Posts Tagged ‘Human Rights Act’


A coalition of over a hundred organisations has been brought together to try and counter the threat to the Human Rights Act and proposed changes to the process of judicial review. The Conservative government has introduced a range of bills to try and curb or limit protest, human rights and judicial review of their actions. The coalition has been put together by the Humanists.

The unprecedented coalition of over 220 organisations has spoken out against the UK Government’s new plans to reduce the scope of judicial review. They have together formed a coalition [the link provides a list of supporters] to defend human rights and judicial review from Government attack. The coalition, established by Humanists UK, is believed to be the largest human rights coalition in UK history. Those joining include charities, trades unions, human rights bodies including Amnesty, and religion or belief groups. On 21 July 2021 the Government published a new Bill that will curtail judicial review, if it becomes law.

The coalition reflects widespread concern that the various moves made by the current government are taken together, a threat to our freedoms. The Conservatives have long disliked the HRA, characterising it as ‘Labour’s HRA’ when in fact it was cross-party. We await the review itself but there is little doubt it will recommend changes that will weaken it.

Sources: Each Other, Humanists, Amnesty, Politics.co.uk


The group remains concerned about current government plans and bills with a human rights element to them.  There is a suggestion that the government continues work to undermine our Human Rights, and the right to protest on policy decisions being one aspect of that.

Reviews of the HRA and Judicial Review process are still continuing and nothing definite has been reported. The results are expected in the late summer.

A recent report by the EHRC tracker highlights a lack of UK government progress on human rights: It concludes that no progress has been made in the category of ‘political and civic participation, including political representation’ and its ‘equality and human rights legal framework’.  This is due in part to the New Immigration Act, Police Crime Bill, the reviews of the Human Rights Act and the legal process of Judicial Review.  

Common Sense: Conservative Thinking in a Post-Liberal Age.

Early in May a group of sixty Conservative backbench MP’s published a book outlining Conservative values and long-term policy for the party.  Though not mainstream Conservative policy, the book provides a disturbing insight into core Conservative thinking.  Among the policies proposed are the revoking the HRA, break-up of the BBC, taking on internet giants, scrapping the Supreme Court and defeating ‘woke-ism’.  We have attempted to review one chapter by the Devizes MP Danny Kruger

Webinar – Police Crime Bill

A short webinar organised by AI confirmed the position that: Losing the right to protest and therefore resist government policy will result in further UK Human Rights violations.

Besides the issue of restrictions concerning protesting, the webinar included discussion on crime, Roma communities, minorities, discrimination and police intimidation.  Although participants emphasised the need for resistance to the Police Crime Bill no clear action was proposed.

In the Commons the Labour Party submitted amendments to the Police Crime Bill, particularly the deletions of sections concerning restrictions on protest. However, with a strong Conservative majority these amendments were defeated.  Amendments to the Bill in the House of Lords are also likely to be rejected.

The group is maintaining a watching brief on these proposals and will consider campaigning actions when details are known.

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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.


A recent report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission highlights a lack of UK government progress on human rights:  It concludes that no progress has been made in the category of ‘political and civic participation, including political representation’ and its ‘equality and human rights legal framework’. This is due in part to the New Immigration Act, Police Crime Bill and the reviews of the Human Rights Act and the legal process of Judicial Review.  

The report also covers the topics of ‘educational attainment’, ‘hate crime and hate speech’, ‘human trafficking and modern slavery’ and ‘mental health’. It concludes that: “Women, ethnic minorities and disabled people remain under-represented in politics and diversity data is inadequate. Candidates sharing certain protected characteristics are disproportionately subject to abuse and intimidation, and long-term funding is needed to ensure disabled people’s equal participation.” 

The EHRC considers that there has been a severe regression of human rights with The Coronavirus Act and the removal of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights from domestic law after Brexit. 

The United Kingdom is signed up to seven UN human rights treaties. The EHRC’s report clearly demonstrates the UK government’s lack commitment to ensure its citizens’ rights are properly protected.  The EHRC’s full report: Check on UK Government progress | Human Rights Tracker


The Conservatives have had a long-standing dislike of the HRA and a review of it has appeared in its last two or three manifestos. It has not always been so and indeed it was Conservative politicians who were instrumental in setting up the European Convention which preceded the HRA.

The government is making various claims in a bid to justify its desire to amend the act and by inference, to weaken it. Recently we have had claims about alleged vexatious claims against British soldier’s mistreatment of prisoners in conflict areas such as Iraq. They have also, erroneously claimed that the act prevents them tracking potential terrorists.

