Archive for the ‘Human Rights Act’ Category


We have reluctantly decided to cancel an event – planned for June this year – which was designed to highlight the positive aspects of the Human Rights Act and the benefits we all receive from human rights legislation generally.  It was to consist of a week of talks and other events in Salisbury with the overall theme of emphasizing how human rights have improved the lot of citizens in the UK.  It was arranged during the anniversary week of Magna Carta.

The idea for the event was spurred by the negative press this legislation receives and the drubbing that European institutions get from our media.  It is connected loosely to the Brexit debate where one of the guiding principles of those who wish to leave the EU is to be free of what they perceive as interference in our justice system by the European Courts.

In planning the event we had assumed that legal firms in Salisbury would be willing to support it and it was something of a surprise that none would.  Indeed, the majority did not reply to our requests.  One firm even hosts a human rights organisation but still did not reply.  We did eventually secure some financial support (from Poole) but it arrived probably too late for us to be able to do the planning.

So it will not now take place which is a pity.  Salisbury has recently become associated with the poisoning issue and allegations that Russia was to blame: highly likely in view of their previous behaviour and the nature of the attack.  At base is the issue of human rights.  Russia – if it is them – is a state in which lawlessness is now the norm.  There is no free press and corruption is the order of the day.  ‘Dirty’ money is looted by the Putin regime and much of it finds its way into the City of London.  Journalists are murdered and anyone looking like they might be a threat is prevented from standing in elections.

In the UK, despite many unsatisfactory aspects in our political process and the revolving door corruption, we are still able to vote them out – a luxury the Russians do not enjoy.  Ordinary people have more rights as a result of the Human Rights Act than previously yet they are constantly told that the act is a menace and needs to be got rid of.   It is sad that we were unable to celebrate this fact.

 

 

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Book on human rights published

Conor Gearty. Picture: LSE

As we wait to see what the government brings forward to replace the Human Rights Act it seeks to repeal, a book was recently published which is recommended to all those who believe in human rights and – despite its faults – that the HRA is a major step forward in granting rights to its citizens.  The book is called On Fantasy Island* by Conor Gearty who, amongst other things, is professor of Human Rights Law and Director of the Institute of Public Affairs at LSE.  He has written several other books including the Struggle for Civil Liberties (2000)

The HRA has come under sustained attack in the media particularly but not exclusively at the tabloid end of the market with regular stories of criminals and terrorists escaping justice because of it.  Positive aspects of the Act including use by the media themselves to protect sources, seldom get a hearing.  A recent example from the Daily Mail gives a flavour of the type of reporting which is common at that end of the media market:

Folly of human rights luvvies: As actors fight plans to axe Human Rights Act, how thousands of foreign convicts use it to stay in Britain
  • Number of foreign offenders on UK’s streets has spiralled to a record high
  • Includes killers, rapists and paedophiles who have avoided deportation
  • Left-wing luvvies lining up to oppose plans to scrap the Human Rights Act
  • Benedict Cumberbatch and Vanessa Redgrave condemn Tory proposals

    25 June [accessed 31 October 2016]

Conor Gearty methodically discussed the history of rights in the UK and tackles head on some of the absurdities regularly reported in papers like the Mail and the Sun.  Myths abound and include the case of Abu Qatada; the murderer of Philip Lawrence outside the school and Denis Nilsen’s request to access pornography and write a book.  In each case, the HRA is in the frame when it was either irrelevant or the event complained of was not going to happen anyway.  Perhaps the most famous instance was the absurd statement by Theresa May at the Conservative Party conference in 2011 about a Bolivian student who could not be deported because of a cat.  ‘I’m not making this up’ she said: problem was she did make it up and had grossly exaggerated a small part of the case.

