The future of human rights on these islands – Colin Harvey

29 January 2013 by

Union jack umbrellaNow that the idea of a new UK Bill of Rights appears to be buried, choices re-emerge. The predicted outcome of the London-based Commission’s work was finally confirmed in December. Where now for human rights?

Thinking beyond the European Convention on Human Rights was never confined to this generation or any one process. The limitations of the Convention are well known, and critical material is not lacking. Talk of next steps circles around ‘going beyond’ and ‘building on’ existing achievements in several senses. The feeling that it is possible to improve; that the world of human rights captures more than the HRA or the ECHR. The more ill-defined talk of ‘ownership’ that resembles constitutional patriotism in desperate defence of a union in transition, and the disguised nationalist/unionist positions that occasionally surface.

The fierce debate on the HRA or the Strasbourg Court will certainly not go away, and will feature in the scheduled Westminster General Election in 2015.  Time therefore to take the opportunity to question the more dispiriting trends that may surface.

What can be ignored or neglected is the genuine diversity of discussion on these islands, and thus the potential for transformative constitutional conversations and configurations. The focus should remain on how human rights protection and promotion might be advanced across these islands, and within a global setting, whatever national democratic decisions are made.

The UK is in flux, with the independence referendum in Scotland next year providing a moment for reflection. The First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, is talking about a convention that will draft a new constitution; one that might well include socio-economic rights. The Scottish Human Rights Commission is working on a National Human Rights Action Plan; in Wales, progress is being made on the rights of children and young persons. In Ireland, a Constitutional Convention is currently considering, on a fairly limited basis, the Irish Constitution. Calls are being made to re-energise the distinctive Bill of Rights process for Northern Ireland; and discussion of a border poll – in conformity with the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement – is underway in Ireland.

These islands – in all their multi-national, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural richness – can offer ground for a new and internationalised constitutional dialogue based on mutual recognition and respect.  This ‘mood’ could also inform human rights-based discussions; those that see self-determination as part of an inclusive global human rights story. In Ireland, this might mean not viewing life exclusively from Dublin, or on the basis of a constitution that requires extensive revision. In the UK, the dominance of Westminster-centred thinking must give way to different qualitative national conversations.

All of this can be presented in the tired and fearful language of separation and threat. Is this a wise or mature response? As we know, the worst things can always happen in any constitutional arrangement. Imagining the bad can help us not to forget the brutal lessons of history, but if taken to extremes will prevent us from striving for better ways to realise human rights in new formations. It is time to meet on equal terms across these islands, to globalise the debate on the secure basis of mutual respect; and for all to accept that equality speaks to our inter-communal national conversations too.

When human rights protections are under withering attack a defensive posture is sensible. Hold what you have; for now. But surely the primary long-term challenge will still remain to win the argument for enhanced and effective human rights protection, informed and enlivened by the global rights regime? So, let’s keep talking to each other about human rights across these islands.

Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast. This article first appeared on the Oxford Human Rights Hub and is reproduced here with permission and thanks.

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  1. Tim says:

    The UK likes to think that it is a civilised human-rights-minded country when it is no such thing:

  2. John D says:

    I completely agree with Gavin Steele that the emphasis needs to be taken away from the national, regional or even global dimension and that emphasis needs to be placed on the essential need for HUMAN rights, which apply to all, everywhere.
    In response to some of the questions raised by the article author, I preface my response by saying that I am too poor and too old to follow up what I am about to suggest. Could not an independent human rights think tank be established, to focus directly on human rights and to prepare policy papers, as well as arrange to send representatives as Sympathetic Friends to the ECtHR in order to put forward proposals and suggestions for developments in ECHR Law?
    Leaving it to the government – as in this case – almost invariably ends up with human rights issues being left in the long grass, usually to remain unresolved for decades.

  3. We don’t need a bill of rights or try to ignore thre HRA – we just need to remember that Britain signed up to the UN Convention back in 1945 which said every member state must strive to improve the lot of ITS CITIZENS.
    Illegals and terrorists are not UK citizens so it is wrong to allow lawyers to make a mockery of the HRA and these people need to be shipped out whence they came.


    ARTICLE 44.


    THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITIES ACT 1972 SECTION 1 (4), 2 (1), 3 (1)

    Yours Faithfully

    Ismail Abdulhai Bhamjee

  5. Gavin Steele says:

    Good idea – but I think London might get a bit of a shock when it wakes up to what the view is in Edinburgh and Belfast: Scotland and Ireland are a lot more open to universal human rights standards (bless ’em) than England.

    However, at least in terms of public perception, I see a risk in trying to stick geographical labels on rights at all – they’re not English, Scottish or Irish (or, for that matter, European). They’re precisely what they’re called: HUMAN. As soon as you stick a national label on them, you risk muddying the waters by inviting people to percieve them as somehow “foreign”, ie. not ours. Xenophobia can start to do its insidious work, and a discourse that should be about universal values becomes diverted by the red-herring of national interest, and all the baggage that comes with that. It makes it so much easier for the Daily Mail to denounce Convention rights – an alien philosophy imposed by alien judges – because they are “European”. The effort to stick a “British” label on them through a British bill of rights has already come unstuck, as you point out. Given that gloomy background, not to mention a looming independence referendum in Scotland, I’m not sure an approach which pivots away from “Europe” and towards “these islands” will have much better luck.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for a deeper (and, above all, more intelligent) discussion between the constituent parts of the UK on what rights should be about – if only so that the Scots and Irish can begin to show their fellow Britons that there are more enlightened ways of upholding them! But wouldn’t we be better off, both morally and strategically, trying to get away from the labels altogether, and put the accent back on the HUMAN? “Wherever you live, whoever you are, these rights are yours – simply because you are a human being.”

    1. goggzilla says:

      Daily Mail a poor example, they are vehemently anti police.

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