Human Rights Day on 10 December aims to raise awareness about the inalienable rights that everyone is entitled to as a human being. On 10 December 1948, the United Nations (UN) adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Since then, various programmes take place across the world to encourage governments, social and local organisations to further the cause of equality and the protection of human rights, irrespective of race, religion or gender of all individuals.
International and national laws and treaties protect human rights (HR) globally. The 47 member grouping known as the Human Rights Council has the task of supervising this. These UN member-states are empowered to prevent inequality, abuses and discrimination, protect the most vulnerable, and punish the perpetrators of HR violations.
This year’s theme is “Equality”
The United Nations has announced that for 2021 it has adopted the theme from Article 1 of the UDHR, which says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Thus, the theme of Human Rights Day this year was “equality”.
The need to protect the HR of individuals has attained a greater meaning in the pandemic which has led, and might again lead, to restrictions of individual freedoms following scientific and medical advice.
The Human Rights Act
In the UK, HR are protected by the Human Rights Act 1998. This is based on the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). If your HR have been breached, you can take action under the Human Rights Act in the UK courts in order to uphold your ECHR rights.
In 2011 I was posted to Strasbourg to the UK delegation to the Council of Europe (CoE) when Theresa May was Foreign Secretary. Already then the media reported that the Conservative government wanted to leave the ECHR. Recently, there was even a rumour that they plan to scrap the British Human Rights Act.
Dangerous overhaul of the Human Rights Act
Stephanie Boyce, President of the Law Society is quoted (Guardian 13/12/2021)as saying that changes to the Act should be led by evidence and not driven by political rhetoric. The government confirmed that it would remain party to the ECHR.
However, Martha Spurrier, Director at Liberty, describes the plans as “a blatant, unashamed power grab.” She says, “Today’s announcement is being cast as strengthening our rights when, in fact, if this plan goes through, they will be fatally weakened.”
The Chief Executive of Amnesty International also condemns the plans. Sacha Deshmukh says that HR are not ‘sweets’ that ministers can pick and choose from, and demands these attempts must be stopped.
Secretary Raab rejects rights
An analysis (Guardian 14/12/2021) of the “Consultation Paper” proposing Dominic Raab’s plan to review the Human Rights Act comments, “critics think a man who once said ‘I don’t believe in economic and social rights’ is reaching the goal of a 12-year campaign.”
The Guardian also reports that Raab’s plans have attracted criticisms from unusual sources, who may yet force some changes.
Security services are wary
“MI5, MI6 and GHCQ have told ministers that changes to the Human Rights Act could make it harder for them to defend cases in courts. In evidence to the independent Human Rights Act review committee which could recommend changes, the security services said it would be unhelpful if the government went too far.”
They warned that there is the risk that terrorist suspects could take their cases directly to the ECHR in Strasbourg, where such evidence could not be submitted in secret.
Several senior Conservatives, including some government officials, might resist the proposed changes. There might also be support for the “resistance” in the House of Lords.
What issues does the UK have with the ECHR?
A few years ago, there was an uproar about the case of a Muslim cleric’s extradition from the UK which was prevented as he was not guaranteed a fair trial. Currently, UK courts decide on the controversial Assange extradition to the US.
Both Assange’s, the Muslim cleric’s case and current Covid regulations highlight the dilemma when deciding how far individual HR can be restricted when it comes to the common good, for example national or international security.
Confusion: EU or not EU?
Many people make a mistake when they connect the extradition cases and the EU. The ECHR is not an EU instrument, but is overseen by the Council of Europe (CoE) in Strasbourg. The fact that the EU adopted the CoE blue flag with yellow stars adds to the confusion of the two institutions. The European Council is in Brussels and is the meeting of Heads of State at the EU in Brussels.
To add further to the confusion, EU/CoE, Members of the European Parliament sit in Brussels but also intermittently in Strasbourg.
What is the ECHR and what does it do?
The European Convention on Human Rights is an international treaty launched by the Council of Europe in 1950 to help protect people’s HR and fundamental freedoms. British lawyers played a major role in drafting these laws.
The Council of Europe is not part of the European Union (EU). It has 47 members states, like the UK who signed up and committed to upholding certain fundamental rights. Vital rights, like the right to life, the right to a fair trial, and the right to freedom of expression are enshrined in law.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) based in Strasbourg oversees and judges cases taken to the CoE. It is the only international instrument that empowers individuals to take their government to court if they feel their human rights have been threatened.
The UK was taken to the ECtHR for prisoners’ voting rights. The CoE believes that taking away voting rights automatically if someone is convicted of a crime is discriminatory. Not all crimes are equal. They want individual cases dealt with by the courts. The UK has not yet complied with the judgment.
The EU Charter Of Fundamental Rights
The EU is party to the ECHR but has its own instrument, the Charter of Fundamental Rights:
“The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union enshrines into primary EU law a wide array of fundamental rights enjoyed by EU citizens and residents. It became legally binding with the coming into force of the Treaty of Lisbon on 1 December 2009.”
It is a more modern version of human rights protection than the ECHR and is specific to issues faced by, and rights bestowed to EU citizens and people living in Europe.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights is overseen by the European Court of Justice based in Luxembourg.
Human Rights protection for all
Human Rights protection is safeguarding all of us. We must watch out for attempts to erode our rights and protections. Sometimes, the laws seem to protect people we deem unworthy. But experiences of the 1930s showed us how dangerous it is to categorise humans. We must look out for politicians using our fears to weaken our protections.
At the moment, there are several new Bills going through Parliament which give the government and the police more powers. Some are eroding protections of minorities, eg migrants, non UK born citizens and gypsies.
What can we do to resist these proposals? There are several petitions one can sign, for example Liberty’s https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/fundamental/we-protest/
We are also encouraged to write to our MPs to show that we care about human rights and equality.
Be Careful What You Tolerate
Jon Danzig issues a stark warning in his blog which is well worth reading.