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Sunday, 2 October 2011

Home Secretaries and human rights

After getting some stick I updated this
Venn diagram, see update here.
"We must replace the Human Rights Act with a bill of rights and responsibilities..." or variations of the above is the rallying cry for the campaign to reform the Human Rights Act (and take us out of the European Convention on Human Rights).

Normally at this point, having sat for several hours or days trying to understand those not sharing my viewpoint, I write a bit about the merits of both arguments.

In this case I'm completely lost. How can anyone who understands just a little bit about the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights and just a few of the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights come to the conclusion that the current Human Rights Act is anything other than a list of rights and responsibilities. 

Those who think the Human Rights Act gives murderers more rights than their victims or their victims families should try reading the Act from the begining.  Schedule 1, Part 1: Right To Life.  Hell, even those keen on reintroduction of the death penalty should note the exception:
No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.
The Human Rights Act, European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and rulings of the European Court of Human rights are about as far from a criminal's charter as you can get.  It is everyone's responsibility to respect the rights of others as far as is practicable.

Far from the dodgy assertions made on radio talk shows and the columns of the Daily Mail the ECHR is not a relic of a bygone era where the main threat to our human rights wore a uniform.  It is a framework for assessing and balancing the rights of the individual against the need for an ordered and stable society.

Some rights come into conflict with each other, and over many years the European Court of Human Rights has spent years considering the appropriate balance of the rights laid out in the convention.  We have privacy rights, but the press also has a right to report freely.  We have a right not to suffer press intrusion, but sometimes intrusion is justified in exposing corruption and other stories with a public interest.

Furthermore, through the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, the Convention is very much a living statute, its interpretation constantly under review to adopt to changes in lifestyle and technology.

Now we have the Home Secretary - the person responsible for our security services and everything they get up to behind the scenes - saying in an interview she'd like to see the act go.

Thanks to the groundwork from many sections of the press whisking up fear and mistrust of the act the securocrats of the state may well find themselves on the side of a tide of public support.

But does the public supporting removal of the Human Rights Act understand the wider dangers from doing what the Home Secretary is calling for?

A handful of terrorist suspects can't be put under lock and key, but the Human Rights Act isn't the barrier.  What's stopping the conviction of these suspects is the unwillingness for the state and security services to put these people on trial.

Consideration of the Human Rights Act has lead judges to agree a series of proportionate measures based on the threat to other people's lives these individuals may cause, but has stopped short on allowing detention without trial.

And thank god for that - without the rule of law we are no better than those who want to damage our way of life and system of democracy.

Maybe the Home Secretary is worried by rulings from the European Court of Human Rights surrounding the use of surveillance and other intrusive monitoring techniques.

A reported factor in the debate over the admissibility of wiretap evidence in UK trials was not wanting to disclose surveillance methods. Recent case law (Weber and Saravia v Germany) in the European Court has linked a right for subjects of surveillance to be notified after surveillance has finished to the effectiveness of safeguards against the abuse of monitoring powers.

Again, such rulings aren't designed to undermine the state's ability to tackle terrorism and serious crime. They're designed to balance the rights of the individual against the rights of the state to protect itself and its people.  Without transparency of what the state does in the name of security its impossible to assess whether the measures are necessary or proportionate.

It's ironic that the newspapers currently whipping up fear and mistrust of the Human Rights Act have in the past been prompt to point out issues with CCTV, ANPR, large government databases and other potentially intrusive technologies.



  1. I think it's significant the way it's often referred to as "Yuman Rights" by Richard Littlejohn and the right.

    That's "funny" because it's pronounced in a foreign accent, which highlights the ridiculousness that someone with a foreign accent could have the same rights as us.

    I think the stuff about responsibilities is a bit of a smokescreen. Don't underestimate the deep visceral loathing that the concept of universal rights arouses in people who think they should be privileged over others.

  2. The problem with the Human Rights concept isn't the basic concept, but the practice.

    Something is wrong, when murderers in one country, escape to a second country (the UK) and commit crimes again, and then, when caught, use "human rights" legislation to avoid extradition. (See Sunday Times - 2 Oct 2011 regarding extradition of Albanian criminals).

    When Gaddafi's Libya and Saudi Arabia are welcomed onto the UN Human Rights Council and claim to be upholding human rights (e.g. the rights of women in Saudi Arabia) then something is seriously wrong with the way Human Rights is applied, practiced and understood by world legislatures.

    When Human Rights issues are used to justify the invasion of a student bedroom by Paul Donnachie at St Andrews University - just because the student in question was a Jewish supporter of Israel then so-called Human Rights supporters are bringing the whole concept into disrepute. (Fortunately, in this case, the court saw through Donnachie's action and realised that this was not a valid political action).

    When a UN anti-Racism conference not only ignores anti-Semitic speeches but doesn't even view anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial as human rights abuses then there is a REAL problem with how Human Rights concepts are applied, understood and described.

    Human Rights law has become a political tool - and ignores justice and the rights of too many, over those who scream loudest. That needs to change. THAT is why change is needed - not in the basic idea, but in how it is applied, and in how it is described.


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