Bill of Rights consultation


Government invites consultation on its Bill of Rights – but are they listening?

Dubbed by some as the ‘Rights Removal Bill’ the Bill of Rights is currently before Parliament and the government is inviting comments which can be accessed via the EachOther site. The bill has attracted considerable criticism and overall is likely to reduce the rights that people currently enjoy. A number of Conservative politicians have been unhappy with the Human Rights Act which they wish to see replaced with this Bill of Rights. Successive party manifestos have promised its abolition.

In a previous post we drew attention to a book published by the Justice Secretary Dominic Raab which goes someway to explaining the thinking and beliefs which led to this bill. We looked at some of the arguments in the book, Assault on Liberty (Harper Collins, 2009), which have led to the current bill. It claims that there is now an ‘arsenal of rights’ and this is reflected in the introductory remarks which refer to ‘mission creep’. We said that the history was of doubtful merit: the argument being that the country achieved greatness because of its freedoms and liberties and by inference, its decline came about because we have become rule bound of which the HRA is but one culprit. It is part of the small government and limited regulation which some conservative MPs desire. Significantly, the book is peppered with quotes from the Daily Mail which has carried a large number of stories critical of the act. The paper has also directly criticised judges on its front page, calling them ‘enemies of the people’ yet Liz Truss, when she was Justice Secretary, failed to support them until shamed into doing so.

Print media influence

The paper, along with others newspapers from time to time, have produced a series of stories critical of the act. Some are pure inventions and some claim the act is responsible when in fact it has been other legislation which has stoked their ire. Where positive stories appear, for example Hillsborough, the role of the act in achieving justice is downplayed or not mentioned. Readers of the Daily Mail where not told when it itself used the act to protect journalistic sources. The role of the media is important because over the years they have encouraged a negative view of the act to take hold claiming it aids criminals and help all sorts of undesirable people to escape justice by using, in a spurious way, some clause or other thus alleging justice cannot be served because it is their ‘human right’. It has enabled politicians to bring forward this bill safe in the knowledge that sections of the public have been primed over a period of decades to view the act as a thoroughly bad lot and the sooner it is done away with the better. Throw in Europe and the European Court overruling parliament and the scene is set.

If we look at the range of bills and acts, we see a pattern of thinking where laws are introduced to limit protest, restricting access to judicial review, proposals to limit the right to strike still further, and increased police powers amounting collectively to a real step backwards for the liberties of the individual. Taken with the Bill of Rights if it becomes law in its current form, the trend is worrying.

The Bill

The bill has a number of aims. It seeks to dilute ‘positive obligations‘ on public authorities. In view of the current state of the police – one such authority – where a number of forces have been hit by scandal after scandal and several are in special measures, this seems to be particularly inappropriate. It is claimed that the bill will further hurt women’s rights. The already abysmally low level of prosecutions for rape with an even lower level of convictions, will not be helped if the requirement for positive obligations is diluted.

It introduces a permissive stage, a kind of trial before a trial. Since the justice system is already in a state of crisis with extensive delays before a case can come to court, this will have the effect of delaying matters still further. It will also add to costs.

European Court judgements will no longer be part of domestic law. The Supreme Court will also have superiority over the Strasbourg court which is where we came in really. The problem was always that people failed to get justice in the UK courts and had to go to Strasbourg to get it. In a significant number of cases, Strasbourg overruled the UK courts and this became more and more embarrassing. Hence the introduction of the HRA. The Assault on Liberty referred to above is notable for its romantic view of the past and our justice system. The desire to remove Strasbourg from the scene relies on the fantasy of the British justice system being somehow superior. Yet many of our judges, being a product of a very narrow education and from a small part of society, have often shown themselves to be reactionary and out of touch. There was no glorious past which the Justice Secretary seems to think has been taken away. This is discussed in more detail in Conor Gearty’s book, On Fantasy Island (OUP, 2016).

Finally, the desire for rights and responsibilities to be introduced. This is connected in some way to the idea that rights are conditional on good behaviour and that irresponsible behaviour – however that is defined – makes someone less deserving.

