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If I were Prime Minister: I would make Britain a true champion of human rights

Published in: The Independent

I would champion human rights at home and abroad. The prohibition of torture and inhuman treatment, the right to free speech and peaceful protest, equality before the law, the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial – these are not alien to British values and constitutional traditions. They go to the heart of what it means to call Britain a free society.

So I would strengthen, not scrap, the Human Rights Act and support, not withdraw from, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The Act has brought very real benefits to people living in Britain: preventing the separation of elderly couples, securing accommodation for survivors of domestic violence, and tackling discrimination against the homeless. 

The ECHR - which British lawyers helped create - has greatly advanced human rights across Europe: helping to end torture in custody, promoting equal treatment for women and for gays and lesbians, ending corporal punishment in schools and protecting press freedom.  The suggestion that Britain should ignore rulings from the Court that it doesn’t like would gravely damage the institution and set a dreadful precedent for abusive governments elsewhere in Europe, for example in Russia and Turkey.    

My government would launch a proper judge-led inquiry into British complicity in rendition and torture, and ensure that anyone found responsible is held to account. For how can Britain carry credibility on this issue internationally, if the government refuses to address such devastating allegations about its own conduct?

I would speak up for those courageous men and women struggling for reform and justice in their own societies, at enormous cost to themselves.   People like Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, given a barbaric sentence of 1000 lashes for peaceful criticism, while the current British government fawns before the Saudi leadership that presides over this cruelty.  And I would make sure Britain did its part to provide a safe haven for refugees from Syria and for others fleeing persecution.

I would make the rights of women a central focus of British policy, by ratifying the Council of Europe’s convention on violence against women and domestic violence. It is inexplicable that Britain has still has not ratified this treaty.  And domestic workers, mostly women, need better protection, too. 

There are up to 100 million such workers worldwide, who cook, clean and care for children in private households. But many suffer virtual imprisonment in the home, physical and sexual abuse, and forced labour - slavery in all but name.  I would change British laws to prevent this happening on British soil (as Human Rights Watch has documented) and would press for reforms in other countries, especially the Gulf where these abuses are rife.

I would also put human rights at the heart of this country’s overseas development policy. Too often, British ministers have applauded the economic and development achievements of countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda, while ignoring their incarceration of political opponents and repression of activists and journalists.  Development is best understood as the expansion of people’s freedoms, and not just higher incomes. We should commit to ending tyranny as well as poverty.

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