The various reasons put forward by the government combined with a steady stream of stories in the right wing press suggest deeper reasons at play. The current home secretary, Priti Patel and Michael Gove MP have both been reported as being keen to reintroduce the death penalty although the home secretary has resiled from that claim. Her proposed draconian measures for handling asylum seekers and immigrants however, reveal an illiberal attitude of mind. We have reported on this site, the shameful views of the Attorney General, Suella Braverman, concerning torture about which practice she seemed quite ‘relaxed’.

The HRA has perhaps shaken the establishment more than has been realised. It has led to a shift in power and enabled ordinary people to pursue injustice through the courts. We have seen in the Covid-19 crisis a government which has been reluctant to involve local government, much preferring to award contracts – without tender – to private firms who have shown a dazzling array of ineptitude. It seems to indicate a firm desire to retain the levers of power in Whitehall.  Challenge by private citizens is not welcome. 

The attempt to prorogue parliament and the proposed Internal Market and the Overseas Operations bills all show a government willing to break international treaties if it deems it necessary. We should be extremely concerned if the act gets abolished or its protections seriously watered down.  

 


Appointment of Sir Keir Starmer is an encouraging development for human rights

In previous posts, we have noted the campaign by some members of the Conservative government and  some parts of the press, against the Human Rights Act and the desire to abolish it.  The election of Sir Keir Starmer as opposition leader is an encouraging development therefore.

Sir Keir Starmer, the new Leader of the Opposition is, famously, a barrister.  He was also, famously, the Director of Public Prosecutions, a man who decided what charges should be brought and against whom. So what should we expect from a party led by someone deeply involved in human rights questions at a time when rights are under enormous pressure, not just globally but also in this country?

Once the coronavirus episode is over and normal(ish) political business returns, one of the first matters to be considered will be the increased power the government has accrued during the emergency, and what to do about it in the future.  The Labour Party has supported the emergency powers for the next 6 months, but will clearly need to review this at an early opportunity. Starmer has not expressed a view as yet, but we know that much of his previous work has been in defence of persons threatened by an overweening state.

Starmer’s career was built on work in the human rights and civil liberties field, notably in cases like the McLibel affair (environmentalists sued by McDonald’s over claims made in a factsheet) and East African and Caribbean death penalty cases.  He was named as QC of the Year in the field of human rights and public law in 2007 by the Chambers & Partners directory and in 2005 he won the Bar Council’s Sydney Elland Goldsmith award for his outstanding contribution to pro bono work in challenging the death penalty throughout the Caribbean and also in Uganda, Kenya and Malawi.  From 2003 to 2008, Starmer was the human rights adviser to the Policing Board in Northern Ireland.

Now we have (more or less) left the EU, extremists within the government may well want to detach us from the European Convention on Human Rights (nothing to do with the EU, remember), as well as rescinding the Human Rights Act.  Starmer has publicly defended the ECHR in debate (see The Lawyer 15/9/15).  In his Blackstone Lecture of 2015, he refuted the arguments against the existing HRA in considerable detail.  He has also written text books on the HRA, so is fully versed in the minutiae.

Martin Kettle has noted the change in outlook on human rights within the legal profession following the Act (see Prospect Magazine Feb 2020), and Starmer’s position at the forefront of this change.  With a liberal judiciary under pressure at the moment, his support may be important in the coming period.  Starmer will face attacks from left and right, but will be used to that.

It is notable that the Daily Mail is already leading the charge against the new man, tarring Starmer as a defender of IRA bombers (but then the Mail’s grasp of what lawyers actually do has always been rather tenuous).  The tabloid press are, of course, hostile to Starmer anyway since his decision as DPP to prosecute them over phone-hacking.

From the left, he has been criticised for – during his time as DPP – not pursuing the prosecution of the police officers accused of killing Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson (although in the latter case, he changed his mind in 2011 when new evidence came to light).  Also, he announced that MI5 and MI6 agents would not face charges of torture and extraordinary rendition during the Iraq War, concluding that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, as James A Smith has pointed out in the Indy (9/1/20).

Sir Keir has given a clue as to his approach by appointing as his chief legal colleague on the front bench, David Lammy, while Lisa Nandy will be at foreign affairs, both of them with good records on human rights issues.  Lammy has been leading in parliament on the Windrush scandal, while Nandy has been strongly supportive of making businesses report on the human rights impacts of their operations.

 


Conor Gearty discusses this question in the European Human Rights Law Review

Readers of this site will be familiar with Mr Gearty as we reviewed his book On Fantasy Island a few years ago.  In this article*, Mr Gearty discusses the current state of human rights.

