The appointment of Suella Braverman as Attorney General raises further fears for our human rights
The Attorney General is an important legal post in the UK and is responsible for advising the Crown and the Government on legal aspects affecting their decisions. They are not usually present in Cabinet meetings to preserve a degree of independence although the previous incumbent, Geoffrey Cox, did so because there were frequent matters to do with Brexit to discuss. The appointment matters therefore and their views and opinions on issues such as human rights are important.
The new person in the role is Suella Braverman and she has strong legal credentials having been a barrister for seven years. Her views on human rights are worrying however and are worth examinining. In an article in the Daily Telegraph entitled: Britain is so obsessed with human rights it has forgotten about human duties (16 December, 2015) she sets out her thinking.
- the mission (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) has failed. She instances the lack of equality for women in the Islamic world, political authoritarians in Turkey, Hungary and Venezuela
- the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay means the United States has lost credibility on civil liberties
- the plight of millions of people belies the noble ambitions of the Universal Declaration.
She goes on to explain that the one reason for this is that Universal Declaration was never a treaty in the formal sense and never became international law. Another reason is that the rights are ‘described in imprecise, aspirational terms which allow governments to interpret them in any way they see fit’.
And there are:
hundreds of international human rights – rights to work and education, to freedom of expression and religious worship, to non-discrimination, to privacy, to pretty much anything you might think important in a perfect world. The sheer volume and array of rights imply an all-embracing protection. This is impossible, because there will always be trade-offs in which some rights are sacrificed to uphold others.
She marries this with an approving comment about Prof. Eric Posner of Chicago who has written a book called Twilight of Human Rights in which he dismisses the value of these rights. It is clear that Suella Braverman has taken his ideas on board since they crop up frequently in her writings and posts. For example, the comment above about the sheer volume of rights is a Posner point as is the fact it was never a treaty. But the significant and chilling example is the issue of torture.
Posner explains that a poor country has a choice or trade off. So if the police are torturing its citizens to obtain confessions, then the state can decide to spend its entire budget in eliminating this practice by retraining and monitoring the police’s behaviour. Then it would have insufficient funds to improve the medical care of its people.
Braverman puts it thus in an echo of Posner’s argument:
In Brazil, there have been several cases of the use of torture by the police in the name of crime prevention. They justify this by putting a general right to live free from crime and intimidation above their rights and those who are tortured. To wipe out torture, the government would need to create a robust, well-paid policing and judicial services to guarantee the same results. The government might argue that this money is better spent on new schools and medical clinics, protecting wider rights to freedom of education and health. These sorts of value judgements, inherent in the practical application of human rights (whether we agree with them or not), undermine their universality.
We should be horrified that someone who has been appointed to become our new Attorney General, one of the high legal offices of the land, promotes the view that there is some kind of trade-off as far as the use of torture is concerned. She has clearly swallowed Prof Posner’s arguments without pausing for one moment to think of the moral issues or the fact that torture is neither efficient nor effective in getting to the truth.
The practice was abolished in Britain in the long parliament of 1640. Yet here we have a barrister, a member of parliament and now a senior law officer, responsible for advising the government and cabinet, that, under some curious reasoning, it might be justifiable because the money might ‘better spent elsewhere’ rather than eliminating it.
Her other main complaint is about the judges. She was a keen proponent of Brexit and in Conservative Home she says:
Restoring sovereignty to Parliament after Brexit is one of the greatest prizes that awaits us. But not just from the EU. As we start this new chapter of our democratic story, our Parliament must retrieve power ceded to another place – the courts. For too long, the Diceyan notion of parliamentary supremacy has come under threat. The political has been captured by the legal. Decisions of an executive, legislative and democratic nature have been assumed by our courts. Prorogation and the triggering of Article 50 were merely the latest examples of a chronic and steady encroachment by the judges. Conservative Home 27 January 2020 [Dicey was a Whig jurist and wrote an important book on the British constitution]
Clearly, she and others in government are still smarting from the decision of the Supreme Court not to allow Boris Johnson to prorogue parliament. In August, Prime Minister advised the Queen to prorogue Parliament from the end of 9 September until 14 October. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that this advice, (and the prorogation that followed), was unlawful and of no effect because it had the ‘effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the power of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions’. Gina Miller has also left her mark.
A review of her comments and articles paints a worrying picture of someone who does not truly value human rights. They Work for You concludes that she consistently voted against laws to promote equality and human rights. She voted against largely retaining the EU Charter on Fundamental Human Rights for example and for more restrictive regulation of Trade Union activity.
This blog was written before Nick Cohen wrote about Braverman in the Observer. It seems her career and claims of experience have been markedly exaggerated.