Human rights – a coat of many colours
24 March 2016
“Roses are red.
Violets are blue.
Whatever your political colour;
Human rights should matter to you”
Some legal oratory flows into the profound, beautiful and inspiring. Most of the time when it comes to poetry – as this particularly appalling ditty is designed to demonstrate – we lawyers should stick to the day job.*
This week human rights commentators celebrated both World Poetry Day and the launch of a new project on the conservative commitment to human rights. Announcing a Commission made up of MPs and commentators – including Maria Miller MP, Dominic Grieve QC MP and Matthew D’Ancona – Bright Blue this week published a series of essays by Conservative leaders on a range of human rights threats; from the refugee crisis to the repeal of the Human Rights Act.
Bright Blue now joins the Labour Campaign for Human Rights in taking steps to take the current debate beyond the heat and light of party politics and into a greater conversation about how we protect the rights of the most vulnerable in our communities and about the UK’s place in the world.
The Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party have been vocal about their commitment to the Human Rights Act 1998 and the UK’s commitment to international human rights law. The debate about human rights and the ECHR in Northern Ireland is, of course, long-standing and tied up in the crucial Belfast Agreement.
While the language of the human rights debate in the UK has become more toxic than poetic, it is cause to celebrate when parties across the political spectrum are committing time and intellectual energy to the UK’s longstanding commitment to the rule of law and the protection of human rights standards at home and abroad. It gives lie to the oft-repeated suggestion that human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 are either unpopular or irrelevant.
At the Bright Blue launch event, Dominic Grieve QC MP suggested that it would be “wholly Conservative” to conserve the human rights guarantees we find in the Human Rights Act 1998 and in the European Convention on Human Rights and to build on those to better protect the public good. The idea of non-retrogression is one which runs through the international human rights framework. It’s not a solely conservative idea, but it is an entirely sensible one.
In his Bright Blue paper on repeal of the Human Rights Act, Damien Green MP suggests that nothing in any new rights settlement should “break the principles of the ECHR”. He stresses “it is bizarre and depressing that ‘human rights’ has become a ‘boo’ phrase for many Conservatives”.
While this is welcome, it is deeply regrettable that he yet suggests it would be possible for the UK to remain part of the Convention while watering down the prohibition on torture in Article 3 ECHR by tempering the bar on return of individuals to a “real risk” of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. It seems clear that the Government has itself stepped away from any threat to tinker with our commitments on torture. As Dominic Grieve QC MP explained, this kind of so-called “refinement” would undermine our commitment to the prohibition on torture and would drive a “coach and horses” through the European Convention.
While Damien supports a new “de minimis” approach to the enforcement of individual rights in the UK, Dominic explained that this kind of “micromanagement” by Parliament or otherwise would be “unworkable”.
Villains and “stuff”
Much of the narrative from rights-critics – on both ends of the politic spectrum – has focused on this kind of commitment to “fewer rights for fewer people”. From Jack Straw’s famous statement about human rights and “villains” to Boris Johnson’s recent conclusion that we shouldn’t bother about civil liberties “stuff” for terrorist suspects. This approach could dangerously undermine the principle of universality on which human rights law stands.
Benedict Rogers – one of the new Bright Blue Commissioners – called on us to remember how undermining that principle would not only be bad for the UK but bad for the wider world: “You can’t pick and choose human rights. They’re a set menu […] How can we speak up for the terrorised and the terrified of the world if we are bashing human rights at home?”
A “pick and mix” approach would, of course, be inconsistent with any commitment to the ECHR or our wider international obligations (see earlier contributions in this blog, for example).
Those of us working to defend the Human Rights Act and the UK’s commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights now wait for the publication of the Government’s proposals for repeal. Most of us would agree with Dominic’s suggestion that the current law would be best “left well alone”.
In a conversation about how our law protects the human rights of us all, we must all work together to reject any attempt to diminish human rights standards or to exclude the unpopular, the marginalised or the voiceless from our laws’ protection.
Let’s each of us remember this debate is bigger than party politics.
JUSTICE continues its work to defend the protections of the Human Rights Act and the UK’s commitment to the ECHR. Find more information about our work on this issue, here. JUSTICE works through the support of its members. Sign up today. Find out more at www.justice.org.uk or on Twitter @JUSTICEhq.
For a live feed of the Bright Blue Human Rights Launch, see #bbhumanrights. Photo credit: Bright Blue on Twitter.
* EDITOR’S NOTE: The above text is an opinion piece. The editorial team at UK Human Rights Blog take no responsibility for the quality or otherwise of any poetry therein.