Anyone looking at the current state may conclude that little has improved since the end of the war.  The atrocities committed during the war, most notably the holocaust, although millions also died in Soviet Russia during the Stalin era, led to the formation of the UN and ultimately the signing of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.  There was a strong hope at the time of ‘never again’.

Currently, we have terrible events in Myanmar with the killing and driving out of Rohingyas.  Syria has seen massive destruction and civil war and the use of chemical weapons.  The Uighur people in China are being persecuted for their faith and about one million are being forcibly ‘re-educated’.  We have seen genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda.  The treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis is disgraceful.  All these and many more are carried on with little sign of realistic intervention by the UN.  It is as though the Declaration was never agreed all those years ago.

Reasons

Conor Gearty discusses some of the reasons for this decline in human rights around the world.  His first argument is that the responsibility was placed on governments.  It was no doubt assumed at the time that governments could be relied on to be the police so to speak.  Experience has shown that it is governments which are the problem and who are all too keen to deny the human rights of their citizens.  Several of the Gulf states are prime examples of denial of basic liberties and the rule of law.  Abuses and the use of torture are routine.

The problem with the reliance on states is the UN principle of non-interference in the affairs of states.  So acting through them, but being inhibited from interfering with them, means the UN is largely neutered when it wants to take action.  He also makes the point that non-state actors are not controlled by human rights considerations.  He instances the World Bank and IMF which both impose conditions on state’s finances which in turn can leave them to handle the human rights consequences.

We can add to this the rise in corporate power.  There are many corporate actors now which are bigger than many of the states they operate in.  The large resource companies and banks are able to act with impunity in many countries.  They can extract wealth corruptly with ease and deny the host country the proceeds.  The UK is a major centre for this corruption and Transparency International has published a number of reports giving the details.  Recently, there has been a series of revelations concerning Isabel dos Santos alleged looting of Angola.  She was helped in this activity – which involved complex entities and transactions in several countries – by one of the UK’s big four accountancy firms PwC.  It is difficult for countries stricken by this plunder of wealth to improve the well being and human rights of its citizens while vast sums are stolen from them.  But human rights only appear in the background and the corporate and City firms are not a direct part of the UN Declaration.

Austerity is something which has hit the poorest the hardest.  Gearty argues that this has led some to argue that human rights are no longer ‘fit for purpose’.  Many of these factors are economic in nature and seem outside the remit of human rights laws – at least directly.

9/11

Another factor which has acted against the interests of human rights he argues and left many organisations ‘stuck of the wrong’ side were the attacks on the Twin Towers and elsewhere in America by al Qaeda.  America launched its ‘war on terror’ and a whole series of human rights infringements followed.  The development of black sites and Guantanamo Bay enabled the US to hold large numbers of people incommunicado and without due process and to institute regimes of torture [warning: the pictures are distressing].  This left many human rights organisations seemingly defending the rights of terrorists.  Terrorism has never been defined he argues.  Guantanamo Bay is still a blight on the politics of the USA: out of the 780 held there and subjected to harsh treatment over several years, 731 were released without trial (source: Human Rights Watch).

Additionally, in the UK, we have seen a concerted press campaign to argue that human rights are being used to defend criminals, terrorists and ‘citizens of nowhere’ as he terms them.  They are not for ordinary people but for the ‘unworthy’ is the message increasingly portrayed.

This has enabled the current Conservative government to argue for the Human Rights Act to be abolished although a number of years have passed since David Cameron first promised to do so.  It has never been clear what it is that the Conservatives want repealed or removed from the HRA, a question we asked the Salisbury MP Mr John Glen but without a clear answer.  This year (2020) we may get to find out.

There is clear evidence that commercial and trading considerations outweigh human rights.  This is another example of states – who should be the guardians – are in fact cheerleaders for arms firms.  We have highlighted on this site the UK’s role in selling arms to the Saudi government to carry out its hideous destruction of Yemen.  The government also supports the annual DSEI arms fair and goes to great pains to exclude human rights representatives from attending.  There is little doubt that to ensure the success of post Brexit Britain, little regard will be given to human rights in the rush to secure trade agreements around the world.  In our last post, we highlighted a Salisbury firm which is alleged to sell spyware equipment to enable regimes with poor human rights records to penetrate the phones, emails and computers of those it does not like.

Conclusions

The basic issue is that with governments the custodian of human rights, the protection of basic rights would always be on shaky ground if governments are themselves not committed to upholding them.  Nowhere is this more relevant than with the plight of refugees: it being governments which place them in a perilous position in the first place and then other governments which close their borders and fail to help them.

