“Our aim is a straightforward one”, New Labour Party told us in October 1997 “[it is] to bring those rights home”. In 2000, the Human Rights Act came into force. For the first time, people in the UK had human rights which could be enforced in UK courts. The right to life, the right not to be tortured, to free speech. What was not to love?
If only it was that simple. 1997 seems a very long time ago. Now, in the final few hours before the 2015 Election, we see the major parties fundamentally divided on human rights.I haven’t written about the Election and human rights yet, mainly because I have been setting up a wonderful new human rights website, rightsinfo.org (more on that later).
Another reason is that although human rights reform is a real issued between the parties, it has featured little in the campaign. Maybe people are more bothered about the economy, immigration and housing. This has been a relief, as whenever the human rights debate show rolls into town it is inevitably accompanied by ill-informed criticism and the stoking of overblown fears, largely based on myths.
It is no secret that the major parties are poles apart on human rights. Labour basically wants to maintain the status quo. They will keep the Human Rights Act and seek reform of the European Court of Human Rights.
The Tories want to tear down the existing framework and start afresh with a British Bill of Rights, and also do something about the European Court of Human Rights. The policy is vague. They promised a draft bill of rights earlier in the year but it never materialised, so we have been left guessing as to what it all means for human rights.
For example, the manifesto promises to “break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights”. What does that mean? We lawyers have been trying to decode this, as it isn’t clear whether the manifesto is a step away from the Tories’ October 2014 policy document which promised to make European Court of Human Rights judgments “advisory” rather than binding on the UK. Cambridge University’s Dr Mark Elliott has followed the issue closely and talks a lot of sense here.
So if you think protecting people’s human rights in law a good thing, who should you vote for? There is a certain attraction in the Conservative plans. A British Bill of Rights. Redrawing the European Convention rights in our own image. A chance to enshrine the right to trial by jury, or freedom of the press. Practically every other European state does it. Why not us?
When you put it like that… but no. Let me explain why. In a different political reality, a bill of rights for the UK might be a great idea. It could bring the public into a project which has since 1997, rightly or wrongly, been seen as an elitist one, drawn up by lawyers and politicos, not the people who are meant to be benefiting from those rights.
But that isn’t that reality. The Conservative plan for a bill of rights, as vague as it is, is not about building the large tent you would need to construct a modern, inclusive bill of rights. It is about protecting the narrow interests of party supporters.
You only need to read the press release, since buried, which came with the original proposal. It talks about taking rights away from travellers, victims of abuse by the British military, illegal immigrants. Human rights are universal, they apply to everyone. The whole point is that minorities and unpopular groups are shielded from the random attacks of populism. The focus of the Conservative policy, or at least the small group behind it, is reducing rights, not reforming them. Others have written beautifully about the fundamental danger in this approach – see, from the left, Nick Cohen, or, from the right, Lord Finkelstein.
And many Tories are obsessed with shrinking away from Europe. You probably knew that. But it applies to human rights policy too. Helena Kennedy and Philippe Sands raised the alarm in 2013 after they had sat on the now forgotten Bill of Rights Commission. In a superb London Review of Books article, they raised the alarm that the true motive of their Tory colleagues for reforming human rights was leaving the European Convention on Human Rights and fundamentally reducing the reach of rights protections against the state.
Where does this leave us, as we enter the ballot booths? I am voting Labour. I think it is an obvious choice for anyone who wants to ensue that existing human rights protections are not taken away, particularly from unpopular groups. I also don’t want to see human rights become a political football, altered every five or 10 years to fit the narrow ideology of the politicians in charge.
But Labour’s approach has its dangers too. There seems to be a bubbling dissatisfaction over human rights in the UK. For whatever reason, the public remains unenthusiastic. Lawyers and activists scratch their heads. How could people not want their basic rights protected against the state? Perhaps it is because the rights were imposed from above rather than growing from below. Who knows.
This brings me back to RightsInfo, a new website I just launched. I think it is time for the human rights debate to be rebooted. We need to start from the beginning, to convince people that human rights matter, that they are fundamentally British, that they have done amazing things for people who aren’t criminals or terrorists, that much of what we are told by the press is based on myths, not facts. I hope it works. Because time is running out if we want to truly bring human rights home.