Archive for the ‘ECHR’ Category


Talk organised by the Romsey group

Dr Claire Lugarre. Picture, Salisbury Amnesty

On Monday March 19 the Romsey group of Amnesty hosted a most interesting talk by Dr Claire Lugarre who is a lecturer in Human Rights Law at the Southampton Law School, part of Southampton University.

An element of the desire of those who wish for the UK to come out of Europe is a wish to regain our (i.e. the UK’s) sovereignty.  There is also a desire, expressed most strongly by some members of the Conservative Party, to abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.  This has been promised in the party’s manifestos and has been talked about for about a decade but details of what the BBoR will look like and how it will differ from the existing HRA is still largely opaque.  It seems to be a solution in search of a problem.

The Conservatives are not alone in wanting us to come out of the European Convention along with Brexit: most of the media have kept up a barrage of criticism and denigration of the Court and all its doings.  As the example on the right of the Daily Mail shows, there is talk of a ‘triumphant week for British values,’ the ‘crazy decision’ making by European Court judges – usually referred as ‘unelected’ judges and the ‘human rights farce’.

The talk

Claire Lugarre explained some of the background issues surrounding the issue of the European Court and what it might mean for the country if we left.

Her first point is that the notion of human rights is not just a western construct and similar ideas are seen throughout history even if they were actually called that at the time.  She also emphasised that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) had a utilitarian purpose not just a moral one.  There was an urgent desire after the carnage of WWII to construct a legal basis of good behaviour between states.

States have to comply with European Court judgements.  The Human Rights Act – often referred to by critics as ‘Labour’s’ Human Rights Act which it isn’t as it received all party support – incorporates the ECHR into British law thus removing the need for litigants to go to Strasbourg to get justice.

One matter is the vexed question of prisoner voting she said.  The European Court rejected the Government’s case which banned all prisoner voting and said that to ‘prescribe general, indefinite and automatic deprivation of a right to vote’ infringed a prisoner’s article 3 rights.  Thus far the government has ignored the ruling.  The issue was one of proportionality.

She spent some time on the often confusing difference between the Council of Europe and the European Union the latter being what we wish to leave (it was announced yesterday that the Article 50 notice to depart will be served on 29th of this month).  The Council of Europe consists of 47 states and within which the European Court sits.  This deals with human rights issues.  The European Union consists – at present – of 28 states and is a political and economic union.  There seem to be many who think that Article 50 means we will no longer be subject to ‘crazy decisions’ of the European Court.  To do that we have to leave the European ConventionThere have been reports that the prime minister Theresa May wishes to do that as well.

All legislation and legal judgements have to be in accordance with the HRA she said.  Indeed, the number of judgements already made by the courts represent a considerable body of precedent based on the HRA and the European Court.  Even if we come out of the European Convention the effects will be present for a considerable period.  It is also forgotten that the European Court is not the only thing which binds us, we are also signatories to a host of other treaties which will still be in existence.

BBoR

One of the arguments frequently heard is that it is not just about rights but also about responsibilities.  It was this principle which led to the desire to have a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.  This is a difficult argument to fathom.  Sometimes, people talk about responsibilities in terms of the government’s responsibilities to its citizens to uphold the Act.  Others argue that the citizen has responsibilities not just rights.  There are other arguments about the need to fight terrorism because the act has undermined this ability, it is claimed, and this requires responsibilities in some ill-defined way.   Claire was unclear what the BBoR would contain.

The relationship between rights and responsibilities needs to be understood.  Most rights are qualified in any event and, in practical terms, depend on the responsibility of everyone in society to respect one another’s freedoms (so that one party’s right to free expression, for example, does not impinge too far on another’s right to a private and family life).  These rights cannot be subjected to any all-encompassing limitation, such as that they are legally contingent on performance of set of duties and responsibilities. Their application regardless of such considerations is precisely the point of their existence.

It is often claimed by critics that the European Court was ‘imposed’ on the UK.  It wasn’t and the UK was a key participant in its formation after the war with many British lawyers involved.  It is also argued that the HRA should only be used for the most serious of cases but what this would mean in practice is not clear.  Who would decide on seriousness?