The Chair of Joint Committee on Human Rights JCHR, Joanna Cherry QC MP has said that the bill is an ‘unfortunate regression in rights protection’ and has written to the Justice Secretary in those terms.

The local Amnesty group is opposed to the bill. The local Salisbury MP, Mr John Glen has stated he wishes to see the HRA abolished and will be supporting the new bill.

We urge people to submit their views to government while there is still time. As we write (2 August), Liz Truss, seems favourite to become the new prime minister in which case it is certain to become law.

Rishi Sunak MP


If Sunak becomes the new prime minister, what can we expect on the human rights front?

Rishi Sunak is, at the time of writing (15 July 2022), in the lead in the race to become the new prime minister of the UK. Asking about his attitude and voting record in connection with human rights is therefore of considerable interest. It doesn’t look good.

They Work for You, the site which analyses MP’s voting records shows that Sunak ‘generally votes against laws to promote equality and human rights’. He voted against retaining the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. He is in favour of repealing the Human Rights act which has been Conservative party policy for some years now and a draft Bill of Rights is awaited.

When asked about withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights he is quoted as saying (vaguely) ‘all options [were] on the table’.

He has voted consistently for policies to increase mass surveillance.

He is in favour – despite being the grandson of an immigrant from Africa – for sending immigrants to Rwanda.

Altogether a grim collection of negative attitudes and there seem to be no speeches or much information about his attitudes or likely policies on this important subject. There was nothing in his manicured promotion video. It very much looks like we shall get the existing policies carried forward unchanged. He seems to be part of the party which is hostile to human rights, wants to see them rolled back and to detach the country from European norms and treaties.

He is supported in the election by the MP for Salisbury Mr John Glen who likewise has a record of voting against equality and human rights issues according to They Work for You.

Sources: Open Access Government; LBC; Metro; They Work for You [we carried out an extensive search for any other relevant material but were unable to find any]

Curious insight into Conservative view of the Human Rights Act


Devizes MP Danny Kruger has written a chapter in a book by the Common Sense group

In recent years some members of the Conservative party seem to have a problem with the Human Rights Act and some would like to see it abolished.  Far right newspapers typify the act as being a means by which terrorists, murderers and others escape justice because the act provides lawyers with a range of loopholes to get their clients off. They call it a ‘criminal’s charter’.  Many of the stories, on closer examination, turn out not to be true or wanton exaggerations. 

The current corpus of human rights law started life after the Second World War and there were a number of Conservative politicians who were active proponents, including Sir Winston Churchill and David Maxwell-Fyfe. 

Since 2015, the tone has changed and in the manifesto of that year, David Cameron promised to scrap the act.  Little happened and by the time of the 2019 manifesto, ‘scrap’ had gone and a review was promised.  What is to be reviewed and how a new act would look and what it would contain has never been clear.  At the time, the Salisbury group raised the matter with our MP Mr John Glen, but we were not much clearer what they wanted it replaced by. The review of the act is currently underway.

A new book has just been produced by a group of backbench Conservatives called Common Sense: Conservative Thinking For a Post-Liberal Age. In it, is a chapter written by the Devizes* MP Danny Kruger entitled Restoring rights: Reclaiming Liberty

His chapter contains odd reasoning and some curious logic.  His first claim is that the European Convention on Human Rights, drafted by British Lawyers after World War II [lawyers from other countries were involved so it is incorrect to say ‘British lawyers’] ‘sits uncomfortably with the English tradition of preventing tyranny’.  This will come as something of a surprise to the millions of people who were enslaved and were worked to death in the sugar plantations or those who worked in fearful conditions in nineteenth century factories.  The acquisition of Empire also has many horror stories. Quite where this ‘prevention of tyranny’ was taking place is not made clear.

Human rights are misnamed he claims. ‘The rights we really need, and the only ones we really have, derive from something higher and something lower than mankind.  They derive from the idea of God, and from the fact of nations: from a Christian conception of law …’  It would be difficult to locate in the Bible many of the principles enshrined in the ECHR or HRA if only because these ideas and principles were a long way from a society colonised by the Romans and where practices like slavery were common.  There are many favourable references to slavery in the Bible for example.  The ‘lower than mankind’ element is not explained.

