Why human rights were on the tips of everyone’s tongues at Conservative Party Conference…yes, really!

With defections to UKIP, an embarrassed Ministerial resignation, pensions and NHS funding dominating the news surrounding this year’s Conservative Party Conference, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Human Rights were far from anyone’s mind here in Birmingham.

But you’d be wrong. Like me, lots of people were waiting - in suspense - for some kind of announcement about the Human Rights Act and the UK’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights (some more eagerly than others, I imagine).

In the end it didn’t come until David Cameron’s speech, where he vowed to scrap the Human Rights Act in favour of a British Bill of Rights.

It’s unclear how these two things would differ. But either way the criticism is disappointing – to say the least –given that the primary function of the Human Rights Act is to protect people from the intrusion and oppression of the state, which the Prime Minister himself, of course, leads.

So which rights within the Human Rights Act does he want to have more control over I wonder? The right to not be tortured? The right to live free from discrimination maybe?

But it wasn’t just the Prime Minister talking about human rights this conference.

In her speech Theresa May, for example, asserted that the UK should stand up for human rights in the fight against ISIS (sensible), before saying that she would bring back the so-called “Snoopers Charter” (not sensible, as in its previous form it threatened unnecessary erosion of our right to privacy) and introduce “extremist asbos” for non-criminal activity (very concerning, given the vast array of ideas that could fall into the definition of ‘extremist’ and the likely impact on the right to freedom of expression).

And then of course there was Chris Grayling, saying the UK supports “real” human rights (no, we’re not sure what “unreal” human rights would mean either) and then balking at the suggestion that human rights should be taught in UK schools. I shudder to think what our hundreds of wonderful Amnesty School groups, who campaign on real human rights issues such as the Death Penalty and torture, would make of this.

But the beauty (of sorts) of all Party conferences is there’s always something for everyone.

Previous Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke about the importance of sustaining the many achievements of the Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative; International Development Secretary Justine Greening reaffirmed DFID’s commitment to the rights of women and girls, in particular that tackling violence against women will be a priority for the department’s work in Afghanistan (which we at Amnesty successfully called for); and Nicky Morgan committed to tackle homophobic bullying in schools.

And at our fringe event, which focussed on the importance of governments applying human rights to their policies consistently, to a fully packed (and sweltering) room, we heard speech after speech celebrating the importance of human rights:

  • Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood MP highlighted how important protecting human rights is to our ability to use soft-power in influencing other countries and the UN;
  • Nicola Blackwood MP spoke strongly and persuasively about the need to view violence against women as a security issue as well as a humanitarian one, and that protection for human rights defenders would be central to achieving the UK’s aims on ending sexual violence in conflict and in Afghanistan;
  • Richard Hermer QC said that not defending the Human Rights Act has been a failure of successive governments and that denigrating the European Convention on Human Rights denigrates deeply held British values; and
  • The Rt Hon Dominic Grieve MP gave a barn storming speech about the importance of the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights, recommending that the UK would best improve the human rights situation by championing the protections we already have.

Hear, hear! I…hear…you say. Yes, even if we do say so ourselves, it was a great and important event which emphasised the many benefits of human rights to individuals, the UK and to the world. And at a conference where human rights were so much on the agenda, you can’t say fairer than that.       

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