If, as is threatened, we do come out of the European Convention the effects could be traumatic.  At present countries like Russia and Turkey are part of it.  Russia’s human rights record is already poor and Turkey has arrested tens of thousands of judges, lawyers, academics and police.  If the UK pulls out of the Convention, of which it was a founder member, the effects could be even more serious in those countries.

The HRA has had a steady and beneficial effect on many people’s lives in this country.  In countless day to day decisions by authorities of various kinds, its provisions have to be adhered to and lawyers regularly use it to defend their client’s interests.  Perhaps its chief problem is that it shifts some power down to the individual, a fact which those who were in control find uncomfortable.

This was a most interesting evening about a subject which is bound to be in the news for some time to come.


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Letter in the Observer (19 February) from a group of lawyers stressing the importance of ECHR

Theresa May has repeatedly stated her feelings that Britain would be better served by leaving the European convention on human rights than it would leaving the European Union.  As we enter Brexit negotiations, there is now every possibility that both these scenarios could easily come to pass.  The ECHR has been the bedrock of peace in Europe since the Second World War and was instrumental in the remarkable growth of democracy in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  It is no coincidence that the one state that is not part of the convention, Belarus, is known as “Europe’s last dictatorship”.  The withdrawal of Britain from the EU and the ECHR in succession could embolden populist leaders in countries such as Hungary and Poland to abandon domestic and international commitments to human rights.

We face the threat of a human rights crisis with the UK trading away protections against torture for grubby trade deals with foreign tyrants.  We are calling for the EU to make Britain’s membership of the ECHR a legally binding requirement for any future free trade deal with the UK.  The rule of law and human rights are non-negotiable when new countries join the EU; they should be non-negotiable when countries leave and desire a free trade deal.

As parliament scrutinises the bill on withdrawing from the EU and further legislation on Brexit, MPs, peers and the EU itself must make sure that Britain’s membership of the ECHR is a requirement of any future trade deal with the EU.

Signed Sashy Nathan, Baroness Kennedy QC, Lord Lester QC, Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, Alex Bailin QC, Alex Grigg, Ali Naseem Bajwa QC, Alistair Polson, Amos Waldman, Anya Lewis, Ben Cooper

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, Celia Graves, David Jones, Dr Leslie Thomas QC, Grainne Mellon, Top of Form

Greg Ó Ceallaigh, Harriet Johnson, Helen Foot, James Wood, Jelia Sane, John Halford

Jules Carey, Keir Monteith, Louise Hooper, Malcolm Hawkes, Mark Stephens CBE, Navita Atreya, Nerida Harford-Bell, Paramjit Ahluwalia, Patrick O’Connor QC, Phil Haywood

Prof. Fergal Davis, Prof. Francesca Klug OBE, Professor Steve Peers, Ravi Naik, Sadat Sayeed, Sally Ireland, Sarah Forster, Sean Horstead, Sir Paul Jenkins KCB QC, Stephen Lue

We should add that our MP Mr John Glen, is in favour of this policy.


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?

Post war

Graphic: Linkedin

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.

UK

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.

Picture: Left Foot Forward

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.

Brexit

Graphic: Huffington Post

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.

Public reaction

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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Lecture by Prof Phillippe Sands at Southampton University

Phillippe Sands

It was a pleasure to attend the annual lecture organised by the Romsey and Southampton Amnesty group given by Phillippe Sands (the link is to several of his articles).  It was based on his book East West Street concerning in part the city of Lviv which was known at Lemberg in the nineteenth century and was also known as Lwów.  Under the Soviets it was called Lvov.  Its importance in his story was that two people came from the town who were very influential in the post-war developments of human rights. 

Hersch Lauterpacht. Picture: the Guardian

First was Hersch Lauterpacht who was born just north of Lemberg and moved there in 1911, and the second was Rafael Lemkin who was born in Ozerisko and moved to Lemberg in 1900.  They both worked behind the scenes during the Nuremberg trials.  But their claims to fame are that Lauterpacht was instrumental in getting the world to agree the need for action on crimes against humanity and Lemkin on the concept of genocide.  It is surprising that these two concepts are fairly recent and both date from 1945: one assumes they have been around for a lot longer.  But that they both emanate from two men from the same town in east Poland is even more remarkable.  Despite this and despite the fact they worked in the same field, they never met as far as is known.

