Safeguarding Human Rights Act essential for protecting torture survivors

Today, the government-appointed Commission on the Bill of Rights – established to investigate whether the Human Rights Act should be superseded by a new UK Bill of Rights – confirmed in a long-awaited report that consensus could not be reached.

Freedom from Torture is deeply concerned that any new legislation may prove the beginning of a process to repeal the Human Rights Act and curtail the protection of human rights in the UK.

The Human Rights Act protects people from indifference, violence, abuse, neglect and misuse of power; giving legal backing to values of dignity, respect and fairness. These vital protections must remain part of our law - the Human Rights Act is the bottom line for human rights protection in the UK.

For survivors of torture, most of whom have arrived in the UK as asylum seekers, the Act is a basis of protection against forcible return to torture and enables them to begin to rebuild their lives in safety.

Freedom from Torture is concerned alterations to the Human Rights Act may lead to the application of the absolute ban on torture under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights being diluted. This would potentially permit the government to return survivors to countries where torture remains a very real, and very likely, threat.

The right to respect for private and family life (Article 8) is an important source of protection for torture survivors in the UK, including as a basis for remaining in the UK where there are family or other strong personal ties here, or because the survivor's right to psychological integrity as an aspect of 'private life' requires access to torture rehabilitation services that are not available in their country of origin.

Other rights protected by the Human Rights Act that are crucial for torture survivors' efforts to rebuild their lives in the UK include the right not to be arbitrarily detained, the right to marry (Article 12) and the right not to be discriminated against in the enjoyment of Convention rights (Article 14). It is imperative that none of these rights are diluted in any way.

Suggestions the UK needs a new Bill of Rights appear to be driven by a political agenda within parts of the government to curtail the protection of human rights in the UK. Freedom from Torture has seen at close range the damaging impact of public attacks on the Human Rights Act, including by cabinet ministers and other senior politicians, on the confidence and sense of safety of our clients.

Freedom from Torture is determined to safeguard the existing Act. We fear any attempt to replace it with a UK Bill of Rights would be used as political cover for removing the country from the European Convention on Human Rights.

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 there is better understanding across the board of the rights it enshrines and the mechanisms it uses.

Freedom from Torture responded to the UK government's consultation on the Bill of Rights in December 2011: To find out more read the Bill of Rights submission.