Let’s not evict human rights: a personal reflection on the defence of rights.

At the current time the UK Government is undertaking a consultation on major proposals to change the provisions of the UK Human Rights Act – a piece of legislation which covers Scotland. The proposed changes are being presented as insignificant, but the reality is the complete opposite, and they should be a matter of concern to anyone concerned with the protection of rights in Scotland.

In his preface to the changes the current Justice Secretary, Dominic Rabb, asserts in passing that there are no plans to depart from the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) but he then states:

‘…our system must strike the proper balance of rights and responsibilities, individual liberty and the public interest, rigorous judicial interpretation, and respect for the authority of elected law-makers…

We make far-reaching proposals for reform, with a particular focus on those quintessentially UK rights, such as freedom of speech and the right to trial by jury.’

All sounding innocent enough and a blatant appeal to a perspective where the essential ‘values’ can be enshrined in a defence of freedom of speech even if the understanding of what that freedom is is frequently absent.

Throughout the narrative of the consultation plays to the crowd and a sceptic if not hostile audience and attempts to dress significant change in the clothes of acceptability.

It states later an aim to:

‘… overhaul the Human Rights Act passed by the then Labour government in 1998 and restore common sense to the application of human rights in the UK.

…The Bill of Rights will protect essential rights, like the right to a fair trial and the right to life, which are a fundamental part of a modern democratic society. But we will reverse the mission creep that has meant human rights law being used for more and more purposes, and often with little regard for the rights of wider society.

I will leave it to commentators far more qualified in the law to describe the detail of the proposals and why they are so concerning. Indeed, in that regard I would strongly recommend you look at the work of the British Institute of Human Rights and their campaign to defend the Act.

I want to, however, reflect on why in 1998 the Human Rights Act was one of the first pieces of the new Labour Government.

Anyone around in the 1980s and 1990s, as I was, would be well aware that if you believed for whatever reason that your human rights were being diminished or broken, abused or removed that the recourse you had open to you was to take a case all the way to Europe. From the women who fought for protection during pregnancy and won statutory support of their employment to the young people who fought to outlaw corporal punishment in our schools – Europe was the seat and source of protection and legal justice. It was a destination both distant and costly – a justice hard won over many long delays and years.

The creation of the Human Rights Act was under the banner ‘Bringing Rights Home.’ That phrase said it all – its essential core purpose was not to change or add to the human rights which were the fruit of the sacrifice of our forebears and which found voice in the UN Convention or the European Convention. No, the gift of the Human Rights Act was to bring those rights close to each of us. The Act made it possible for every citizen who felt the need for protection of their rights to have recourse not to a distant European court but to local courts. It sought to bring justice to your doorstep.

The Human Rights Act was about making human rights meaningful and relevant to every citizen. If you felt aggrieved, you had the potential to fight your case in your own community.

But even more important the Human Rights Act was about changing the way we talked about and used human rights. It was about taking these principles out of the courtroom and making them the conversation of community and relationship. The HRA was about making human rights mean something for the education you receive, the care you were given, the decisions made by your government – it was all about making human to go to relevant and real.

Over the years contrary to what some newspapers and some parts of the media might wish to portray human rights cases were to do with defending people with disabilities or making sure of equal treatment regardless of gender in terms of pensions – much less than prisoners, or foreign terrorists – they were about the issues of living together in modern community.

Now in truth there have been times when they have not achieved what they might have. There have been moments when we have paid lip service to our human rights laws- perhaps most poignantly during the pandemic. That is not the fault of the law but of those who have failed to live up to the higher aspiration and morality that human rights laws hold before ys.

The politicised attempt to diminish our human rights affects everyone for whom access to justice impacts on the care they receive or the life they would live. It impacts on decisions about treatment and medicine, around health and housing, about justice and the environment.

I hope we can all find the voice to keep human rights close to home. We dare not allow others with proposals ostensibly limited to allow the eviction of our human rights from our homes. It’s time to make sure we keep human rights at the centre of our homes. The Human Rights Act is the closest thing I know that makes sense of and roots the promise of the famous words of Eleanor Roosevelt from 1958:

‘Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.’

Donald Macaskill

See also https://www.bihr.org.uk/blog/why-the-human-rights-act-matters-to-me-donald