Lauterpacht it was who wrote the International Bill of the Rights of Man which invoked Churchill’s commitment to the ‘enthronement of the rights of man.’  His book was key in the development of the UN declaration.

Sands discussed the arguments concerning whether ‘genocide’ should be included and in

the early years it was sometimes in and sometimes dropped.  It met resistance because of legal doubts.  Lemkin was keen to introduce this as a crime largely because of the German’s crimes in the war an in particular the activities of Hans Frank who oversaw the slaughter in his former town and Poland generally.  Frank was hanged after the Nuremberg trials.

 

He finished his lecture by discussing briefly, the current state of affairs with regard to human rights.  He expressed an ‘acute sense of anxiety at what stirs in our midst’ referring part to the far right groups in eastern Europe especially as they suffered so much under the Nazis.

He said he had a ‘sense of going backwards’ with our own politicians wanting to come out of the European convention which he thought was ‘unbelievable’.  The platitudes of many of the current politicians seems to reflect a lack of knowledge of post-war events.


East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity  is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20).


Government plans to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights

The Conservative government has long disliked the European Convention and is now proposing to put withdrawal in the next manifesto.  This will be a serious mistake and will affect the human rights of many individuals in the UK.  It will also send a message to many other countries around the world whose record on human rights leaves a lot to be desired.

Theresa May MP. Picture: ibtimes

One of the problems with discussing this issue is that it is clouded by a programme of disinformation by the tabloid press.  Being a European creation it is damned by association.  It is also, in their eyes, a serious threat because it gives people some rights concerning privacy.  Since large parts of the British press are concerned with the private lives of celebrities and profit from such stories (which to be fair have an avid readership), anything which inhibits their ability to publish such material is going to harm profits.  There has thus been a continuous series of stories which rubbish the Human Rights Act and the European Convention (ECHR).  Small wonder therefore that politicians follow this line and brave it is for those few who stand up for the Act.

Theresa May has a particular animus against it and is famous for her fatuous remark about someone not being deported because of a cat.  “I’m not making this up” she famously said: only she was.  The person involved was a Bolivian who wasn’t an illegal immigrant anyway but was a student who had overstayed his visa.  At the tribunal and later at appeal, part of the evidence for his right to stay, was his relationship with a British woman, various other domestic matters, and their ownership of a cat.

A more serious case which caused Mrs May angst whilst at the Home Office was the case of Abu Qatada.  The Home Office spent many years trying to deport him and the HRA was blamed by her and the right wing media for being unable to do so.  In simple terms, he could not be deported because either he – or the witnesses against him – would be tortured by the Jordanian authorities.  He was eventually deported following diplomatic negotiations which led to Jordan agreeing to renounce torture.  It was never really explained during all the months of dispute about the need to deport him, why he was never put on trial here.

In a speech in April last year Theresa May (then Home Secretary) set out her reasons for wishing to depart from the ECHR:

[…] The ECHR can bind the hands of Parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals – and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights. So regardless of the EU referendum, my view is this. If we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court. (26 April 2016)

Almost every part of this paragraph is nonsense but one element is ‘[it] does nothing to change the attitude of governments like Russia’s’.  We have just seen the brutal activities of Russian forces in action in Syria and prior to that, in Ukraine and Chechnya.  Human rights in Russia are at a low ebb and the murder of opposition leaders and journalists a fairly frequent occurrence.  But Russia has been subject to the ECtHR for some years and something like half their judgements are against Russia, Turkey, Romania and Ukraine.  It is, in a small way, a civilising influence.  It has had an effect on their activities.

On the other hand there has been a miniscule number of judgements against the UK – 10 in 2012 for example.  Indeed if one looks at the statistics, between 1959 and 2015 there have been 525 judgements concerning the UK of which 305 decided that there was at least one violation.  That is 305 over a period of 56 years.  From all the sturm and drang in the media you would imagine it was at least ten times greater.

