Time to act to save the Human Rights Act

My proudest moment as a Labour voter and activist is when I think of Labour's implementation of the Human Rights Act

The European Convention on Human rights (ECHR) was drafted in the wake of the atrocities committed during the Second World War with the intention of preventing future such events from taking place. It was written mainly by British experts and the United Kingdom was the first to sign up to the international treaty in 1951. The European Court of Human Rights (ECTHR) serves a protector of the ECHR. The Human Rights Act, which was passed by Labour in 1998, is a piece of national legislation which protects our fundamental human rights and enshrines most of the rights from the ECHR into domestic law. The Act improves law making as it preserves the compatibility of human rights with all new proposed domestic legislation, allows us to seek justice from courts based in the UK rather than travelling to Strasbourg, embeds our rights into state decisions and promotes the UK's sovereignty.

Above all, the Human Rights Act offers dignity to each individual. As a young gay man living in London, I take for granted the campaigns previously fought by LGBT activists. There was a time when the UK High Court and Court of Appeal ruled that the decision to discharge a gay man serving in the Royal Navy was lawful. In the case Smith and Grady vs United Kingdom (1999), the European Court of Human Rights unanimously found this discharge to be in breach with their right to a private life. The armed forces later withdrew their ban on gay people serving in the military. It is widely expected that a British Bill of Rights will sever our tie with the European Court of Human Rights and give the UK's courts seniority over Strasbourg. Without the ECTHR, there's no guarantee that I would now be able to serve in the armed forces. We must never become complacent. Society's minorities and most vulnerable are constantly changing

The state and its institutions are made up of people. People are fallible and the Act allows citizens to hold the state to account. Without the Human Rights Act, there would not have been a new inquest into the Hillsborough disaster. Without Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which was incorporated into the Human Rights Act, there would be no justice for the 96 victims of the disaster and their families. The Hillsborough campaign is a testament to how the Act allows citizens to challenge the verdicts of state institutions and gain justice

The Tories argue that the European Convention of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights reduce our government's sovereignty and hinders democratic accountability. One could argue the opposite as we have more influence selecting the ECTHR's judges than we do over the judges who sit in the UK's courts. The judges who are appointed to the ECTHR are appointed by our own MP's as each member state nominates its own judge. Whereas judges to the UK's courts are independently appointed and thus our MPs have more power appointing judges to the European Courts than our own. If you had recently read about the ECTHR in the tabloids, you would be forgiven for thinking that there are thousands of terrorists and other criminals waiting to be deported from the UK as the European Court of Human Rights block their expulsion. In fact, according to Amnesty International, the Court throws out the majority of appeals against expulsion from the UK. In 2013, the Court ruled against expulsion in one single case out of 368

The plan to replace the Act with a British Bill of Rights and reduce our commitment to the European Court of Human Rights will send a dangerous message to the international community and damage the UK's credibility abroad particularly to those countries who regularly breach the conventions. When the UK refused to implement Strasbourg's ruling against a blanket ban on prisoner voting, a clear precedent was set. It didn't take long for Putin to pass a law allowing the Russian constitution to surpass the convention. How can we honestly call for Guantanamo to be closed or for anti-homosexuality laws in Africa to be overturned when our own house is far from in order

During last week's state opening of parliament, the Queen's speech included a somewhat non-committal proposal to bring forward the repeal of the Act and its replacement with the British Bill of Rights. The Bill's details are few and far between and it is likely that the first step will be a consultation before finding out more details after the EU referendum. The repeal of the Act could serve as a useful political tool for Cameron after June 23rd in his attempts to unite a divided Tory party. Furthermore, days after the Hillsborough inquest's verdict, Theresa May argued, in a bid to reach out to Eurosceptics in her own party, that we should leave the European Convention of Human Rights all together irrespective of the result of June's referendum. Some of the UK's most senior politicians are happy to jeopardise our fundamental rights for their own political gain

The media regularly cite and distort headline grabbing cases as part of a continued attack on both the Act and the European Court of Human Rights. The Left has been reduced to a state of perpetual defence. As progressives, we must not only expose the misrepresentations, rebuke the misunderstandings but also celebrate a piece of legislation which protects some of society's most vulnerable when the state acts unlawfully. The repeal of the Act will almost certainly reduce human rights protections in the UK, will limit who can rely on rights and will reduce our standing in the international community. This one piece of legislation universally bestows upon us our fundamental human rights. It saddens me to write but we must now act to defend it.

 

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