Reclaiming the Human Rights Debate in the UK

Emma Hutton is Human Rights Programme Director for The Equality and Diversity Forum (EDF), a national network of NGOs committed to making equality, human rights and social justice a reality for all.

There’s a certain irony to my plans for December 10—International Human Rights Day. In the evening, it will be my pleasure to join the UK’s Foreign Office for the London launch of the UK’s bid to join the UN Human Rights Council—demonstrating the UK’s commitment to worldwide human rights. However, I will spend the bigger part of the day working with colleagues from across the UK who are deeply concerned about the threats to our human rights here at home.

Unfortunately, the human rights brand in the UK has become toxic. The Human Rights Act, barely a decade old, is under threat of repeal, and human rights “bashing” is a popular political and media sport. Discussions about withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights—once unthinkable—have become mainstream. Unpicking our human rights laws is likely to feature as a key battleground for debate in the 2015 Westminster elections.

Our NGO network works with and for millions of people—older people, children and young people, women and girls, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, cancer patients, disabled people, people with mental health problems, refugees and migrants, and others. We see the benefits of human rights principles and laws for them and want to make sure that the UK does not sleepwalk into unpicking human rights protections that create a basic safety net for us all. Thanks to funding from the Open Society Foundation and from the Thomas Paine Initiative we have been developing a new campaign to take the human rights debate in a more positive direction.

The debate about human rights laws in the UK may not seem worth worrying about compared to the huge and horrifying human rights challenges faced in other countries around the world, but there are two important reasons why it matters. First, human rights laws in the UK are signals to other countries whose records on human rights leave much to be desired. Two, we must also remember that people’s rights in the UK are not always respected in practice.

Whether it’s older people being subjected to physical abuse or degrading treatment in their homes by care providers; the physical abuse of severely learning disabled people in care homes; asylum seekers and refugees suffering destitution as a result of state policies; thousands of people being trafficked into the UK each year; or the 24,000 girls thought to be at risk of female genital mutilation each year (and more), there is clearly no room for complacency.

We believe that instead of debating whether and how to unpick our human rights laws, the focus of debate in the UK should be making rights real for more people, both at home and abroad. So what can we do about it?

Last year, as a starting point, the Equality and Diversity Forum (EDF) commissioned detailed research to help us develop our response to the challenges. We wanted to know whether the public and political debate around human rights reflected the reality of public opinion, what drives and influences people’s attitudes towards human rights, and what we are best-placed to do, as a network of respected organizations with a wide-ranging reach into public audiences.

Some of the detailed findings of the research will be published in 2013, but in brief, the research shows that public attitudes are far more complex than the current tone of public debate would suggest. Three key findings stand out for us.

First, media coverage of human rights is strongly skewed in a negative direction, giving the impression that most people hold negative attitudes. In reality, committed supporters and strong opponents of human rights and human rights laws are almost exactly equal in number.

Second, a large group—around four in ten—swing between holding positive and negative attitudes about human rights and human rights laws. Their attitudes vary depending on how relevant they feel human rights are to their daily lives and how much they perceive human rights to be about fair treatment and due process.

Third, this group of “waverers” places far more trust in “unusual” spokespeople than it does in traditional human rights campaigners and advocates. Authority figures like former soldiers or police officers and people perceived as “ordinary” were far more trusted to talk about human rights.

In thinking about how best to take forward a collective campaign to build public support for human rights, we have been heavily influenced by US NGO, The Opportunity Agenda, which frames human rights messages in ways that resonate with the wider public and not just those who are already on board. We have been fortunate to benefit from their experience in formulating our own plans.

So, what’s next? We will be launching a new campaign in spring 2013 to highlight the everyday reality of human rights—good and bad—for people up and down the UK. Fronted by several of our member organizations and underpinned by a central communications “hub,” our campaign will show how human rights are a vital safety net to protect us all. By focusing on how human rights are part and parcel of everyday life, our aim is to shift the center of gravity of public debate away from attacking our human rights laws and towards asking how we can best make rights real for everyone, everywhere, every day.  

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It may be worth considering that the erosion of seniority may be a contributor and that may be why retirees are considered more valued than present day active members in policy and enforcement (if I read correctly); it may be worth reinforcing this trend, the tendency of youngsters to be "wowed" by "progressive advances" in "formerly insoluble" problems by new drugs, new technologies and so forth has a disturbing undertone of naivete in the assertion of authorities untempered by experience. Forming retirees syndicates and giving them a "voice" in magazine outlets concerning the ethics of their retired professions and providing the workforces with free digital ditribution as well as discounted trades subscriptions to hardcopy print periodicals in which they have a say and weigh in on ethics issues nuances formed by new technologies with respect to bringing their past experiences of mistakes made might be useful in tempering the overenthusiastic jettisoning of authorities' custodial trustees obligate voices.

The HRA 1998 did not incorporate A.13, which is about devolved appeals within national institutions and laws, a subsidiarity provision indeed. The reasons for non-incorporation? I can't think it's about the supremacy of Parliament, as any form of subsidiarity would enhance that not diminish it.

A65 deals with the denouncing of the Convention - that's the legal term. It's worth noting it states that any cases brought relating to the period prior to the date of denunciation would still be valid before the Commission and the Court.

Any campaign ought to highlight those issues - one course would be to seek an amendment to the HRA to incorporate A13 on the grounds that this would mean most cases now taken to the ECourtHR would be settled in a UK institution based on the EConvention HR but determined here.

Maybe a short draft Bill to friendly MPs?

In determining whether a case submitted by a non-State Party to the Convention (i.e. on behalf of an individual) the Commission would then have to take on board whether or not the domestic A13 remedies have been availed of.

What institutions might satisfy the A13 requirement for a tribunal? Well, a specific institution might be created but adaptation of e.g. High Court upwards surely would be another route? After all, it is at these levels that the current power of issuing a Certificate of Incompatibility exists.

A judgment in the A13 tribunal might well complement or supplant a Certificate which seems to me to be a device based on Parliamentary supremacy argument but which avoids the A13 tribunal requirement.

Yes, it says, the law which exists is the law, so the person may be so judged, but the judge says the law is not compatible with the ECHR A-12 and 14 and sends off the certificate at which point the responsible Minister is obliged to inform Parliament - who then may consider change(s) to said law, if any. Convoluted, it took them 50 years to knock that up, but there we stand.

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