Our new government wants to take away our human rights. Well, specifically, they want to take away the Human Rights Act which allows us to prosecute breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights in this country. The main narrative for this is to “bring it home” and “stop the unelected judges in Strasbourg ruling on British matters”.
These are complete nonsense.
1. The ECHR binds us whether we have the Human Rights Act or not, and all citizens of states signed up to the ECHR have the right to prosecute in the courts in Strasbourg. Scrapping the Human Rights Act will not stop people going to Strasbourg for human rights issues.
2. The Human Rights Act is what allows us to prosecute human rights issues in this country. Scrapping it will not give us more power to prosecute human rights in this country than we already have.
3. The ‘unelected judges in Strasbourg’ are actually elected by the MEPs we send to the EU. The judges in this country are not elected.
We are being placated by being told that a new British Bill of Rights will hold all the parts of the existing Human Rights Act (itself a clarification on the ECHR) but without the nasty terrorist-friendly bits. I am sceptical about this, since the ECHR is very, very simple. It is written in short, friendly passages and protects our rights to not be tortured, to not be arrested without cause, to not be executed by our government and also more day-to-day rights – right to freedom of assembly, of political thought and belief, of privacy. I can’t think of a new British Bill of Rights (note the word “human” isn’t there anymore) that contains all the important bits of the ECHR (all of them), and then comes down harder on terrorists somehow.
There are a few different interpretations on what the government wants to achieve with this action.
The Scheming Narrative
The government knows that the ECHR binds us just the same, and is doing this to trick the frothing, ill-informed masses for whom Human Rights have become synonymous with turning the UK into a terrorist hide-out, preventing us from arresting or deporting dangerous criminals who hate this country and everyone in it and it’s only a matter of time before we’re all murdered in our beds by religious zealots.
The trick will be thinking that the government has come down hard on Human Rights and sorted out the problem. In reality, nothing much has changed, except that it may be slightly more difficult to solve a legitimate human rights grievance – you’ll need to go to Strasbourg, the same way as if the Human Rights Act in this country doesn’t work for you.
I want to believe that we are not just being placated and condescended to by politicians who don’t think we can handle the truth. On the other hand, the policy makers are not idiots and they must know that the solution they’ve offered will not solve the problem they have described.
The Cynical Narrative
This one declares that the HRA is only a first step, and seeing the above about scrapping it being almost pointless because the ECHR continues to tie us up, the ECHR will be next.
If you look at government policy over the last five years, and proposed policy, I believe we have found a crazy conspiracy theory for the reasons why the Human Rights Act needs to go.
1. The Snooper’s Charter: Our right to Privacy is protected.
2. Capital Punishment: Michael Gove, the new Justice Secretary, is on record as supporting hanging. The Death Penalty is forbidden by the ECHR.
3. Privatisation of the Probation Service: The government has been pushing through a controversial privatisation of the probation service, and on top of a horrifically shambolic implementation the ECHR had ruled that to make profit on unpaid labour (ie, probation community service) is ‘forced labour’ and/or slavery, and illegal.
4. Workfare: As above, but with less risk to the public’s safety than a privatisation of criminal rehabilitation. Forced Labour is forbidden by the ECHR.
5. Proposed ‘anti-extremism’ laws: The government wants to crack down on extremists and radical groups that “stop short of terrorist activity”. This would allow the police to break up groups for radicalising others or for being “against British values of democracy or tolerance”, even if no crime has been committed.
This last one causes the most problems for me. It will probably come up against the rights we have of Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Association and Freedom of Belief, as well as our right to not be arrested if no crime has been committed. And even if it is only used to attack nearly-terrorist groups, why should I lose my human rights over it?
It could also be claimed that the Green Party speaks out against British values of democracy, as they are demanding electoral reform – implicitly stating that British Democracy is not working. UKIP speak out against tolerance – just listen to their rabid attacks on immigrants. And from where I sit, the Conservative parties intolerance of our right to meet who we want, say what we want, think what we want and be allowed to conceal it from the government (assuming that we are not criminals) is counter to British values of tolerance, and their dogged commitment to the First Past the Post system is counter to the British values of democracy. A party that can claim a majority government from 37% of a 66% voting turnout is clearly not democratic. Once you start defining political parties as extremist groups you start moving awfully close to some dangerous precedents.
Even if the woolly definitions are not intentional, the government’s “porn filter” on the internet was designed not just to block titillating or extremist material, but “esoteric material”. What are toy soldiers, old sci-fi shows and thoughts on programming on this blog but esoteric material? What is wrong with material “understood by or only meant for the select few who have special knowledge or interest”?
What do I think?
I really don’t know. I want the HRA to stay, since it’ll be easier to bring my grievances about my human rights being trampled to court in the UK rather than go to Strasbourg. I definitely want the ECHR to stay since to leave that will jeopardise our Acts of Union with Scotland and Northern Ireland (and probably Wales), our position in the Council of Europe (we would have to leave) and the respect that other nations have for us. We do not want a reputation of being dismissive of human rights. It will probably adversely affect our ability to inform policy in the United Nations. At worst, it will set an example for countries like Russia that it’s OK to just leave these regulatory bodies, conventions and responsibilities and do whatever the hell you feel like, and set the cause of global human rights back by a fair whack.
In summary, the government will do the country a great disservice by leaving the ECHR. It will do the people a great disservice by pretending that scrapping the HRA on it’s own will “bring more power home” because it will do exactly the opposite – make it easier to prosecute human rights violations in Strasbourg than in Britain.