15 reasons to celebrate the Human Rights Act
Crack open the champagne and hang up the bunting – the Human Rights Act is 15 years old today. Okay, maybe not the bunting, but it really is a moment to celebrate.
The Human Rights Act has made it easier for every one of us to protect our rights and harder for the government to ignore them. It’s even helped tabloid newspapers (not that you’d know that if you read their coverage). Here’s 15 reasons we should celebrate the Human Rights Act.
1. Saving you a pricey trip to Strasbourg
Kicked out of the army for being gay? Being forced to join a particular trade union if you want to keep your job? Between 1959 and 2000, you had to save up for a flight to Strasbourg and the European Court of Human Rights if you wanted to challenge even the most basic kind of human rights abuses by the UK government. And you’d have to be patient – on average it took 5 years (and cost around £30,000) to get your case heard.
To reduce this lengthy, expensive process – and bring human rights home to the UK courts – the Human Rights Act was born. It came into force on 2 October 2000 and since then our rights have been enforceable in our own courts. So now, your human rights are available right here.
Image: The ECHR supported John Beckett, Jeanette Smith and Duncan Lustig-Prean, sacked from the Armed Forces for their sexuality © Press Association
2. Making the government think before it acts
When the government wants to pass a new law, the Human Rights Act requires the Minister proposing the law to make a statement about how it is compatible (or not) with our human rights.
That doesn’t mean the Minister can’t be (and isn’t often!) wrong about it, but it does mean that the government and parliament can’t ignore the effect on human rights of any new laws – a huge improvement in the law-making process here.
3. Keeping bureaucrats in check
The computer can’t just say no anymore. The Human Rights Act puts a duty on all public officials – from government ministers to local council staff and school bosses – not to violate your human rights.
If they do, you can go to court to challenge that abuse, whether it’s because of a mistake, incompetence, stupidity, error or anything else. Like Mr and Mrs Driscoll, who successfully reversed the Council’s decision that after 65 years living together she couldn’t go to the same care home as him because she didn’t meet the exact criteria.
4. Making the ordinary extraordinary
Being able to challenge human rights issues here at home means ordinary people can make huge positive changes for their community, or even the country as a whole. One person can take on their council, or a government department or any other ‘public authority’, and challenge a decision or policy that has led to their rights being abused.
And winning that case could make big changes or set a precedent that the public authority then has to follow. Like two young men, whose identities were protected as ‘A’ and ‘S’. They took on Lancashire County Council over the way they had been treated as children in its care system. They won, and the council had to review their whole care system.
5. Keeping up with the Joneses
The whole idea of the European Convention on Human Rights is that it sets a common minimum standard so you get the same core rights as someone else in the same position no matter which of the member countries you live in – and there are 47 of them, including Russia!
When the UK signed up to the Convention, it was promising to make sure it keeps up. The Human Rights Act makes sure of that.
If you challenge the UK government in court using the Human Rights Act, the judge will take into account what the European Court of Human Rights has said in other judgements, which means we don’t fall behind other countries on human rights.
6. Calm amidst the storm
When bad things happen, there’s a natural urge to want to do something. Fast. Politicians are understandably anxious not to be seen as weak. So there’s sometimes a rush to be the ‘strong leader’ and look tough. The knee jerk reaction. Often our rights will be the first thing to go and our society becomes less free.
The Human Rights Act keeps us anchored to our principles by keeping that urge in check: making sure the state fulfils its duty too protects us from harm (it includes your rights to life, liberty and security!), but doesn’t just ditch our age-old freedoms completely when it does so.
For example, when the government hastily passed anti-terror laws that allowed non-UK nationals to be held indefinitely without charge, the UK’s highest court – applying the Human Rights Act – stepped in. They concluded that part of the law was disproportionate and discriminatory, and reminded lawmakers in stinging terms of the UK’s principles. The law was scrapped.
7. Letting you make your own choices
The Human Rights Act protects your ability to make your own choices and even your own mistakes.
Take Mr CP, a 90-year-old retired civil servant who had lived in his home for 50 years with his sister. He had dementia and some health problems. After his sister died, the local authority came to his house and told him he had to go with them to a hotel, and threatened to call the police when he said he didn’t want to go. He was then taken to a care home and kept there unable to leave for 17 months.
