Do we really need to make such a fuss about human rights?

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JEREMY Irons and Vivienne Westwood are just two of the thousands of people who, as part of Amnesty International’s Write for Rights Campaign, have sent messages of solidarity and hope to those in darker corners of the world where human rights are routinely denied or abused.

It’s all in aid of international Human Rights Day and to highlight the plight of people who have dared to make a stand against authority and paid a heavy price. We may like to think that we live in more enlightened and tolerant times, but campaigners point to numerous cases where individuals around the world are still being mistreated. They include two members of the 
punk band Pussy Riot who have been sentenced to serve two years in labour colonies in Russia, and Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer in China who has been imprisoned and tortured for 
his work.

In this country we have a strong tradition of upholding human rights – we were the first country to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950 – and in 1998 Parliament introduced the Human Rights Act which codified the Convention in UK law allowing our courts to enforce it and ensure there was a means of holding government to account.

Professor Gavin Phillipson, of Durham University, says the Human Rights Act remains crucial to Britain. “It is essentially our Bill of Rights and it’s the first time we’ve had a set of rights for everyone. Although it’s not exclusively for this country it sets out our basic rights – things like the right of free speech and the right to protest,” he says.

“The Act respects our constitutional traditions and allows Parliament to have the final say. So although the European court might make a ruling and expect it to be followed it can’t legally force the government to do something – Parliament is still sovereign.” But despite such obvious benefits the phrase “human rights” has become sullied in the eyes of some people who see it as a byword for European meddling. So much so that Tory MP Richard Bacon even tried to get the Human Rights Act scrapped last week.

He said the act had been used by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to influence British law, which he felt was “fundamentally undemocratic.”

Mr Bacon told MPs: “In the end, questions of major social policy – whether on abortion, or capital punishment, or the right to bear firearms, or workers’ rights – should be decided by elected representatives, and not by unelected judges.”

MPs voted against his bill by 195 to 72, but many politicians remain unhappy with an ECHR ruling saying the UK’s blanket ban on prisoner voting is a breach of human rights.

A few years ago the idea of repealing the Human Rights Act would have been unthinkable, and yet now withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is seen by some as a serious possibility. So why is there such hostility not only towards the act but the whole issue of human rights?

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, believes the media is partly to blame.

“‘Human rights’ has become a dirty concept in the minds of lots of people in the UK and that’s hardly surprising given the staggering way that Europe and the act’s powers and purpose are misrepresented. There is so much confusion about human rights in Britain – from Theresa May’s infamous cat blunder, to the idea that the EU is in some way involved in judgements. I really think the onus is on the government to provide some clarity about things,” she says.

“The attempt to scrap the Act was of course comfortably defeated. It is time that all political parties made explicit commitments to the human rights protections featured in the Human Rights Act and that we make moves to challenge untruths about human rights. It’s so often the case that the very newspapers who trash human rights, rely on human rights protections for the right to write whatever they wish.”

Allen says the act is there to protect the weakest and most vulnerable in society. “The rights protected by the Human Rights Act are the least of what every member of our society is owed, simply by virtue of being a human and, contrary to the flack it gets, it’s something to be proud of.

“It is extremely worrying that people in power are proposing cutting back on our claim to any one of them. If we are being told that these basic, timeless rights are going to be attacked, or reduced, then which of them is deemed expendable?”