The government – now led by Theresa May – is apparently preparing a British Bill of Rights.  Gearty discusses this and says:

…attentions shifted to the Human Rights Act.  Here we find uppermost the fantasies that drove the much of the first part of this book – you cannot change a law for the better if it has never been what it you have claimed it to be in the first place.  (p189f)

He sets the context of hostility to the Act in terms of a deadly combination of the nostalgic and the negative.  For a country which until the recent past, ruled a large part of the world and whose power and influence was supreme, we now have to form partnerships and accept that our writ no longer runs as it once did.  Strasbourg is just one of the elements of this.  Nostalgic because were we not the inventors of common law so who are these overseas people interfering in our law making?  The role of the media is discussed and a fuller account of the media’s role in ‘monstering‘ the HRA is provided by Adam Wagner of RightsInfo.

Human rights offer a route to a society where all are equal before the law and where each of us has a chance to engage in political activity on a level playing field if we so wish.

Several years have gone by since the Conservatives announced their desire to abolish the act and we are still waiting to see what happens.  The new Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has reaffirmed that and of course Theresa May is now prime minister.  We wait and see …  Our Local MP, John Glen, is on record in the Salisbury Journal as someone who agrees with abolition so we wait and see when the time comes.

The book is highly recommended.

*Oxford University Press, 2016 – £18.99 RRP


Conservatives and right wing press exult over plans to remove the services from the Human Rights Act

The plan by the government to enable the armed forces to derogate from the Human Rights Act have been greeted with great glee by newspapers like the Mail and the Telegraph.  The Conservatives at their annual conference in Birmingham have also been delighted by the announcement by the Defence Minister Michael Fallon.

The media has presented it in a lurid fashion.  Lawyers are described as ‘parasitic’ and ‘money grubbing’; the claims are ‘vexatious’ and that there is an ‘industry’ of people pursuing our soldiers.  The overall impression created by various generals, politicians and elements of the media is of service men struggling to do their best in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions only to find a lawyer presenting them with a summons for entirely spurious reasons (that is, to make money for themselves).  Here is former head of the Army General Dannatt for example in the Daily Mail:

It also frees up soldiers from limitations under the act on their ability to hold detainees, so they can get on with their job. [he] said: ‘I very warmly applaud this imaginative and bold move by the present Government.  It will go some way to reassuring our armed forces personnel that they can operate in future without looking out for lawyers over their shoulder.  Daily Mail [accessed 4 October 2016]

Theresa May said at the conference:

And what we’ve seen is human rights legislation being used to generate all these vexatious claims and troops finding themselves in some difficultly in worrying and concerned about the future as a result of that.

‘So I think it’s absolutely right that the Government should say to our troops: “We are on your side”. (ibid)

The only problem with it is that it is largely untrue.  We have to start by asking why are we at war in the various theatres?  The answer is because we are seeking to put in place civilised values.  We went to Iraq, not just on the spurious grounds that there were weapons of mass destruction, but because Sadam Hussein was a tyrant and abused the rights of many of his subjects.  There were similar reasons in Afghanistan.  Behind our military activities is this belief in a better world and that countries run by despots are not stable or fair on their citizens.  We believe that the democratic process is superior and countries should be run by the rule of law.  The very same people who were cheering in Liverpool are the same folk who talk about ‘British values.’

So if our soldiers are engaged in torture or abusive actions against prisoners, this is contrary to the reason why they are there in the first place and is also contrary to our values.   It is these abusive actions which are the cause of a great deal of the claims made against the MoD.

It is also presented in terms of claims against our service people by foreigners.  In fact, many of the claims are by service people against the MoD.  These claims arise because of poor treatment of soldiers by their commanders on training exercises which can lead to their deaths, for example in the Brecon Beacons.  Or they arise because of inadequate equipment which means service people are needlessly at risk and are injured or lose their lives.  The ill-equipped land rovers in Afghanistan are an example.   These actions are seldom mentioned by the right wing media.

There is something depressing in the glee of the conference goers and sections of the media about the decision.  There seems not an inkling of pride in the fact that we fought a war to defeat tyranny and that afterwards, we were the key players in setting up the Convention of Human Rights in Europe led by a conservative prime minister.  That just seems to have been forgotten.  If there were solid reasons for doing so that would be fine.  But the arguments are selective and ignore the fact that the MoD has paid out something like £20m in compensation, not because the claims were spurious, but because they were genuine.