He quotes approvingly of the American author Patrick Deneen who wrote Why Liberalism Failed (2018).  Many do not agree with Kruger’s admiration of Deneen’s book regarding his blame of a huge range of society’s ills on excessive liberalism to be odd not to say ridiculous.

His analysis seems to go seriously awry however with the following passage:

“And so, from an early stage we came to think of rights as the means by which we are set free from external pressure, set free from obligations to others; and from there it is a small step to the hypocritical assumption that rights confer obligations on others to satisfy us.” P49

It is incorrect to say that requiring the state to act in a lawful and reasonable way towards its subjects is in anyway hypocritical.  What is hypocritical about requiring the State not to torture us? What is hypocritical about having a fair trial?  Nor is it true to argue that rights set us free from external pressure.  This seems to go to the heart of the objections raised by some Conservatives about the HRA, and the attempts to weave in duties.  The argument seems to be you only deserve these rights in limited circumstances and in a conditional way. 

This argument is further developed in this passage:

“This conception of rights must be rooted in the existence of a community – a real community, not the abstraction of ‘humankind’.  A real community entails reciprocal duties, situated in institutions that can enforce them and mediated by the conventions of people who know each other and share a common culture.  This is the nation.  We derive our rights from our citizenship (or more properly, our subjectship)”. p52 (our italics)

The problem all along with the objections to the HRA is trying to tie them down to specifics.  In an earlier Conservative document Protecting Human Rights in the UK, the examples seem to be stuck on deporting foreign criminals as an example of obligations. 

The Human Rights Act, brought in following cross party consensus – and falsely characterised as ‘Labour’s Human Rights Act’ – represented a significant shift in power.  Ever since the Norman conquest, power rested with the elites: the king, the barons and gradually the landowners and aristocracy.  Concessions were drawn from them as a result of unrest, riots or events such as the Peterloo massacre.  Magna Carta sought to restore some of the rights enjoyed during Saxon times.  The ‘Glorious Revolution’ brought further changes.  The Great Reform Act some more.

We were subjects not citizens.  The HRA changed that and gave citizens a range of fundamental rights (some of which are conditional).  It would appear that for a small number of Conservative backbenchers in the Common Sense group this is troubling.  Yet Mr Kruger’s chapter never gives solid reasons for change, only rather nebulous arguments which crumble away on close reading. 

*Devizes is a small town 25 miles north of Salisbury.

Government loses surveillance case


European Court rules against UK government in a landmark case

In September 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK government’s surveillance activities acted against the human rights of its citizens.  It said the ‘UK mass surveillance programme violated human rights and had no real safeguards in place’.  British intelligence agencies – principally GCHQ – violated the right to a private and family life because there was insufficient oversight over which communications were chosen for examination.

As the Independent newspaper puts it:

Under the guise of counter terrorism the UK had adopted the most authoritarian surveillance regime in Europe corroding democracy itself and the rights of the British public.  13 September

A number of human rights organisations, including Amnesty and Liberty, have been pursuing this case and the result is to be welcomed.  Amnesty were particularly concerned because they themselves were penetrated by GCHQ.  In view of the sensitivity of Amnesty’s work and the contacts with vulnerable people around the world, to find that a government agency was calmly monitoring its work is alarming.  The wholesale nature of the Tempora programme was a shock to many.

What is also alarming is the lack of oversight of the agencies.  Despite, as the New Statesman puts it, an ‘alphabet soup’ of organisations which are meant to be overseeing and monitoring what they are up to, it was the work of journalists and human rights organisations which finally brought the government to account.

For many people this is a matter of little interest.  People often say they are unconcerned if their emails are being monitored and their movements tracked.  ‘If I have done nothing wrong, so what?’ is a common response.  Likewise, the discovery that people were being manipulated using Facebook over the Brexit vote has evoked little real interest.

For those who have lived in an authoritarian state on the other hand, and have experienced first hand what it’s like to be subject to constant and intrusive surveillance, the reaction is likely to be different.