The chief worry is that if we – one of the founders of the European Court – pull out it will give the Russians the perfect excuse to do so as well.  One of the lawyers acting for the survivors of the Beslan massacre in Russia said:

It would be and excuse for our government to say we don’t want it either.  Putin would point at the UK straight away.  It would be a catastrophe.  [the UK] has to understand; we all live in the same world and we all have impact on one another.  (quoted in A Magna Carta for all Humanity by Francesca Klug, Routledge, 2015, p193)

At the end of the extract from Theresa May’s speech she goes on to say ‘if we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the  EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court.’   But what laws do we want to reform?  We still wait after more than five years for sight of the British Bill of Rights although it is still promised.

There are two aspects to the proposed withdrawal: internal and external.  Internally, it will reduce the rights of individuals in their claims against the state.  People like the Hillsborough survivors would never have succeeded in their quest for justice without article 2.  The parents of the Deepcut shooting would never have received justice without the ECHR.  On that subject, Theresa May also wants to remove the armed services from the act, a view echoed by the local MP for Devizes.

Behind all this anti-ECtHR rhetoric, are the assumptions that all EU rulings are wrong and that we have a superior and infallible legal system.  We do indeed enjoy a very good system – witness the low number of rulings against us by the European Court – but it is not perfect and judges have shown themselves to be too keen on supporting the establishment.  There is also the issue of sovereignty and a belief that it is only our parliament who should decide our laws.  The problem here is the weakness of parliament in challenging the executive.

Externally, it will send a harmful message to countries like Russia and Turkey where human rights are fragile.  It is astonishing to recall that it was a conservative, Sir Winston Churchill who was instrumental in forming the Convention.  Yet now it is the same conservatives who want to abolish it because, now and again, we fall foul of it and have to change our procedures or right a wrong.

Coming out of the European Convention would be a serious error and a backward step.  Our influence in the world would be diminished.  As a result of Brexit, we will be desperate to secure trade deals with whoever we can.  Such limited concerns as we do have for human rights will all but disappear in the rush to sign a deal.  Witness our activities in the Yemen where we are more concerned with selling £3bn of arms than we are with the results of the bombing.   In the UK, the ability of ordinary people to uphold their rights in every day situations will be diminished.


The local group hopes to campaign in favour of the Human Rights Act and related issues as when we get some details from government.  If you believe these matters are important, as we do, both for people’s rights in this country and our influence overseas, you would be welcome to join us.  Details will be here and on twitter and Facebook

 


The Human Rights Act is under threat by the Conservative government and they want to withdraw from the European Convention which we helped found.  It is timely therefore that we celebrate the achievements of the ECHR which receive too little attention by our media and by politicians such as the prime minister and our local MP Mr John Glen.

Watch this short video by Rights Info

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A senior judge at the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has concluded that powers letting police and public bodies grant themselves access to people’s communications data with no external oversight or suspicion of serious criminality breach human rights law.

It is difficult to generate much interest among the public to the proposals by the government – drafted by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary – to introduce the Investigatory Powers Bill.  A few weeks ago, the country voted against staying in Europe which was interpreted by many as a protest against government and the governing class who were seen as out of touch and indifferent to their plight.  There were other matters such as immigration and the EU itself, but it was a cry by the ‘left behinds’ who are finding life, jobs and housing an increasing trial.

Yet they seem relaxed at giving the government yet more powers to pry into their lives.  Of course it is presented as a fight against terrorism and that these powers are needed to fight this ever present menace.  But, in addition to the police and security services, local councils and various government agencies such as the Food Standard Agency will also enjoy these rights.  It is hard to see how the FSA can be dealing with serious crime.  And are there half a million serious crimes a year?  That is the number of requests.

The previous act Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act [DRIPA] was introduced in a desperate hurry by Theresa May because of a previous ruling by the European Court.  This meant that there was an urgent need to introduce legislation to legitimise the high level of interception that was taking place without proper oversight.  Hardly any time was allowed for parliamentary debate.

