feudal barons are easily overridden by Parliament. It’s all very well getting “misty eyed” about the Magna Carta, but that amounts to “sweet FA” in modern law. And whatever we forge by way of a “home-grown” bill of rights, without full withdrawal from the Convention (and probably the European Council as well) we will still be subservient to the Strasbourg Court –
We still couldn’t deport Qatada or deport foreign criminals who run children down and leave them to die on the streets”
Pulling out of Strasbourg would be legally and politically possible, but Neil concludes that most mainstream politicians, on the left or the right, are not prepared to go that far.
It’s a stark choice and not one that any of the parties are prepared to face up to.
It was an interesting and timely documentary, particularly in the light of the Telegraph’s recent report of leaked emails and official papers from the Bill of Rights Commission which reveal how reveal how riven it is by splits and disputes. The recent resignation of Michael Pinto-Duschinsky highlighted the deep ideological divisions within the Commission but it is also beset by inequitable allocation of resources between the “Clegg appointees” and the “Cameron appointees”. The latter, it appears, have insufficient staff and facilities, while the former have the benefit of the assistance of human rights pressure groups (with which the UK is “exceptionally heavily” populated). As Pinto-Duschinksy points out,
While we need to be open to such pressure groups and to official bodies associated with them (such as the EHRC) we need to be careful that their demands for access to the Commission do not crowd out those of the ‘silent majority’.
If the Commission comes up with a split report, and the proposed reforms to the Strasbourg Court are stalled by endemic inefficiency and political self-interest, the stalemate over our continuing adherence to Strasbourg and its rulings looks set to continue into the far distant future, bearing out Andrew Neil’s gloomy predictions.
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