U.K. citizens up in arms over push to scrap human rights law

And experts say the replacement law would be devestating to civil liberties.

Mar 1, 2020, 8:08 pm*

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Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

At the Conservative Party Conference this week, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to “scrap” the Human Rights Act.

To describe this goal as “controversial” would be an enormous understatement. It’s difficult to imagine a compelling and sane argument against a set of laws that are explicitly designed to protect human rights. However, British tabloids are doing their level best to put a positive spin on this new Conservative Party policy, with a set of headlines that are causing U.K. political Twitter to lose its collective mind.

To understand why there’s any support at all for getting rid of the Human Rights Act, you have to go back to its source: Europe.

The Human Rights Act incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law, and the Conservative Party now argues that the U.K. should have full control over its own laws. If the Conservatives win next year’s general election, they want to replace the Human Rights Act with a new “British Bill of Rights.”

Although the U.K. would technically still be signed on to the ECHR, the government would have veto power over decisions made in human rights cases. Many politicians, legal experts and human rights campaigners are seriously concerned that this could lead to breaches of civil liberties for people in the U.K.

In his speech at the Conservative Party conference, Cameron cited European human rights rulings that “stop us deporting suspected terrorists,” as one of the arguments for distancing the U.K. from the ECHR. “And now,” he added, “they want to give prisoners the vote. No, I’m sorry, I just don’t agree.”

One of the most evocative criticisms of this policy is to point out the other European countries that have rejected the ECHR. Except, the only other country to have actually withdrawn was Greece, back in 1969, while it was under a military dictatorship.

Khazakhstan and Belarus are the only European countries that aren’t currently signed on to the ECHR, with Belarus often labeled as Europe’s last dictatorship. The organization Human Rights Watch describes it as a state that “suppresses virtually all forms of dissent.”

Right now, U.K. social media is flooded with a combination of criticism for this policy, and outright panic about the future of U.K. human rights laws. Amnesty International is strongly critical of the policy, as is Liberty, an influential and long-established human rights advocacy group in the U.K.

The idea of scrapping the Human Rights Act has been floated several times, but it was only at this week’s Conservative Party Conference that it became a fully-fledged part of their pre-election manifesto.

A breakdown of the proposed Bill of British Rights was leaked to the blog Jack of Kent (run by Financial Times legal commentator David Allen Green) on Thursday, precipitating a deluge of early reactions on Twitter. One of the most commonly shared links is to legal analysis blog Head of Legal, which went through the document and highlighted sections that they found to be misleading.

As plenty of commentators have pointed out, the person backing the new Bill of Rights—Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Chris Grayling—has no legal background. In fact, he is the first non-lawyer to hold the post in over 400 years.

Prominent British politician John Prescott commented on Twitter, “Which politician do you trust on human rights? Eminent barrister and Queen’s Counsel Dominic Grieve or ex TV producer Chris Grayling?” Grieve, a Conservative member of parliament and former Attorney General, described the Bill of Rights proposal as “puerile” and “factually inaccurate.”

A typical reaction to this element of the proposed Bill of Rights has already been summed up on one of the Reddit threads discussing the topic: “What the fuck does this mean? If you’re irresponsible you no longer count as human? What the hell are my responsibilities in society and who decides when I’m not fulfilling them?”

Along with the fear that scrapping the HRA could lead to breaches of civil liberties in the U.K. (and elsewhere, since British troops would no longer be subject to European human rights laws overseas), many British journalists are speaking out about how current European human rights laws protect them from government intervention and being forced to reveal their sources. One of the most vocal critics of the Conservatives’ British Bill of Rights is journalist and media law consultant David Banks, @dbanksy on Twitter.

British social media may be on fire with criticism for these new human rights policies, but they wouldn’t have been put forward so publicly if they weren’t supported by some British voters. This issue isn’t something that’s being swept under the rug, it was announced during the Prime Minister’s keynote speech at the Conservative Party conference, in the year before a general election.

In June 2014, British polling company YouGov asked a sample of 2,078 U.K. adults for their opinions on human rights. Some 41 percent supported withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, while only 38 percent supported staying in. And 24 percent agreed that suspected terrorists should not have the right to freedom from torture. Only 58 percent believed in the basic existence of human rights (“rights afforded to people simply by virtue of their humanity,” according to YouGov’s polling question), and 26 percent didn’t believe in the existence of human rights at all.

Broken down by political affiliation, only 50 percent of Conservative voters believed in the basic concept of human rights. In other words, scrapping the Human Rights Act is a relatively reasonable policy for the Conservatives, particularly when coupled with the growing opposition to European influences.

Photo via Department for International Development/Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Oct 3, 2014, 12:32 pm