Will it in fact happen?  The court in Strasbourg may well see things differently as Conor Gearty argues in the Guardian and we may not be successful in the derogation as we hope and as has been promised (The Tories are using the army to take a shot at human rights, 5 Oct 2016).

Also forgotten is the effect this will have overseas.  We are currently watching the horror of Syria with either the Syrians or the Russians deliberately bombing hospitals and civilian targets generally.  If one of the leading architects of the European Convention and one of the members of the Security Council, decides to ignore the actions of some of our soldiers with prisoners, what influence do we have left?

And not a word about our activities in the Yemen where we are supplying weapons to the Saudis to enable them to carry on a terrible war there.

The last word goes to Liberty:

The Convention on Human Rights isn’t just a document whose origins lie in the brutal lessons of 20th century wars.  It is directly relevant today. Our Government has a duty not only to implement it during its own military operations, but to uphold its standards as an example to others – both friends and foes. 

To save the Ministry of Defence from the shame of having to admit that civilians suffered abuse on its watch, ministers are prepared to rob our soldiers of this sensible legal framework that both clarifies their use of force and offers them redress when their own rights are breached.  For a supposedly civilised nation, this is a pernicious and retrograde step that will embolden our enemies and alienate our allies.

 


Conor Gearty’s book On Fantasy Island, published by OUP has just been published

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Liz Truss announces that the British Bill of Rights is back on the agenda

The new Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, said in an interview that the abolition of the Human rights Act and its replacement with the British Bill of Rights is back on the agenda.  On the 10 August, The Times had suggested that it was not going forward.  As we speculated on this blog a while ago, the sheer amount of work needed to negotiate new trade agreements with the world and our exit from the EU, is going to consume parliamentary effort and ministerial time on an enormous scale.  Will they have time and energy to spend time haggling with the Lords over a new bill with all the rest that is going on?  Then there are the complex relations with Scotland and Northern Ireland to consider.  This pledge has been around for 10 years now yet Liz Truss gives no timetable.

We are committed to [abolishing the Human Rights Act]. It is a manifesto pledge. We are looking very closely at the details but we have a manifesto pledge to deliver that   Liz Truss

Liz Truss – picture gov.uk

The result will at best be a modest change in the law unless we are going to withdraw from the European Court itself.  This will have widespread effects especially in eastern Europe where the Court’s activities has had a positive effect on human rights.

The shame of it is that the public anger about the ‘terrorist’s charter’ and other nonsenses are fostered by the media and few of our MPs and Ministers seem to have the courage to stand up to them.  The Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express are often loud in their criticisms but connection to actual facts is often weak.  But even periodicals like the Spectator – a venerable political weekly – is not above publishing tendentious material.  The hostility to the act is in part we argue, due to the privacy clauses which give some protection to those who have suffered press intrusion for no good reason other than boosting newspaper sales.

Abu Qatada is frequently produced as evidence that the act doesn’t work and meant, allegedly, that we were not able to deport him.  Firstly, if he was such a terrible man, why was he not arrested and prosecuted here?  Secondly, the failure of the Home Office and the then Home Secretary Theresa May to deport him was not the HRA but treaties we have which prevent us returning people to countries where torture is routine (as well as the HRA).  Qatada would not have had a fair trial in Jordan because, at the time torture, was common there.

We often read that duties and responsibilities are to be added as there are many – not just on the Conservative back benches – who are unhappy with ‘rights’ and feel that such rights should only be available to those who act responsibility.  How this would work is not explained.  Who’s to judge what ‘responsible’ means?  A police officer at the time of arrest feels that the person behaved irresponsibly and therefore decides not to allow the person access to a lawyer – a provision in the HRA?  Some rights are absolute and do not depend on good behaviour.  Other rights are qualified anyway.

It is hard not to see a parallel with the Brexit debate.  Years were spend denigrating the EU and then when it mattered, those like the previous prime minister, David Cameron, wanted to persuade country to Remain, he lacked conviction.  He was hoist by his own petard, or more colloquially, ‘stuffed’.

