Polluted and poisoned: the human rights debate in the UK

This afternoon the House of Lords will debate the report published by the Bill of Rights Commission back in December. This debate is of course not the be-all and end-all of the UK’s human rights debate, but it reminds us of the ‘drum beats of threats’ to UK human rights protections.   

The Commission was announced in March 2011 and charged with assessing the merits of proposals to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a new ‘Bill of Rights’. Ultimately, it was also a Coalition compromise, with members largely appointed along party lines and the resulting report was described by Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan MP as a “dog’s breakfast”.  The government has since announced that there will be ‘no formal response’ to the report… and so endeth the opportunity for an informed debate on human rights in the UK (at least until after the next election).

I say ‘opportunity’ because this was never an informed debate. Amnesty would, of course, welcome the chance to discuss human rights protections, if that debate could be an informed one. The problem is the myths and misunderstandings which abound about the Human Rights Act, and indeed human rights in general.

Today’s debate will probably hear the recycling of many arguments which seek to weaken human rights protections, such as the need for a UK Bill of Rights which is conditional on citizenship or responsibilities. Neither of which are consistent with the universal or inalienable nature of human rights: human rights should not be some sort of postcode lottery and neither should they be seen as conditional on those deemed worthy.  Human rights are for every human: saints and sinners; rich and poor; citizens and non-citizens.  It is frustrating to still be debating ‘responsibilities’ and ‘entitlement’ as being aligned with rights protections. They are and must be separate.  

Replacing the Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights that rolled back human rights protections in the UK would affect us all, particularly the most vulnerable and marginalised members of UK society. Human rights mechanisms like the Human Rights Act exist to protect ordinary people from abuses by the state. It should be a cause for alarm that the public is being persuaded to distrust human rights protections.

We’ve all heard the stories repeated by Government Ministers which – and I am not making this up – have later turned out to be inaccurate.  But those stories grab the headlines and any correction offered (and they aren’t always) or statements by Ministers who seek to stand up for human rights in the UK go relatively unnoticed. It’s hard to see how any debate on a UK Bill of Rights could have taken place in such a polluted and poisoned context. 

So we’re left with inaccurate headline-grabbing stories which form the base of opinions of human rights protections in the UK (such as the Human Rights Act and the European Convention of Human Rights).  Currently, for example, the European Court of Human Rights is threatening our sovereignty by trying to get the UK to allow all prisoners the right to vote – right? No.

  1. The Court ruled that the blanket ban against prisoner voting was inconsistent with the UK’s human rights obligations. Not that all prisoners must get the vote, but that all cannot be denied it.
  2. The Court also ruled that it was up to the UK Parliament to decide i.e. our government must decide how to implement the ruling – they say which prisoners should be eligible to vote. Which they are now doing through a Draft Bill
  3. The UK’s membership of the Council of Europe in itself is recognition of national sovereignty, likewise when the UK joined the EU, UN, G8, etc. Membership to such institutions is dependent on state sovereignty as well as recognition of the benefits that being part of those groups bring. 

The UK has a long history in the development of human rights that it should be proud of: from the Magna Carta to the instrumental role played in the development of the European Convention by non-other than Winston Churchill.

The UK does not have a perfect human rights record and we should not accept the stories being spun to us by those who seek to weaken our protections.  Amnesty continues to have very serious concerns about UK policy and practice both abroad and at home including:

One of the most effective ways of strengthening human rights is through domestic legislation and we simply should not allow any government to chip away at our protections.  They also should not be facilitating or actively polluting or poisoning the environment for a debate. Progression not regression should be the tone of any genuine human rights debate. 

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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.
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