Politicians are more concerned with securing and holding on to power that on maintaining the rights of its citizens.  The right wing press and some politicians have portrayed these rights as somehow the preserve of criminals, terrorists and the like who use them to escape justice.  So abolishing the act cannot come soon enough for them.

Another crucial factor is the increasing pressure of external factors which impinge on people’s rights.  These are the drivers and it is rights which suffer at the end.  Responses to these pressures have led several leaders to act in denial of human rights.

New threats, such as inequality, climate change, and the replacement of manual work by AI and machines, mean those who fear that the old social contract is no longer in their interests are making their voices heard.  They say, “these are our jobs”, “this is our land”, “our community has certain shared values”, and “people like us are the only real citizens”.  These sentiments, echoing around the presidency of Donald Trump or during Brexit, are in direct opposition to human rights.

States don’t much like rights – they’re an annoyance or an embarrassment.  The survival, and flourishing, of human rights requires people, the citizenry, the populace, to say that these rights are important and to demand that their governments observe them.  And by that same logic, the people can sink them, too. In the end it is us, we – however we define that problematic term – who will make the difference between the failure or success of human rights, whatever the external and internal threats we face.  The Conversation, October 23 2018

If we accept that a reliance on governments to be the custodian of our rights, then their future is unlikely to be positive.  As pressures build, whether from economic, climate or AI, then the rights of its citizens will be the first to go.  These arguments point to viewing human rights in a more nuanced way.  Rights are now influenced by a range of factors beyond straightforward considerations of what the state and judiciary do.  The City of London for example, plays a key role internationally in helping move vast quantities of wealth out of the reach of governments thus making improving the living standards of its citizens harder if not impossible for them to achieve.

The central problem seems that by placing the protection of human rights entirely in a legal setting, it risks becoming bound up in a too narrow frame of reference.  There needs to be a shift in thinking away from the state and the law and towards more ethical considerations.  We need to move towards a society structured around the well-being of individuals not one where people have to fit in with the demands of the state.  Since the state only has partial power in any particular country, citizens are at the mercy of non-state organisations, international companies, the climate, and ever changing technology.  Recent events in China, show that even with the enormous power of the communist party, it became the victim of a virus.  The sum of these forces frequently (nearly always in fact) act against the rights and well-being and rights of its citizens.

*Is the Human Rights Era Drawing to a Close?  European Human Rights Law Review, Issue 5, 2017


Happy New Year to our followers and supporters. This is likely to be an interesting year on the human rights front and we shall be keeping an eye on the new Conservative government’s wish to repeal or do something with the Human Rights Act which they dislike so. We do not know what is proposed – indeed it has been under threat for some years now but details of what is proposed are scarce – but with a large majority, they will be able to do more or less as they will.


December meeting of the group takes place tonight, Thursday 12th as usual in Victoria road at 7:30.  Supporters and new members welcome but it is a working meeting.

We have the carol singing next week.


The Salisbury Amnesty group is politically neutral.  We have an interest in the Human rights Act passed with all party consensus in 1998.  The Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election says:

Once we get Brexit done, Britain will take back control of its laws.  As we end the supremacy of European law, we will be free to craft legislation and regulations that maintain high standards but which work best for the UKWe want a balance of rights, rules and entitlements that benefits all the people and all the parts of our United Kingdom.

After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people.  The ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime is critical.  We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government. We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.  In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission that will examine these issues in depth, and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates.  Page 48 in the section: Protect our Democracy (our italics)

We can find no similar pledge in the other two main party’s manifesto.  To some extent this is a familiar promise.  In the past, the party has promised to repeal the act and to introduce a bill on rights and responsibilities.  Probably because of the pressure on parliamentary time with Brexit, such a bill has never emerged.  Promises to abolish the act also have never emerged.  We have asked what part of the act they want to abolish but this has never been answered.  The Party does seem to have a problem with the act as it is currently drafted.

The words themselves tell you little and may even seem on the face of it, benign.  What does ‘update the act’ mean?  Seeking a balance between the rights of individuals and our vital national security and effective government is a bit of a clue.  A regular theme of the right wing press is the threat posed by the act to our national security.  This for example from the Daily Mail in 2015:

Another day, another insult to common sense courtesy of the Human Rights Act and the lawyers enriched by this toxic piece of legislation, which allows them so profitably to ride roughshod over the wishes of Parliament and the British public.   Editorial, 1 August 2015

We shall be keeping a watching brief on Conservative party plans if they assume power on 13 December 2019.

Visitors to this site may like to visit Rights Info where this manifesto promise is also discussed.