The new law will go further and the CJEU has fired a warning shot concerning the breach of liberties.  Ah you might say, ‘aren’t we about to leave the EU so we can give two fingers to them.’  The problem is that the EU will want to ensure that we are protecting fundamental rights when the come to negotiate with us as an external partner.

The new PM is not known as a libertarian and this promises to be an interesting struggle.  We do not yet know whether the new Home Secretary will simply trot along behind what the PM left her.  So far the public has remained relaxed having bought the line that this all part of the battle against terrorism.  One day however, one or other of the tabloids might wake up and have a go in which case the mood will change quickly.

 

Souces; Guardian; Privacy International; Liberty; Open Rights Group

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Human rights will be diminished if we leave Europe

Human rights have not directly figured much in the vexed debate about whether to remain or leave the European Union.  The arguments seem to have settled on immigration, which has become a toxic topic, with the Brexiters claiming that a leave vote will enable us to regain control of our borders.  The Conservative government has promised to repeal the Human Rights Act but progress has been slow so far.  Reporting on the many issues has been poor with the main focus on the scrapping between the Tory party factions rather than on a measured debate.

The crucial question on how our rights will be affected after a vote to leave – if that should happen on Friday – has received little coverage.  Partly this is because of the complexity of the subject and also detailed discussions of legal judgements does not make for racy copy.  As ever, Rights Info has done an excellent job of discussing the issues with a link through to the Independent newspaper (now only online) which has also done a detailed analysis.

Despite its faults, the European Convention, which in turn led to the Human Rights Act, has been of considerable benefit to ordinary people.  For many this will come as a surprise and for readers of the right wing press in the UK, a statement at variance to the facts as they know them.  And this has been a large part of the problem: a deliberate and sustained attack on the act which has included misreporting, non-reporting and the running of scare stories many of which have no foundation in fact.  For readers of the Daily Mail in particular but also the Sun, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express, they are treated to lurid stories of terrorists going free, criminals living the high-life in prison and murderers demanding pornography as their ‘human right’ (they didn’t).

Why the right wing media should be so hostile to the act (as opposed to airing proper criticism of it) is discussed by Francesca Klug in her book A Magna Carta for all Humanity (Routledge, 2015).

As the late, great former Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham put it: there is ‘inherent in the whole of the ECHR … a search for balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the wider society.’  For the press to mention this inherent approach would not only spoil a good story, it could draw attention to an inconvenient truth: that Article 10 ECHR, the right to free expression, explicitly states that free speech comes with ‘duties and responsibilities’.  This is not a very popular statement with many journalists.  But, I suppose – with notable exceptions – the press is hardly alone in thinking that responsibilities apply to everyone but themselves.  (p265)

She goes on to explain that there was little legal remedy against press intrusion before the act was passed.  Common law provided no real protection.  An example was Gordon Kaye, the star of the TV series Allo, Allo who was recovering in hospital after a car accident.  Two Sunday Sport journalists entered his hospital room and interviewed and photographed him.  In view of his medical state it is unlikely he knew what was happening.  Under existing English law he had no redress.

Brexiters like to portray English law as some kind of noble construct which has been diminished by Europe and that by leaving, we will be able to get rid of all this interference by ‘unelected European judges’ and get back to the way we were.  Europe is presented in purely negative terms and acting to diminish our rights.  British law is indeed a fine system in many respects, but without the HRA we would never have had the investigation into the activities of the press and phone hacking; no Leveson enquiry and the Murdochs (father and son) being asked to come before a select committee.

The benefits of the act to ordinary people in their struggles for justice against the police or public authorities are seldom mentioned.  The use by the media themselves to defend their sources or to prevent unjust interference by the police or security services is likewise rarely mentioned.  The rights ordinary people enjoy have almost in every case been achieved after a struggle and the current government is keen to erode these rights still further.  Access to the courts and the availability of legal aid has been seriously curtailed; further legislation to diminish the – already limited – rights of trades unions is planned, and the Snooper’s Charter is well on its way to becoming law.

The idea therefore that we will be better protected if we leave is not supported by the evidence.  If we leave Europe and the process begins to abolish the Human Rights Act (which our MP, Mr John Glen is keen to do) and other treaties, it will only result in diminished rights for the ordinary people of this country.


