November 4th was the 70th anniversary of the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in Rome, a milestone on the path to a united Europe following two devastating wars which left millions dead and robbed two generations of its youth. Along with a proposal for the establishment of a European Parliament, the ECHR formed part of the scaffolding necessary to create the conditions for Churchill’s vision of a new era of peaceful co-existence. How tragic then that the modern-day Conservative Party seem hellbent on unravelling the achievements of their greatest ever Prime Minister.
The ECHR is nothing to do with the EU which is why, despite Brexit, we are still party to this powerful human rights safety net, but perhaps not for long if hardline Tories get their way.
The ECHR protects the human rights of people in countries that belong to the Council of Europe, which is a completely different organisation to the EU, with a parliamentary assembly of its own. In Britain our human rights under the ECHR are protected by the 1998 Human Rights Act (HRA) which came into effect on October 2nd 2000, thereby recently celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Through my involvement with Goldsmiths University Law Department as a member of the independent ‘Britain in Europe’ think-tank I joined forces with lawyers, academics, human rights defenders and other progressive politicians to mark both these auspicious anniversaries as part of the Knowing Our Rights project.
Together we contributed to a list of important successes achieved via the HRA including the prohibition of corporal punishment in schools, challenging discrimination on the grounds of disability, sexual orientation and/or gender identity, supporting migrants’ rights and access to basic services such as health and shelter. Contrary to right wing propaganda, the HRA is not anti-British, for example it is responsible for protecting British soldiers through the outlawing of the deployment of inadequate and out of date equipment, and has brought justice to the families of military personnel who lost their loved ones through negligent action on the part of the MOD. Adam Wagner, a human rights lawyer and Visiting Professor at Goldsmiths, highlighted how the HRA has revolutionised the system for investigating deaths, ensuring that state culpability is fully investigated, for example as in the Hillsborough Inquests, adding “unless we learn from our mistakes we are doomed to repeat them”. This continues to ring true in the light of the Grenfell tragedy amongst other things.
The Britain in Europe think tank community initiated a letter to all Conservative MPs and Peers listing these and more achievements, and suggested that instead of threatening to rip up the HRA and withdraw from the ECHR the government should join us in celebrating these momentous anniversaries and promote the remarkable achievements to date.
The attack on our rights can be seen in a global context whereby a plethora of rights are under attack from right wing illiberal governments. However, that this should be happening in 21st century Britain is a shock for many who always thought the UK was less prone to the populist agenda of ‘taking back control’ regardless of the self-harm that might be inflicted and the freedoms and progress that might be undermined. However, as far back as 2015 the Conservative party had pledged to repeal the HRA in its manifesto. The subsequent 2017 manifesto contained a more nuanced commitment, to stay temporarily in the Convention until Brexit was concluded. The 2019 manifesto then promised to “update” the Act, but nobody knows what that means, and nearly everyone working in the field of human rights fears what that could do to our civil liberties. Meanwhile, trust and confidence in the Conservative government’s commitment to uphold the rule of law and adhere to international norms has been seriously compromised with the illegal proroguing of parliament in 2019 and the recent Internal Market Bill which was designed to breach an international legally binding treaty which we had helped to draft and had willingly signed
So with Brexit done, we now witness how the government has begun the process of ‘opting out’ from parts of the ECHR, for example, the Overseas Operations Bill demonstrates how the government is reneging on even the most critical of human rights protections, the absolute prohibition of torture, drawing criticism from many quarters including the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner. There are similar ‘opt out’ plans to deprive asylum seekers from exercising fundamental rights (sidestepping those “activist lawyers” that the Home Office has attempted to vilify), and we can expect many more instances of weakening rights across the board.
Those of us signing the letter to MPs and Peers believe we should cherish the HRA and everything it does for us: giving us dignity, autonomy, equality, freedom of expression, protecting the most vulnerable in our society, safeguarding the humanity in our existence. Many of the lawyers and academics involved in this initiative were also motivated to draft a further letter to the Home Secretary and Prime Minister voicing concern at the political attacks on so-called “activist lawyers” which coincided with a knife incident in a solicitor’s office in London. These attacks on the judiciary and lawyers have been ramping up for some time during the protracted and painful Brexit process with right wing media platforms labelling judges as “traitors” when they were perceived to side with pro-Europeans simply by doing their job and following due legal process.
The letter invited the Home Secretary and Prime Minister to apologise for the hostility they expressed and to refrain from such attacks in the future as they not only endanger the personal safety of lawyers and those working for the justice system but also undermine the rule of law itself. No response has yet been received which is discourteous and sadly unsurprising.
November 4th however was a day for reflection and celebration of 70 years progress in the field of human rights at European level as well as a moment to renew efforts to maintain pressure on the government as it continues its attempts to weaken human rights protections. Britain in Europe founder, Professor Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos organised a day-long virtual celebration with an array of erudite and illustrious speakers including Professor Francesca Klug OBE who was a member of the Government’s Task Force responsible for overseeing the implementation of the HRA.
The celebration was organised in three parts, starting with a look back at the past 70 years to track how the ECHR has positively transformed the lives of individuals and communities in the UK and abroad, followed by an assessment of the present situation and what the ECHR can do for us, why it is under attack and how we can defend it. The final session focussed on the future particularly the role of the law in the age of technology and populism, at a time when European identity is highly contested. I was privileged to be invited to speak in this session where I emphasised the importance of including human rights in a renewed and revamped citizenship education, both in formal and informal settings. I also pointed to the work of various arts and cultural initiatives in promoting human rights such as the forthcoming Ripples of Hope Festival in the North West of England.
Other speakers included Dr Dimitrios Kagiaros from Durham University who spoke about ‘The contribution of the European Court of Human Rights to government transparency and accountability’, an area that becomes more concerning in these days of cronyism and Henry VIII powers. The final words were reserved for Sir Geoffrey Nice QC who led the prosecution against, Slobodan Milošević at the International Criminal Court.
Events such as this which demonstrate the practical application of the law to address discrimination, prevent harm and administer much needed justice for heinous crimes against humanity are beacons of light in otherwise dark days. We should remember that our rights were never given – they had to be fought for and it is our duty to step up to the challenges that confront us. There is so much worth fighting for.