Britain and the Future of Human Rights

By Issie Sagraves

In 1215, a group of revolutionary English barons met to create a document that would transform the nature of civil liberties. The Magna Carta limited the power of the monarchy in order to advance the rights of the individual, which it accomplished through a series of regulations. Exactly eight centuries later, it seems as if this same issue of individual rights is up for debate. In a sort of birthday present to the Magna Carta, the Conservative U.K. government has announced plans to scrap the Human Rights Act in favor of a British Bill of Rights. By abandoning the Human Rights Act, however, the British government takes a risky gamble, endangering both the integrity of the United Kingdom’s own human rights policy and the operation of the European Human Rights Court as a whole.

The Human Rights Act, signed in 1998, aims to incorporate the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights into the U.K. legal system. The Act has two major elements: it states that British public bodies (such as the courts, police, and NHS) need to abide by the basic human rights set out in the convention, and requires that the judiciary branch take into consideration the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. The Court, based in Strasbourg, hears cases in which a state has breached one or more of the human rights set out in the convention. Through the Human Rights Act, human rights cases presented under the European Convention of Human Rights can be heard in British courts, but the British courts must listen to the rulings of the Strasbourg Court. In essence, the Human Rights Act maintains the authority of this European court throughout the British justice system.

British PM David Cameron has put forward plans to abolish the Human Rights Act in favor of a new British Bill of Rights. David Cameron’s most outspoken objection to the Human Rights Act is the very presence of an international voice in Britain’s justice system: he is opposed to the Strasbourg Court’s power to enforce rulings over the British Supreme Court. Additionally, abolishing the Human Rights Act plays a role as part of Cameron’s greater political plan to make the UK more independent from the European Union and other European political entities (like the European Convention on Human Rights). Other reasons for creating the British Bill of Rights involve Conservative objections to certain demands of the Strasbourg Court, such as prisoners having the right to vote, and deportation cases such as Abu Qatada, who used the provisions under Strasbourg to delay his deportation to Jordan on terrorism charges.

The idea has come under mass criticism from a variety of opponents. Tim Hancock, the director of Amnesty UK, has pointed out the danger of altering the Human Rights Act because it allows politicians the opportunity to change said rights. Hancock asserts, “It’s exasperating to hear the prime minister vow to tear up the Human Rights Act again – so he can draft ‘his own’. Human rights are not in the gift of politicians to give. They must not be made a political plaything to be bestowed or scrapped on a whim.” It is also unclear exactly which rights (if any) would be specifically changed by the proposed British Bill. If no rights are changed, the Bill would be irrelevant. If some human rights are changed, however, this puts in jeopardy the current human rights standard upheld in the U.K., and officials like Hancock are concerned that the standard will deteriorate as rights are removed or altered as decided by the government.

In addition to awarding the government the power to potentially draft a new set of human rights standards, the action would break the formal link between the Strasbourg Court and the British courts. Cameron has two options if he does manage to pass his plans: either he can abolish the HRA – thus decreasing the authority of the Strasbourg Court – and still maintain membership in the European Convention of Human Rights, or he can pull out of the convention altogether. If membership is maintained, people who wanted to bring up human rights cases under the European Convention of Human Rights would have to go to Strasbourg to do so instead of presenting in front of a delegation in Britain, which would be a much more inconvenient and time-consuming process.

If the UK pulled out of the European Convention altogether, scrapping the Human Rights Act could also have serious international repercussions. Dominic Grieve, a Conservative MP and former attorney general, suggests, “Our [Conservative party] intent, if pursued, threatens to make the [European Convention on human rights] inoperable. In order for [the convention] to work, it is dependent on peer group pressure. If the UK will not observe and promote its terms, why should other member states?” The United Kingdom is a world leader, and so its example matters. If it were to get rid of the Human Rights Act, and put in place its own Bill of Rights, other countries with less stable governments (and less of a universal perception of which human rights are necessary) might do the same, with catastrophic consequences for the international upholding of human rights.

It seems clear that abolishing the Human Rights Act presents more problems than it would solve. Human rights are promised to all British citizens and residents without question, something that makes their democratic country so special. Europe is in chaos already, with the refugee crisis and economic problems. It is not the time for a human rights overhaul that would have continental repercussions. Why mess with a system that is, for the most part, working? It’s important to remember that it is not 1215, it is 2015 – and Britain already has a means of balancing governmental power with the rights of the individual without signing a new charter.

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