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Teresa May, Home Secretary

Teresa May, Home Secretary

Theresa May, the Home Secretary said in a speech today that the UK should leave the European Convention on Human Rights.   We have been waiting for some time now for this announcement – or something like it – and it was expected to be made by the Justice Secretary.

Rachel Logan, Amnesty’s legal programme director, said:

Mrs May’s proposal to tear away from the European Convention on Human Rights would strike at the very architecture of international protections, and betray the British people who built the convention at the end of the Second World War.

The Convention has done so much for the rights of the free press, gay people, women, people with disabilities and other ordinary people here and across Europe.

Some see this as part of Mrs May’s pitch to become prime minister if and when David Cameron quits the scene.  There is considerable media pressure to quit the convention often based on misleading information.  We shall have to see how this develops and we still await the Bill of Rights long promised but slow to appear.

As one of the countries which promoted the convention after the war it would be a tragedy if we left it.  As the Amnesty spokeswoman says it has done so much to promote rights not only in this country but elsewhere in Europe.  It is a surprise to many people when told what a beneficial effect it has had in countries such as Russia.

A spokesman from Liberty called the speech ‘desperate’.

Tapestry in the Playhouse

Illustrated left is the tapestry made by Amnesty groups in the south region currently on display in the Cathedral Chapter House, which shows the clauses of the Un Convention on Human Rights on which the ECHR was based.

 

 


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A debate on the Human Rights Act was held in Southampton

UPDATE: 12 March

A fuller version of the talk is now to hand and can be accessed here:

soton talk (pdf)

On Friday 19 February, the Southampton and Romsey groups of Amnesty hosted a debate on the HRA.  The speakers were Dr Clare Lougarre of Southampton University and Dr Alan Whitehead, the MP for Southampton Test.  A representative from the Conservatives was invited but did not take up the invitation.

Clare began by placing the HRA in its context as a natural consequence of the Euroean Convention on Human Rights [1950].  In the context of the debate on the current government’s manifesto commitment to annul the HRA, articles 2, 3 and 4 were significant.

  • art 2 says that court’s decisions must take into account the decisions, declarations or advisory opinion of the European Court
  • art 3 UK laws are compatible with the European Convention
  • art 4 says that if our laws are not in accordance with the convention they may issue a declaration of incompatibility.

She said there were two options for the government: they repealed the act but we stayed within the convention or, it withdraws its signature from the convention altogether.  In the first case, there would be little difference as we would ultimately be bound by the European Court.  In the second instance however there would be no recourse to the EC and the most likely affected by this are the vulnerable in society.

Dr Whitehead said he was puzzled by what the government wanted to do.  The animus against the HRA was based on myth, semi-truths and half truths he said.  One myth was that it was ‘Labour’s Human Rights Act.’  This was a frequent phrase used by conservative critics.   It simply wasn’t true he said, it was a cross party bill supported by many conservatives.  He was moved to ask ‘what part of the act don’t you like?’  He reminded the audience that it was a conservative – Winston Churchill – who was one of the prime movers in creating the ECHR in 1950.

One of the charges against it was that the court had ruled on areas which were never intended by the original convention, in other words there was ‘mission creep.’  This was inevitable since the articles were widely drawn and also, attitudes had changed over time with, for example, our approach to abortion.

The case that is frequently brought up is Abu Qatada.  This was presented as a failing of the HRA.  It was not.  The Home Office had made mistakes in its original paperwork and the reason he could not be sent back [to Jordan] was because either he, or the witnesses, would be subject to torture.  [He might have added that abolition of torture was subject to another treaty altogether.]

A further point made by Dr Whitehead was that it should not be for a single government to make law on something as important as this.  He did not think we would see anything before the end of the parliament and what would emerge would be a ‘mouse’ of a bill.

It was a lively and informed debate and all credit to the two Amnesty groups for organising it.  For further information on the HRA go to (among other sites) British Institute for Human Rights and Rights Info.  Now that the movement to come out of the EU is getting underway, the HRA will be a whipping boy for those that want us to leave the union.  Both these sites help counter the frequent flow of misinformation by some sections of the media and some politicians.


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