Politicians urged to recognise vital protections in the UK's Human Rights Act
Freedom from Torture, with a group of other leading human rights organisations, has today written to the UK's main political party leaders to urge them to promote a true and genuine understanding of human rights and to defend the Human Rights Act – a piece of legislation containing vital protections of human rights and freedoms, which is all too often vilified by powerful voices in some media and political circles.
The Commission on a Bill of Rights was established earlier this year to investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights meant to build on all of the UK's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR); however, Freedom from Torture is deeply concerned that this is the beginning of a process to repeal the Human Rights Act and curtail the protection of human rights in the UK.
The NGOs' letter to party leaders, published today in the Times newspaper, sets out how "for countless people up and down this country the Human Rights Act protects them from violence, abuse and neglect, and ensures fair treatment. In short the Human Rights Act makes sure we are all treated with basic dignity and respect." For the survivors of torture with whom Freedom from Torture works, most of whom have arrived in the UK as asylum seekers fleeing grave human rights abuses around the world, the protections enshrined in the Act enable them to begin to rebuild their lives in safety, without having to face the prospect of further torture.
Freedom from Torture is concerned that any meddling with the Human Rights Act could carry with it a risk that the application of the absolute ban on torture may be diluted in practice to allow the government to send people to countries where there is a real risk of torture (as prohibited under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights) and that other rights crucial to torture survivors' efforts to rebuild their lives also enshrined in the Human Rights Act, such as the right to private and family life, marriage, not to be arbitrarily detained and not to be discriminated against will be diluted.
Suggestions that the UK needs a new Bill of Rights appear to be driven by a political agenda within parts of government to curtail the protection of human rights in the UK. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, made this clear during the autumn Conservative Party conference when – despite the fact that an independent Commission on a Bill of Rights has been created to examine these issues – she used her speech to argue that the Human Rights Act 'has to go' and announced changes to the Immigration Rules to ensure that the right to respect for private and family life (protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights) 'no longer prevents the deportation of people who shouldn't be here'. The now notorious example Theresa May cited of the illegal immigrant who could not be deported because 'he had a pet cat' is illustrative of the problem that the agenda to scrap the Human Rights Act rests on an edifice of myths. As a spokesman for the Judicial Office at the Royal Courts of Justice publicly confirmed soon afterwards, the case was misrepresented because the judgment in question had not turned on the existence of a pet cat.
This distortion by the Home Secretary is merely the latest in a long line of myths that dominate public discourse about the Human Rights Act.
Rather than going down the complicated road of creating new constitutional legislation in a Bill of Rights, politicians should focus on creating a programme of public education about the Human Rights Act so that there is better understanding across the board of the rights it enshrines and the mechanisms it uses – including the crucial duty on public authorities to act compatibly with human rights – to ensure fundamental human rights and freedoms are observed in practice and a culture of respect for human rights can be further developed in the UK.
Let's hope our political leaders sit up and take notice on International Human Rights Day.
Freedom from Torture has responded to the UK government's consultation on the Bill of Rights: read more about the vital protections for torture survivors within the Human Rights Act which could stand to be diluted.