We can’t allow Human Rights Day to slip by as just another Thursday

by Shami Chakrabarti CBE

10 Dec 2015

Today is Human Rights Day. In this age of global information-sharing it can seem like every week comes with its share of anniversaries. Some relate to you and some don’t. Some go unnoticed. But we can’t afford to let today slip by as just another Thursday – because this Government wants to scrap our Human Rights Act.

While we continue to wait for any coherent plans for their proposed replacement – the “British Bill of Rights” – a steady stream of carefully rehearsed soundbites and ‘leaks’ to media have shed some light on the so-far farcical proposals.

The Human Rights Act allows the fundamental rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – to life, to not be tortured or enslaved, to fair trials and freedom of religion and expression – to be protected in British courts. Before its creation, people in the UK could only defend their rights in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg – an incredibly time-consuming and expensive process which closed the door on many who might otherwise have sought justice.

Liberty client Janet Alder is just one example of a claimant who suffered under that system. Although she was ultimately successful, Janet’s struggle to achieve justice for her brother Christopher, who died in police custody, lasted 13 years.

This is no longer the case. Time and time again our Human Rights Act has enabled ordinary people – soldiersjournalistsbereaved families, victims of domestic violence, slavery and rape – to hold the powerful to account in UK courts. Simply put, the HRA protects everyone.

Can the same be said of a British Bill? The implications of replacing “Human” with “British” are clear: rights for some, not all. Who will miss out? And when and where will victims get justice? And why should your entitlement to a small parcel of fundamental human rights depend upon citizenship?

A pretty large category of person is set to lose out – all British troops stationed overseas. Ministers claim this will end the “persistent human rights claims” against our troops.

The actual result of such a move would be to leave our service men and women with no means to seek redress if subjected to neglect or abuse at the hands of the Ministry of Defence. Had this Bill been in force instead of the HRA, there would have been no route to justice for the families of soldiers killed in deficient Snatch Land Rover vehicles in Iraq, nor for the sisters of Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement who took her own life following an incompetent investigation into an allegation of rape by two colleagues while posted in Germany in 2009.

We’re told that, under the Bill of Rights, only the most serious cases will see a court room, with trivial ones falling by the wayside. Should a group of powerful politicians decide when human rights should or shouldn’t apply, or whether your loved one’s is one of the “trivial” cases? Rosa Parks refuses to move on the bus. Your elderly mother is left desperate with thirst in her dying hours in a hospital. Who’s to say what counts as “trivial”?

The Government claims it will put parliamentary sovereignty “on a statutory footing” to end Strasbourg’s ability to require the UK to change its laws. But the European Court has no such ability – British law can only be changed with the approval of Parliament. The case in point here is the prisoner voting judgment to which the Government incessantly points. More than a decade later the blanket ban is still firmly in place – because Parliament is already sovereign under our HRA.

Ministers also vow that the Bill of Rights would ensure British courts need not  blindly follow ECtHR judgments. Once again, this is an imaginary problem. Under the HRA domestic courts need only take Strasbourg jurisprudence into account. There is no obligation to follow ECtHR rulings and domestic courts can and do depart from its decisions.

Our leaders tell us this will “inject some common sense” into the system. Well, investing vast amounts of time, money and resources into tackling imaginary problems isn’t common sense. Allowing powerful politicians to decide which human rights abuses are important isn’t common sense, Forcing the British people down the long road to Strasbourg to enforce their rights, while simultaneously cutting legal aid, is not common sense.

The consultation and draft British Bill have yet to materialise, despite promise after promise from the Government. But don’t be fooled – the repeal of one of the most important pieces of legislation this nation has ever known is still on the agenda. The threat is real, and it’s imminent.

An ideological attack on the universality of human rights is under way. Today cannot be just another day – nor can any day until we’ve won the fight to save our Human Rights Act. But it’s a fight we can win.

Shami Chakrabarti is Director of human rights organisation Liberty and received a British Academy’s President’s Medal in 2013. She has also been Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University since 2008, a governor of the British Film Institute, a Visiting Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, an Honorary Fellow of Mansfield College, Oxford and a Master of the Bench of Middle Temple. She was awarded the CBE in the 2007 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

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