Tabloid Spin or a Threat to Democracy: Should we continue to support the Human Rights Act?


Now, in an article primarily aimed at trainee lawyers, this does sound like a somewhat rhetorical question, a grandiose gesture of preaching to the converted, what with – I assume – the most resounding answer being a unanimous ‘yes’. However, this does not diminish (to me) the worth of asking such a question.

For many years of my life, I have lived in pleasant secluded bubbles of all shapes and sizes. Before moving to Manchester I lived in a small town in rural Wiltshire where I went to a minor public school well-practised in the business of systematically denying – in the most genteel and polite manner – the last 20 years of British socio-cultural progress; before studying music at Manchester University: three years of existing in the most unashamedly isolationist bubble of them all (and yes I did become involved with student politics). And this is fun. It’s nice to be in nurtured, neutered environments where, to paraphrase Stewert Lee, whether or not we enjoyed ourselves, at least our values were confirmed. This acknowledgment of bubbles is important, as without acknowledging the obvious fact that people often have entrenched, resolute views supported and reinforced by years of existing in similar socio-political circles, no kind of dialogue is possible.

I mention this by way of preamble as it often seems that political debates between individuals are often almost entirely fruitless. Not an earth-shattering observation as I’m sure you will agree, however, it does brings me onto the focus of this piece: how did the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act of 1998 (HRA), which integrated the Convention Rights into UK domestic law, become so widely unpopular? When did this overriding concept of ‘Human Rights’ become associated with an un-democratic, overly-bureaucratized muddling process that primarily serves the bad of society – hook-hands and all – at the expense of tax payers? How did it become a dirty innuendo, a chauvinistic short-hand for a technocratic tendency to support criminals and terrorists rather than punish them? Worryingly, from my Guardianista perspective, this derided, pejorative view of human rights does seem to be endemic within wide sections of our society. And I mention all this as there seems to be an ominous dearth of vocal supporters of this Act and of Human Rights as a legalistic and as a humanitarian concept. And I find this troubling.
Boo hoo indeed. However let me briefly outline the reasons why I am a supporter of the HRA and human rights themselves.

The HRA enshrined and upheld within our UK domestic law the rights and freedoms expressed in the ECHR, rights which had previously only been available to UK citizens at great cost and expense what with the judicial arm of the Convention, the European Court of Human Rights, (ECtHR) being one sole over-subscribed body representing hundreds of millions of European citizens. These rights include the right to life, to a fair legal system, to liberty and security, to privacy, to expression, and likewise prohibitions against torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and servitude. All, as I think the vast majority of British citizens – from your outraged right-winger to your privilege-checking leftie – would agree are ‘good things’ in the broadest and least qualified sense of the term.

So if the basis of the HRA are these rights, what are the accusations levelled at it? The main focus of the hostility directed towards this Act and the ECtHR (the latter often confused, wilfully one suspects, in the tabloid press with the entirely separate body of the European Union, with all the associated Eurosceptic ire this implies), seems to be twofold. One, that the HRA allows the excessive protection of criminals under the Articles of the ECHR, and; two, that the process initiated with the HRA undermines UK democracy and sovereignty, allowing Strasbourg back-door control over our internal affairs in a way that is fundamentally un-British and autocratic.

Is there any validity to these accusations? In response to the first argument it is worth making the initial basic point that the concept of human rights, if it is to be ontologically sound, must apply to all humans (criminals included) within the countries’ jurisdiction. Likewise, the definition of ‘criminal’ is, to an extent, a variable and societal based one; hence removing absolute protection in the form of inalieanable rights from certain portions of society leave others potentially threatened by future subsequent erosions. Furthermore, I would argue a society should be judged in how civilized it is by how it treats its least civilized members. Applying this principle to the bête noire tabloid-baiting case of Abu Qatada it is worth remembering that although most likely a dangerous and unpleasant man, the human rights issue of his case revolved around the likelihood of his deportation resulting in torture, this nullifying the principle of a fair trial and any evidence he may have given. And surely this, i.e. the prevention of evidence obtained via deportation and torture, is again, a good thing.

The more substantial argument is the one concerned with the subversion of Parliamentary sovereignty. It is undeniably true that the passing of the HRA does limit Parliament’s power. However, this was in itself a Parliamentary act of integrating Convention law into ours; not any kind of struggle between domestic and international law. Conversely perhaps, I also do not view active limitation of our Parliament’s power necessarily a bad thing as our political system is, theoretically at least, somewhat suspect; what with the lack of proportional representation, the partisan nature of the political parties, and the fact we are a constitutional monarchy with the Government itself sitting in the House of Commons possessing the clear capacity of to entirely control both drafting and implementing laws. Despite a long history of civil liberties in this country – from the Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights to landmark cases such as Entick v Carrington – I would argue that the rights the HRA implements gives us an important degree of legalistic autonomy away from the heckling, point-scoring, and tabloid appeasing politics of the Commons. We need this act, as draconian counter-terrorism legislation of the early 2000s, increased police powers, and cuts in legal aid, to mention a few contemporary examples, prove.
To summarise, there appears to be a current political consensus in much of mainstream politics to actively distance themselves from the influence of Europe, of which the HRA and even the concept of human rights itself, are seen as tainted by. The phrase ‘human rights’ has become a tabloid snort-inducer, a dartboard to which various accusations, innuendos, and increasingly far-fetched claims are flung at it; and thus in turn, criticising ‘human rights’ can seem to be a potential vote-winner, an electoral target that the UKIP-spooked Tories seem to be engaged with. And this right-wing obsession is sinking into the public consciousness in a way that appears, to me, to be largely unchallenged. So, if you do support the notion of human rights: Be proud. Be open in your admiration and vocal in your reasons behind being so. Challenge misconceptions and unfounded notions and be confident in your support. And abandon the notion of universal human rights, as protected under domestic law, at your peril.

By Josh Dawson


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