A concerted campaign has been waged by the media against the act and stories produced which only occasionally have any relation to the truth.  We have suggested before to refer to Rights Info to get the background and a sober assessment of some of the fictions.

Whether the BBoR ever sees the light of day remains to be seen.  It is likely that this is a rash statement by the new Lord Chancellor which may quietly drift into the background when the difficulties and disadvantages are explained.  But it will continue to lurk until a sufficient number of MPs – like those in the Runnymede group – stand up and speak positively about the act and the benefits it has brought to thousands of ordinary citizens who have used it to secure basic rights, stories that rarely find their way into print.

Salisbury MP, John Glen is among those who have publicly called for the act to be abolished.


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Sources: The National; The Times; http://www.parliament.co.uk; Spectator; Daily Express


The country (UK) has decided to leave the EU: so what next?

In the early hours of yesterday morning, the referendum was concluded and the country decided to leave the EU on a high turnout.  The Prime Minister is to resign and there may be an election by Christmas.

One of the key issues that decided the referendum was the question of immigration and the other was sovereignty.  While those politicians who were in favour of remaining in the EU, went on about the economy, security, jobs and so forth, it was obvious from interviews in the street (vox pops) that very many people were concerned about more basic matters.  As far as many of them were concerned, they were suffering from the effects of austerity and the people who were making matters worse were the immigrants.  They were ‘flooding’ into the country and were putting a strain on public services and bidding down wages (it was claimed) thus making their own lives a misery.  Membership of the EU made matters worse as we were unable to stem the tide because of their rules.  Coming out was clearly a solution to their woes.

Sovereignty also reared its head from time to time and a familiar line was taking back our sovereignty so that we can make our own laws and run our own affairs, free from interference by Brussels bureaucrats and unelected judges in Strasbourg.  The election of our own judges is something that must have passed us all by.

So what of the Human Rights Act?  The Conservative’s manifesto made clear their desire to scrap it and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.  Months have gone by since the election and no sign has been seen of this document.

But if anything is clear from yesterday’s events, it is that hatred of the EU and its alleged interference in our affairs – including our legal affairs – is very strong and was one of the deciding factors which enabled the Brexiters to win the referendum.  This has been whipped up by a right-wing press and not a little xenophobia.

The problem now for the new government – expected at the time of writing to be formed by Boris Johnson – is that they just cannot leave the BBoR to one side in view of the fervour generated and promises they have made to the electorate.  But, the EU will be wanting a speedy departure by the UK from the EU, and not on painless terms either, to prevent contagion spreading to other disaffected countries.  So considerable time will need to be spent by thousands of civil servants negotiating new terms, agreements and treaties to enable our new relationship with the EU to continue.  Enormous parliamentary time will be needed as well.  The question is therefore – will there be the time or energy for this battle?  Getting a diminished set of rules through the Lords will not be easy.

It is a great pity that so many politicians have allowed the untruths and exaggerations by the right-wing media to gain such traction and to go unanswered.  Many believe that all red tape and rulings from Brussels are automatically bad news and diminish our lives.  We would be so much better off without them they say.  The word ‘free’ is used a lot: free of such rules, free to trade where we will, free to rule our lives and free of encumbrances generally.   The HRA has been a lifeline for many, many people in the UK.  They have used it to secure redress against arbitrary decisions which affect their lives.  Public authorities have to be cognisant of the act in their policy making.  Is all this to go?

We may ask the question ‘free for whom?’  Axing the HRA will not provide ordinary people with more freedom, but less.

So whether we will see the end of the HRA remains to be seen.

 


Text of letter sent to Salisbury Journal

The following letter was sent to the Journal in Salisbury but regrettably for space or other reasons it was not published (14th April).  We do not know at present what the current situation is with the promised bill to abolish the Human rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights (or whatever it is to be called).  It is a manifesto promise and a draft was to be published in the Autumn but has not yet appeared.  It is possible that the arrival of Michael Gove into the Justice Dept. had something to do with it.

Now that we are in full swing with the debate about leaving the European Union, it is possible that this has been shelved for the moment.  Mr Gove is a leading proponent for the Brexit camp who – if current polls are to be believed – are doing well at the moment.  The calculation may therefore be that if they win then the scene is set to dump the HRA as well.

On the other hand, there will be a heavy workload in managing our exit and carrying out the negotiations to secure access to the European market once we leave, so there will be limited civil service and parliamentary time to spend on a new Bill of Rights.

But back to the letter and our local MP John Glen is keen to abolish the HRA and it would be a pity if he is given space in the Journal again to put forward his views and the opportunity is not given to those who disagree with him.  The unpublished letter:

Britain has had a proud history of leading the charge on human rights progress from the aftermath of the Second World War when we were key drafters of the European Convention of Human Rights, to the suffragette movement, to gay rights and other equality legislation. We have often been champions of progress.
What a shame, then, that this year the UK was singled out for criticism in Amnesty International’s annual report on the state of the world’s human rights.  Amnesty is warning that the government’s plan to tear up the Human Rights Act is a gift to dictators all over the world.  Russia recently drafted legislation which allows it to ignore human rights rulings it doesn’t agree with. Far from being able to condemn that action and call on Putin to uphold basic human rights, the UK is actually talking about following suit.  Music to the Kremlin’s ears, no doubt.
Here in Salisbury, the local Amnesty group is campaigning to save the Human Rights Act.  Britain should be a world leader on human rights.  The Human Rights Act protects ordinary people – from the elderly to hospital patients, to domestic violence victims – and we want to see those protections spoken about with pride by our politicians.  We should be redoubling our commitment to enduring human rights principles in these troubling times, not undermining them.
Let’s hope next year’s annual report on the UK reads: “much improved”.

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A useful guide to the Act has just been published by the British Institute of Human Rights and can be accessed here either in e-book form or as a video.


Expect an announcement soon

Tapestry illustrating the UN Convention

Things have gone quiet with the plans to abolish the HRA and the promise of something before Christmas has not come to anything.  There is a glimmer of hope in that Michael Gove has taken over as Justice Secretary and seems willing to modify or drop completely some of the worst excesses of his predecessor.  However, the negotiations currently coming to some kind of conclusion concerning our role in Europe are likely to see a fresh assault on the act emerging soon.  The watch word is ‘sovereignty’.  Parliament wants to be sovereign and this is being presented as a good thing and it is implied we will be the better for it.  The right wing press will delight at this and there will be many articles about ‘bringing power back to Westminster’ with the implication that this will result in better laws for us all.  Salisbury MP John Glen is a keen advocate for abolition.

A parallel story over the past couple of weeks has been the tax situation of Google and other American behemoths who so manage their affairs that they pay little or only derisory levels of tax.  Here, our sovereign parliament (since Brussels has little to do with tax collection) has failed.  Indeed, successive chancellors have made numerous announcements about ‘cracking down’ but almost nothing seems to happen.  Hardly surprising since accountants from the big four firms are actually in the Treasury ‘advising’ the chancellor on tax policy.  So the idea that sovereignty is key and is some kind of magic bullet is clearly illusory and does not lead to better outcomes.

A useful guide explaining the HRA and what it does has just been published by the British Institute of Human Rights and is worth a look.  There is a short video as well.  No doubt we will be returning to this topic when the announcements are made.

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Tapestry on display

The tapestry assembled by members of the South Region of Amnesty International, is now on display at the entrance to the Chapter House in Salisbury Cathedral.  Each panel represents one of the clauses of the UN Convention on human rights which led ultimately to the Human Rights Act in the UK.  It is this act that the current Conservative government wants to abolish.  The Chapter house is where one of the surviving copies of Magna Carta is displayed.  We are extremely grateful to the Cathedral Authorities for giving us this space to display the tapestry.  It will be on display for a few months and then will go on display elsewhere in the south region.

Tapestry


The Human Rights Act is under threat and we await the current government’s plans for its replacement which must be due very soon.  Rights Info has produced a short video which is worth a look which you can access from their web site or from this link.

Rights info video