The prospects for human rights in 2017 look grim
Their are many reasons to be pessimistic about human rights in the year ahead. The election of Theresa May and Donald Trump are both bad omens and the rise in importance of China and Russia is also a bad sign. On almost every front, the post-war ideal of steady improvement in both democracy and human rights around the world now seems under assault. In the UK, the majority of the media keep up a relentless attack on human rights painting them as a threat to justice and social order. It is hard to believe that we are now debating the merits or otherwise of torture following President Trump’s remarks this week. How have we come to this?
Perhaps the most important factor, and one difficult to discern, is the recent decline in optimism which was visible following WWII. That war and the terrible events which took place with the murder of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, led the world to say ‘never again’ and led to the Universal Convention on Human Rights. This led in time to the European Convention on Human Rights a convention strongly driven by Winston Churchill. There was a feeling in the years that followed, with such conventions and other subsequent treaties, that the world was on an improving path and the horrors of the Second World War would not be repeated. Improvements included a steady reduction in the number of countries using the death penalty. The cold war eventually came to an end. On the other hand, the use of torture around the world is still widespread with 141 countries still practising it according to Amnesty and this is specifically banned by the Universal Convention.
It was not of course plain sailing and we now realise that Chairman Mao murdered many millions of Chinese and there have been other monsters such a Pol Pot. Nevertheless, there was this feeling that things were steadily improving and the UN provided a forum for nations to settle disputes short of going to war. There was an assumption of western values of fairness, justice, free speech and the rule of law were becoming the norm.
Following Syria it is clear that this is no longer the case. Human rights in China are poor in the extreme. Thousands are executed and torture is routine. There is no free press and it is a one party state. Things are also deteriorating in Russia under President Putin. Russia’s ‘victory’ in Syria has changed the dynamic.
Last year, we celebrated the 800 years since the signing* of Magna Carta. This was an attempt by the barons of the day to wrest some powers from the king. It would be unwise to summarise British history in a paragraph, but an element of our history has been a steady attempt – sometimes peaceful, sometimes not – to secure rights for ordinary people against whoever was the elite or in power at the time. It might be landowners or it might be factory owners for example. They had the wealth and the power and were extremely reluctant to release any of it to the benefit of those at the bottom of the social order. The lives of farm workers and those in factories was grim indeed and attempts to form unions was fiercely resisted. The legal system did little to ameliorate the plight of the powerless in society.
The modern day Human Rights Act incorporated the ECHR into British law and meant that every citizen could defend his or her rights in the courts and that public organisations had to treat everyone with fairness, dignity and respect.
But we would argue that the fundamental thing the act did was to spell out what those rights are and it represented a major shift from rights being grudgingly given to the people to them being theirs as of right. As Gearty expresses it in his book On Fantasy Island;
The Human Rights Act has a enables a range of individuals to secure legal remedies that in pre-act days would never have been achieved, perhaps even contemplated. […] it has been particularly valuable for those whose grip on society is fragile, whose hold on their lives is precarious, whose disadvantage has robbed them of means of adequate engagement with adversity. (Conor Gearty, OUP, 2016, p131)
[…] it is clear that the human rights act is a documents that is profoundly subversive of the partisan national interest . To put it mildly some people – often quite powerful people – do not like this. (op cit, p8)
It is this shift of power that is so deeply resented and ‘some people,’ which includes some politicians, have grown to dislike the loss of power and assumed patronage that they had become used to. The virtual ending of legal aid in the UK was a symptom of this desire to remove the ability of ordinary people to achieve redress or argue for their rights.
Others of the ‘some people’ include chunks of the media. The HRA created a right of privacy and this represented a huge problem for the ‘kiss and tell’ end of the media world. These stories depended on substantial infringements of privacy, by phone hacking, not to expose corruption, but to find intimate details of politicians, celebrities and people in the public eye. Owners of newspapers – all of whom live overseas – were exempt from this scrutiny and intrusion of course.
The result of this assault on their business models is of great concern to them and this is most probably the main reason why they have produced relentless series of negative stories about Europe and the HRA. Rupert Murdoch was famously quoted in the Evening Standard as saying:
I [Stephen Hilton] once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union. ‘That’s easy,’ he replied. ‘When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.
It must also be why there are few political champions for the Act or the ECHR. Any politician speaking up for it risks at best being ignored or at worst, having his or her private life raked over for something with which to denigrate them. There is instead an almost unseemly rush to join in the claims to ‘bring sovereignty back’ or to take control of our laws.
A real worry has to be Brexit. The plan is to seek trade deals around the world sufficient to counter the effects of losing our access to the European market. This is likely to be tough as we will no doubt soon learn from the USA. To achieve these trade deals it is likely that our insistence on human rights will be weakened or even jettisoned altogether. As we have noted in many previous blogs concerning Saudi and Yemen, our principal interest there has been in selling them weapons. Despite considerable and irrefutable evidence of infringements of international humanitarian treaties, selling weapons is the primary aim of policy.
Until very recently, ministers have not needed to worry too much about the atrocities in Yemen. Most attention was on Syria. We did not even know British personnel were involved until it was blurted out by a Saudi prince. In the last few months however, there have been two debates in the Commons and press interest is now at a slightly higher level. The two debates revealed ministers more interested in promoting arms sales because of the economy and the jobs created, rather than in promoting human rights.
Perhaps the greatest worry of all however is the attitude of the public at large. How concerned are they about human rights issues? There seems little evidence that they are. The Investigatory Powers Bill – referred to as the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ – passed easily through parliament with little public outcry. Kate Allen, director of Amnesty said:
The UK is going in the wrong direction on rights, protections and fairness. Public safety is paramount but not at the cost of civil liberties. [Said in connection to the Snooper’s Charter]
It is hardly surprising when the major part of our media has carried out a sustained campaign against all things European leading, some might argue, to the decision to leave it. It is truly ironic that for many years the Daily Mail has carried out a campaign against what it calls ‘Frankenstein Foods’. The introduction of genetically modified foods has been seriously restricted by the European Union. The trade deal with USA is likely to involve the import of GM foods of varying kinds as ministers will be unwilling or unable to resist the pressure if we want to continue to export to them.
The general tone of press coverage has been that we do not need the act. It’s only of benefit to terrorists and assorted criminals who escape justice because of it (they argue). The benefits of the act to ordinary people are rarely mentioned and often one can scour a story for any mention it where it was used.
Putting all these elements together, the sense that the steady progress of western values has come to an end, a hostile media keen to bad mouth human rights and to denigrate the Human Rights Act, the Conservative government’s prolonged threat to abolish it, the decision to leave the EU needing a concerted effort to secure trade deals at any cost, and many of the public who are not concerned about such matters, means that the prospect for human rights does not look promising.
* in fact the sealing
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