August 17, 2013

Summer is upon us, the months when parliamentarians are off and newspapers are filled with tales of heat waves and Royal babies. But advisers and policy specialists remain busy in Westminster. Come September, the party conference season begins and the main political parties will start to lay out the main messages for their election manifestos.

It's a fair assumption that in the Conservative camp there will be strong calls to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and to scrap the Human Rights Act (which incorporates the convention into domestic law). That was suggested most recently by the prime minister himself, but perhaps most strongly by Home Secretary Theresa May, who is still celebrating the deportation of Abu Qatada to Jordan.

Concerns that Abu Qatada would be tortured or tried using torture-tainted evidence, and the failure of the UK government to pursue prosecution in the UK, turned Abu Qatada's deportation into an eight-year legal struggle. The use of torture-tainted evidence in Jordan (including in Abu Qatada's trial in absentia) prompted the European Court of Human Rights and British courts to block his deportation, since it breached Article 6 of the ECHR the right to a fair trial.

This hold-up was unforgiveable in May's view. Despite having finally secured a victory within the law, she saw it as a 'crazy interpretation' of human rights law that allowed him to stay so long in the first place. She now demands that we 'consider carefully' our relationship with the court, including the possibility of withdrawing altogether from the European Convention on Human Rights.

What is it about the European Court of Human Rights that the home secretary takes such exception to? A European-wide convention and the accompanying European Court of Human Rights were establishedwith British leadership to set high standards on human rights that apply to all, a principle brought into particularly sharp focus following the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Second World War. Such an institution was seen as a way to help safeguard essential liberties for all European citizens. And over the last 50 years, it has proved its worth, protecting and promoting rights for people across 47 countries in Europe.

The court has contributed greatly to ending commonplace torture in custody, in moving towards equal treatment for women, and for lesbian and gay people, and in upholding the freedom of the media among other things. It's a vital form of human rights protection for millions of Europeans, and for many victims of human rights abuse in Europe, it offers the only real chance for justice. It's worth noting that Belarus is currently the only European country not party to the convention, and that the only country to withdraw from it (temporarily) was Greece when it was a military dictatorship.

May is not alone in her criticism of the human rights laws that the UK is obliged to uphold. A fellow cabinet member, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, stated recently that "a future Conservative government with a majority will make wholesale changes to human rights laws". And he isn't referring only to the ECHR. Britain's Human Rights Act comes under similar attack from politicians and journalists alike.

The Human Rights Act makes it easier for those living in the UK to secure their basic liberties through UK courts rather than having to seek redress at the European Court, which can take years, as Abu Qatada's case highlights. The liberties in question include the prohibition of torture and inhuman treatment, free speech and peaceful protest, equal rights under the law, the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. Which of these rights would May and Grayling have us do away with?

Critics of the act argue that it has led to the misinterpretation and distortion of human rights in ways that have brought few if any benefits to ordinary UK citizens, while making it harder to deal with crime, illegal immigration, asylum and terrorism. In fact, the act has brought clear benefits to many ordinary people in the UK. It has been used to secure accommodation for the survivors of domestic violence, to tackle discrimination against homeless people, to prevent degrading practices in psychiatric hospitals and to stop the separation of elderly couples to place them in different residential care homes. It's hardly just a tool for hardened criminals and terrorists.

The increasing hostility towards human rights laws in the UK needs to be challenged. If it creeps into a manifesto, it may then become government -- and not just party -- policy. Seeking to weaken the application of human rights law and the efficacy of the institutions that safeguard human rights in this country and across Europe will impact the most vulnerable members of our society in the most negative and long-lasting way. It will also weaken the credibility of the UK's diplomacy on human rights, and send the worst possible message to friends and foes overseas.