His friend challenged the Council’s decisions, saying he should be cared for at home as he wished. The Council accepted it had unlawfully detained Mr CP against his wishes
8. Getting to the truth
The Human Rights Act has made it possible for people get to the truth about all kinds of wrongdoing by the state - for instance, when the authorities could be involved in or implicated in a death, or inhumane treatment.
It has meant that the families of some of the Hillsborough victims are able to participate fully in the new inquests into their loved ones deaths and uncover what really happened.
Image: Hillsborough Disaster Memorial © Terry Robinson, Creative Commons License
9. Protecting soldiers’ rights during war
One of the most important developments from a Human Rights Act case has been the recognition that our troops don’t forfeit their human rights when they go to war.
Relatives of two British soldiers killed in Iraq took the government to court, saying they didn’t have the proper equipment they needed. One of the soldiers was killed in the notoriously lightly armoured ‘snatch’ Land Rovers, the other in a friendly fire incident. The Supreme Court ruled that they could indeed take the government to court for violation of their loved one’s rights, reinforcing the duty on the government to provide adequate kit.
10. Privacy matters
Before the Human Rights Act there wasn’t much of a right to privacy in the UK at all. It was hard to stop newspapers or government authorities digging into people’s private lives, whether they were celebrities or ordinary people.
Supermodel Naomi Campbell suffered from this back in 2001 when The Mirror splashed a story about her having attended a Narcotics Anonymous meeting on its front page. The Supreme Court looked at Human Rights Act case law in deciding that the Mirror had gone too far and her privacy had been unacceptably violated.
It’s not just about famous people and papers either. In 2011 Mrs M, a woman in a semi vegetative state, wanted to be allowed to die. A judge protected her right to privacy and that of her family by issuing an injunction, preventing any publication of private information about the case on social media.
11. Helping the press protect their sources
You might be forgiven for thinking some of the tabloid papers think that human rights are an abomination, just a tool for criminals and the undeserving. But even The Sun is using it!
The paper is in court, trying to protect the secrecy of their own sources from government interference and relying on the Human Rights Act to do so. The paper has launched an action against the police for spying on their news desk, and admits that human rights law was the only way to do this.
12. Changing attitudes to rape and sexual assault
In 2009, John Worboys was found guilty of sexually assaulting 12 women. As the ‘black cab rapist’, police now believe that he used date-rape drugs to attack over 100 customers over 6 years.
Two of his victims felt that he could have been caught sooner if their assaults were taken more seriously – both came forward to report rape to the police, but felt their stories were not taken seriously by the police. The court agreed: the police have a duty to investigate severe violent acts like these and do it properly, quickly and efficiently.
13. Love is a human right
Ok, strictly speaking the Human Rights Act doesn’t use those words. But it does protect our rights to a private and family life, and to marry and found a family. And it says the state can’t discriminate in the way different kinds of people enjoy those rights.
This has helped empower ordinary people to stand up and fight for their rights. In Northern Ireland in 2008 an unmarried couple were banned from adopting – meaning the dad couldn’t become the legal parent of his partner’s child. They challenged the ban, and won their case.
14. Keeping families together
Just as the Human Rights Act has helped people start their family, it has helped them to keep it together.
In one such case, the Human Rights Act helped a woman and her children find a safe home after leaving an abusive husband. He kept tracking them down, forcing them to move again and again. When she arrived in London the local social services department told her she was an unfit parent and that she was making the family intentionally homeless by moving without justification. It said her children would be taken into foster care.
With help from an advice worker, she argued the department was violating her rights under the Human Rights Act. At that point, they agreed – and the family stayed together.
15. We all matter
Perhaps the single best reason to celebrate the Human Rights Act is that it has put beyond doubt – written into statutory law – that we all matter. As human beings we all have the same rights, and the same ability to protect all of our rights, no matter who we are or what we may have done.
That universality – that every one of us is equal – has been the backbone of human rights since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written after World War II. And it’s the safest, strongest foundation for a democratic country to thrive.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.