When Britain leaves the EU, the current government was determined to remove us from the aegis of the court and to abolish the Human Rights Act.  This was a manifesto promise.  That position has shifted during the Brexit negotiations and we will continue to be subject to its jurisdiction.  This has infuriated that section of the Conservative party who do not wish to be controlled by ‘foreign courts’ as they put it.

This ruling emphasises how important it is that we stay within the ECHR.  Clearly, parliament, MPs and various oversight agencies failed in their basic duty of oversight.  There is a legitimate desire to detect terrorists and those who wish to do harm to the country or individuals within it.  This is written in Salisbury where the attempted murder of two Russians by agents of the GRU is a case in point.  We rely on the various state agencies to keep watch over individuals with malign intent.  But is has to be targeted and subject to oversight.  We give up a bit of our liberty and freedom because we want to be safe.  It does not mean giving a free hand to collect any information that GCHQ feels it needs in a kind of fishing expedition.  We also rely on parliament to keep and eye on the executive and its agencies to see that they are properly monitored and behaving responsibly.  They fail in that.

This ruling is welcomed and we now need to hear from government what measures they are going to adopt to put matters right.  We also rely on the opposition to ask questions of the government and to keep their feet to the fire.

Sources: the Independent; the New Statesman; the Guardian; Amnesty International 

Human rights under threat


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.


Follow us on Twitter and Facebook – salisburyai

If you would like to join the Salisbury group you would be very welcome.  We meet once a month for a planning meeting and perhaps the best thing is to come along to an event and make yourself known.

 

 

 

Observer letter


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.

Salisbury firm involved in spyware


A Salisbury based firm, Gamma TSE, has been accused of supplying spyware to enable Bahraini activists to be arrested

UPDATE 15 March 17

Extract from a recent University of Toronto report:

[…] Far from using this spyware solely to track what might be considered legitimate targets, these countries and their shadowy agencies have repeatedly used them to get inside the computers of human rights activists, journalists, opposition politicians, and even health advocates supporting a soda tax in Mexico. Some of the victims of these campaigns have found themselves arrested and tortured. Leaked emails from certain companies reveal that, despite public assurances by executives, the vendors seem cavalier about these type of abuses, have few internal checks in place to prevent them, and, indeed, knowingly court the clandestine agencies responsible for such abuses. Despite these alarming incidents, however, the dynamics of and participants in the market at large remain opaque. 

While arguments rage in the USA concerning the alleged interference by Russia of the

Porton Business Centre
Porton Business Centre

presidential elections, a secretive Salisbury based firm, Gamma TSE, has been accused by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development of supplying software called FinFisher or FinSpy to the authorities in Bahrain and elsewhere.  This software enables intelligence agencies to insert Trojan software into computers and mobile phones.  This in turn enables people critical of the regime to be tracked and if necessary arrested by the security services.  The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab is documenting the widespread use of this spying software.

Privacy International, Bahrain Watch, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and Reporters Without Borders lodged a complaint with the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights.  They allege that the equipment is used by repressive regimes to harass and target dissidents, politicians and human rights activists.

Our involvement with repressive states – especially those in the Gulf – is well-known and Theresa May recently visited Bahrain to promote business interests in the kingdom.  As we have noted many times before, there seems little interest in the consequences of our arms and security companies activities on the ordinary people who live in those countries, the death and destruction in Yemen being particularly awful.

Part of the units occupied by Gamma in Porton
Part of the units occupied by Gamma in Porton

Gamma is again in the news today (9 January 2017, p13) in a Times article entitled ‘No 10 linked to spyware in human rights row’ which reveals that despite the criticism by the OECD, they have been invited to the Home Office sponsored International Security and Policing exhibition in London.  Amnesty reports show that the human rights situation in Bahrain is very poor with reports of torture and other forms of abuse:

[it] details dozens of cases of detainees being beaten, deprived of sleep and adequate food, burned with cigarettes, sexually assaulted, subjected to electric shocks and burned with an iron.  One was raped by having a plastic pipe inserted into his anus.

It said the report showed torture, arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force against peaceful activists and government critics remained widespread in Bahrain.

The OECD report was not conclusive about Gamma as it was a ‘reluctant participant in the proceedings refusing to productively engage in a September 2013 mediation and employed stalling efforts.’

Privacy International say:

Gamma has proven itself to be and irresponsible corporate actor that is indifferent to the human rights impacts of its activities.

The Amnesty report also says:

The government [of Bahrain] continued to curtail freedoms of expression, association and assembly and cracked down further on online and other dissent. Opposition leaders remained imprisoned; some were prisoners of conscience. Torture and other ill-treatment remained common. Scores were sentenced to long prison terms after unfair trials. Authorities stripped at least 208 people of their Bahraini nationality. Eight people were sentenced to death; there were no executions.

A firm helping regimes with a record of mistreating its citizens and regularly using torture, is based in the village of Porton, near Salisbury, Wiltshire.

 

 

 

Withdrawal from the European Convention threatened


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

 

Happy Birthday ECHR!


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

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook – salisburyai

Human rights and armed forces


Claire Perry writes in the Salisbury Journal

Claire Perry MP. Picture: thedrum

Claire Perry, the Conservative MP for Devizes in Wiltshire, said in her piece in the Salisbury Journal that:

[at the recent Tory party conference] … there were other important announcements to celebrate including the news that the government will put an end to the vexatious and damaging legal claims against members of the Armed Forces that arise from applying European Court of Human Rights judgements in the battlefield.

It is scandalous that highly trained and professional soldiers have been subjected to vexatious legal claims second-guessing their decision-making and that since 2004, the MoD has spent over £100 million on Iraq-related investigations, inquiries and compensation – money that should be spent on our troops not lawyers.   Salisbury Journal 27 October 2016

The problem with Claire Perry’s piece – largely copied from the statement by the Defence Minister at the conference – is that it is highly selective and largely untrue.  The picture painted is of our soldiers, operating in difficult and extremely dangerous environments, being pursued by lawyers, sorry ‘vexatious lawyers’, on the make.  The reality is quite different.

Firstly, it is part of a consistent and long running campaign by the right-wing media and tabloids against the Human rights Act and the European Court.  They do not like it because it provides protections for ordinary citizens and in particular, against the invasion of privacy by those self-same papers.  So at a party conference, appealing to that part of the media is only to be expected.

But more specifically, to take one element the statement: ‘claims against members of the armed forces …’ gives the impression that the claims are only about the soldiers themselves.  Many of the claims are against the MoD for not taking sufficient or reasonable care of their men.  So one claim for example was on behalf of a soldier who died of heatstroke serving in 50 degrees of heat in Iraq.  There is also the whole business of Deepcut and the soldiers who died there.  Others involve the Army sending men off in insufficiently protected land rovers.

The phrase ‘applying European Court of Human Rights judgements in the battlefield’ is doubly disingenuous.  Firstly, it is the application of the Human Rights Act which is causing the problem.  Adding the ECHR is just to appeal to those who do not like Europe and trying to shift the blame to Strasbourg who often have little if anything to do with it.  ‘Battlefield’ is also slipped in to create the impression of brave soldiers being pursued by lawyers (keep forgetting – vexatious lawyers) with outrageous claims.

What many of the claims are about is how prisoners are treated once they are taken captive, not on the battlefield.  One such claim was a man thrown into a canal in Baghdad and left to drown.  Many others relate to beatings and other mistreatment of prisoners.  If the courts have investigated claims and the MoD has been forced to pay compensation it argues that something is adrift.

Perhaps Claire Perry should ask herself why do we go to war in the first place?  Part of the answer is to promote our values.  We want to promote democracy and the rule of law.  We become involved in part to try and instill those values.  If our soldiers – not on the battlefield but back at base – are mistreating prisoners then those are not our values.  Although there was a lot of nonsense about weapons of mass destruction, one reason we went into Iraq was because Sadam Hussein treated his people abominably.  The results of bad treatment in places like Syria are visible to us every day with the refugee crisis.

It is a great pity that nonsense like this is both written and then published without challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: