Sunday 10 May 2015

UK SOS! Our human rights are under attack


'Among Michael Gove's first tasks will be to scrap Labour's Human Rights Act' - The Telegraph

Michael Gove has been appointed 'Justice Secretary' and 'Lord Chancellor' to see through the new Conservative government's manifesto pledge to scrap the Human Rights Act; introduce a new UK Bill of Rights, and sever links with the European Court of Human Rights.

Law Society president Andrew Caplen responded yesterday:
'The Human Rights Act is a fundamental safeguard of many of our basic rights and freedoms.  We will be pressing for the government to retain it.'
Page 45 of the Conservative manifesto stated that in government they would:
"Undertake radical reform of human rights laws and publish a detailed plan for reform that a Conservative government would implement immediately: we will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act, curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights in the UK and make certain that the UK’s Supreme Court is in Britain and not in Strasbourg."
Is the new Conservative government about to abandon the peace-time legacy of its greatest leader, Winston Churchill?

It was Winston Churchill who in 1948 advocated a European 'Charter of Human Rights' in direct response to the abject horrors of the Nazi regime and the Second World War. British lawyers drafted what was later to become the European Convention. The UK was the first country to sign up to the Convention, and leaving it would end over 60 years of being legally bound by this first international treaty on Human Rights.   

Including Britain, there are 47 countries that have agreed to the Convention, which provides civil and political rights for all citizens.  Soon the European Union itself is destined to become the 48th signatory to the Convention. 

Under the Convention, individuals, or groups of people, or one or more countries, can appeal to the international 'European Court of Human Rights' in Strasbourg, France, to give judgments or advisory opinions on alleged breaches of civic and political rights by nation states. From 2000, the Labour government brought into law the Human Rights Act. This allows alleged breaches of the Convention to be heard in UK courts, but still retaining the right to appeal to the higher international court in Strasbourg.  

Although the European Convention on Human Rights is completely separate to the European Union, signing up to the Convention and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights is one of the EU membership requirements.   Article 6(3) of the Treaty on European Union states: 
“Fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and as they result from the constitutional traditions common to the Member States, shall constitute general principles of the Union’s law.”
In answer to a question in the European Parliament, the European Commission stated:
"The rights secured by the Convention are among the rights guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. In the negotiations for the accession of new Union members, respect for the Convention and the case‑law of the European Court of Human Rights is treated as part of the Union acquis."
If Britain withdraws from the Convention and the jurisdiction of its court, will it mean that Britain will have to leave the European Union without even needing to have a referendum? 

In addition, Britain's withdrawal from the European Convention could put at risk the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland, and the devolved legislatures of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  That's because the Human Rights Act formed an integral part of the peace agreement in Northern Ireland and the devolution agreements of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

Commented constitutional law expert, Colm O’Cinneide:
“Tampering with the status of Convention rights in UK law may appease some Europhobic voters, but it risks opening up some serious constitutional fractures."
These are issues that will be considered and challenged by lawyers, lawmakers and human rights groups in the weeks and months to come.  

According to a review of the proposed policy by Full Fact - an independent fact-checking organisation - the aim of the new government is not to curtail the rights of British citizens (which will remain largely the same), but to restrict who is protected by them and who has the final say on whether they have been breached (i.e. no referral to the international court in Strasbourg)

The cat's out..

It was Theresa May who, back in 2011, erroneously claimed that an 'illegal immigrant' had won the right under the Human Rights Act to stay in the UK because he had a pet cat. 

At the time, fellow Tory, Ken Clarke, then UK Justice Secretary, felt the need to speak out against the claim, which he called 'laughable and childlike'.  An official from the Royal Courts of Justice confirmed that a cat had nothing to do with the case. 

 Even though the story wasn't true, it seemed to suit Ms May's attempts to belittle the Human Rights Act.

As reported by the Independent newspaper, Ms May as Home Secretary in the Conservative /LibDem coalition, asserted her objections against the rights of foreign criminals and illegal immigrants, and promised that their rights would be reduced and the Human Rights Act scrapped.

But isn't the point of Human Rights that they should give equal rights to all humans; to you and to me; even to criminals and foreigners, and even to those humans we do not like? 

Once we take basic rights away from one human, we start to erode the basic protections for all humans.  That’s why Human Rights need to be international and universal, so that all humans can be protected, even from their own government.  

Who’s going to protect us from our government if the international European Convention on Human Rights is replaced with a watered down national Bill of Rights, with no right of appeal to the international court?   

Although full details of the proposed Conservative 'Bill of Rights' and new immigration laws haven't yet been provided, Ms May had previously promised that foreign prisoners and 'illegal immigrants' would in future only be able to appeal against deportation after they have been deported. (See The Guardian report: 'Tory immigration bill to curb right of appeal against deportation' 

THAT CAT STORY... click the arrow to view

See also Telegraph report: 'Ken Clarke adamant Tories must not pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights' 

So why are some (but not all) Conservatives so against the European Convention on Human Rights?  

They claim it's because the Human Rights Act, and in particular Article 8 - giving citizens the 'right' to respect for a private and family life - prevents the UK government from deporting foreign criminals.  But is that strictly or absolutely true?   

And also, aren't foreigners and criminals also human, and so don't they also have rights?

Article 8 might appear to provide a ‘right’ for foreign criminals to stay in the UK, but in realty this ’right’ is only upheld in ‘exceptional' cases.

For example, in 2010, 5,235 foreign national criminals were deported from the UK, but according to the Court Service, only 102 won appeals to stay here because of Article 8. That’s just 2% of deportations. The vast majority of appeals by foreign criminals to avoid deportation fail.

Human rights need to be properly understood

The Article 8 ‘right to private life’ can be overridden in the interests of national security; public safety; the economic well-being of the country; the prevention of disorder or crime; the protection of health or morals, and the protection and freedoms of others. In other words, Article 8 does not guarantee a right of a foreign criminal to stay in this country. 

It should also be understood that the Human Rights Act doesn't prevent criminals from being correctly prosecuted, or imprisoned if they are found to be guilty. So, either our judiciary is not properly interpreting the Human Rights Act, or else these cases are not being properly, or fully, reported in the media, or by some politicians. 

Those who understand why it was essential to establish Human Rights conventions after the Second World War will surely not want to see them diluted or undermined. We need to ensure that Human Rights are properly understood, and legitimately interpreted and upheld. 

If the UK government breached your Human Rights, wouldn't it be safer to have the right to ultimately appeal to an international court – as we can now – rather than only to a UK national court, which is what the Conservatives in the UK government are now proposing?

The case of Abu Qatada

The reason most quoted by Theresa May for wanting to scrap the UK's Human Rights Act is the case of radical Islamic cleric, Abu Qatada.  

For many years the UK government repeatedly tried, and failed, to deport him back to his home country of Jordan, where he was wanted on alleged charges of terrorism.   Qatada kept appealing against deportation under the Human Rights Act, and he kept winning, costing the UK government almost £2 million in legal fees and huge frustration.  

The fury shared with the nation about the government's inability to 'get rid of  him' put the issue of 'Human Rights' into a bad light.  It wasn't the government's fault that they couldn't dispatch Qatada from the country, argued Theresa May, no; it was all the fault of Human Rights. If only we didn't have those dreadful Human Rights, we could have sent Qatada - and loads of other disliked people - packing from the country in an instant. 

Well the story of Abu Qatada is probably one of the most poorly reported in some of our media and by some of our politicians.  

At the outset, let me make perfectly clear that I am not a fan or supporter of Abu Qatada. Not at all. But the true reasons it took so long to deport him do need to be better understood.

Under the Human Rights Act, every one, every human, has the right to a fair trial, without the use of discriminating evidence that has been obtained through torture.

Would you expect anything less for yourself? If someone under torture made statements that you had committed a heinous crime, would you consider that evidence against you to be safe or fair? Would you be willing to be extradited to another country, or even deported back to your home country, based on such accusations against you that had been obtained under torture?

Article 3 of the Human Rights Act contains an absolute prohibition of torture. Article 6 of the Human Rights Act guarantees the right to a fair trial.  Aren't these basic rights that all of us should have? If these rights can be taken away from one human, why wouldn't you worry that they could also be taken away from you? The only way for all of us to feel fully protected under Human Rights laws is to know that they equally apply to all humans, without any exceptions.

Under Human Rights law, the courts could not allow the deportation of Abu Qatada to Jordan whilst there was any possibility that the evidence against him was obtained through torture, and that he himself might be subject to torture. Eventually after many months of complicated negotiations, the UK government reached a binding treaty agreement with Jordan, that any evidence derived from torture would be disallowed. And then, guess what? Abu Qatada flew back to Jordan voluntarily, without any need to deport him. 

So the question surely to ask is: why did the UK government keep trying to deport Abu Qatada if they knew that such a deportation could not be allowed when evidence against him might have been obtained through torture? And why didn't the UK government try to achieve a treaty agreement with Jordan many years earlier, allowing Abu Qatada to be deported and stand trial considerably sooner? It could have saved the British taxpayer a fortune.

Also see; 'A brief summary of the Abu Qatada case: why did his deportation cause such a stir?'

● 'The next Conservative Manifesto will promise to scrap the Human Rights Act' - Theresa May, UK Home Secretary, Conservative Party Conference, Manchester, 1 October 2013. Click arrow to watch clip. 

Following the speech by Ms May, The Telegraph reported that fellow government cabinet Minister Ken Clarke, '.. is understood to believe that the failure to deport foreign criminals and terror suspects such as Qatada more quickly has been due to Home Office incompetence, rather than any flaw in human rights laws.'  Ken Clarke is a leading Conservative (but not the only one) who is 'adamant' that Britain should not scrap the Human Rights Act

Under suspicion by the State

Recently The Telegraph reported the case of a '33 year-old terror suspect', known only as 'AF', who is taking his case to the European Court in Strasbourg for alleged breaches of his Human Rights by the UK government.

AF lives in Manchester with his father and is suspected by MI5, the UK's intelligence service, to be linked to a Libyan terrorist  group.  Subsequently he was put on a curfew 'control order' for many years and his movements restricted.  'AF' has never been on trial and he and his lawyer have not been allowed to see any evidence against him, as the UK government claims it's too 'sensitive'.

'AF' denied the allegations against him and claimed that his association with a  'family friend' was completely innocent.  He is appealing to the European Court of Human Rights claiming that the control order restricted his right to liberty under article 5. He also claims that the secret decisions against him restricted his right to a fair hearing under article 6.

However, The Telegraph reported that his case adds 'yet more weight' for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.  

Conservative MP, Priti Patel, was quoted as saying, 'The sooner we start to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and challenge the judges in Strasbourg the better..'   Readers to the Telegraph comments section agreed, with '1grizzly' commenting, 'Just chuck him out and to hell with Strasbourg' and 'Cargill55' stating, 'It's about time Britain ended its ECHR membership and repealed the HRA'.

I commented, 'Isn't anyone worried that the state can accuse and punish someone simply on the basis of "a suspicion" and without letting the accused or his lawyers know the evidence behind that suspicion?'

Of course, it’s essential that we are protected from those who put us at risk of terrorism or criminality, and for those convicted to be dealt with accordingly.   But our parents, grandparents and great grandparents fought hard for us to be protected from unsubstantiated accusations by the State, and for the right to a ‘fair and full trial’ where allegations can be properly examined and tested. 

We were one of the first countries to sign up to the European Convention on Human Rights when it came into force exactly 60 years ago.  Now the new Conservative government is determined to abolish the Human Rights Act and our commitment to the Convention will be discarded, along with our right to take cases to the European Court of Human Rights.  

Are we sure?  Why is the Convention such a problem for us, and not the other 46 countries who have also signed up to it?

Put it this way: would you be happy to be accused of a serious crime, without being told the basis or evidence behind that accusation?  Would you be happy to be punished for a crime for which you hadn't been tried or convicted?  Can you truly say you trust all past and future British governments unconditionally, and that you’re happy to abandon the right to have our governments alleged breaches of civil rights ultimately challenged and tested in an international court? 

The domino effect of Britain walking away from the world's first international legislation to protect citizens from state abuse could be devastating. If we are going to say we won't be subject to the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights then what message does this send to other countries with far worse human rights records than our government? 

What if Russia, a country that has a terrible human rights record, now decides to follow in our footsteps; withdraw from the European Convention, say it will not recognise the rulings of the European Court, and say human rights abuses by the Russian government can only be heard in a Russian court? 

Our political masters should think very carefully before throwing away precious rights that could result in real human suffering across the world.  It's essential to speak up against any erosion of human rights that people died to win for us.

Human rights for British citizens

The Human Rights Act has been essential to help British citizens. For example:

  • The Human Rights Act has brought to account UK police for failing to investigate human trafficking and rape cases.
  • Thanks to the Human Rights Act, UK law was changed to prevent rape victims from being cross-examined by their attacker.
  • It’s because of the Human Rights Act that the right was established in the UK for an independent investigation to take place following a death in prison.
  • Human rights laws have also helped patients to gain access to life-saving drugs and held hospitals to account when failures in mental-health care has directly led to suicide.
  • In the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal, 100 claims were made invoking the Human Rights Act claiming that gross or degrading treatment of patients, mostly elderly, had caused or hastened their deaths.
  • Human Rights laws have also helped to establish that failing to properly equip British soldiers when on active duty abroad was a breach of their human rights.

And these are just some examples. There are many other cases where British people have needed our Human Rights Act to protect them against the excesses or failures of the State. 

Would these or similar cases have prevailed without our Human Rights Act? I certainly don't think they would have got anywhere under the old 1689 Bill of Rights, or under the Conservative's proposed new 'Bill of Rights' if there is no ultimate right to refer to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg when our state courts fail to deliver justice (as sometimes we know they can).

Why are Human Rights so important to me?

I take Human Rights issues very seriously. Those in the media and politics who try to flippantly - and wrongly - claim that foreigners have the right to stay here under Human Rights laws because, for example, they have a pet cat, do a great disservice to the life-and-death issues that Human Rights really are all about.
My father escaped the Nazis to seek asylum in the UK

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has a bad press in Britain, but for thousands of desperate people it is their last shot at justice.

I am the son of an asylum seeker. If Britain hadn't permitted my father into the country, as he almost wasn't, he would have faced certain death, along with his parents - my grandparents - who couldn't get out and didn't survive.   As a teenager he managed to escape the tyranny of the Nazis to seek asylum in the UK, and went on to join the RAF to help our war effort, and later became a naturalised British citizen.  

Human Rights are too precious to demean or degrade. In this world, we need Human Rights more than ever.  And we need Britain, a country historically famous for its liberal and compassionate values, to be leading the way in promoting and upholding international conventions on Human Rights.  We should not be withdrawing from them as if they are of little value or consequence.

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• Related article by Jon Danzig for British Influence.  Click to read. 

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  1. Roger Casale, New Europeans1 October 2013 at 20:55

    It is a very strange politician whichever the party who wakes up in the morning thinking about which rights they can deny people today. Most people I know who went into politics did so to champion and extend people's rights not to dismantle them

  2. Very interesting article Jon. I didn't know that the cat story was false, though I can now recognize the hallmarks of the dreamed-up story with a malign purpose. Incidentally, I liked the picture of your father. There's quite a resemblance.

    Thank you for reminding us all of the historical roots of the European Convention on Human Rights. These things need to be said.

  3. Great post, I would just like to add something to it, 2 quotes by Theresa May from an article written in the Mail on Sunday a while back.

    "This is not a dispute about respect for human rights, which I certainly agree is an essential part of any decent legal system.
    It is about how to balance rights against each other: in particular, the individual's right to family life, the right of the individual to be free from violent crime, and the right of society to protect itself against foreign criminals."

    " It is essential to democracy that the elected representatives of the people make the laws that govern this country - and not the judges.
    Yet some judges seem to believe that they can ignore Parliament's wishes if they think that the procedures for parliamentary scrutiny have been 'weak'. That appears actually to mean that they can ignore Parliament when they think it came to the wrong conclusion."

    I am not sure if May is aware but there is no right of the individual to be free from violent crime, or the right of society to protect itself against foreign criminals. I presume her ignorance of what human rights are has produced this rant against the all important arm of the Separation of Powers an Independent Judiciary.

    It appears the conservatives (some of them) have an agenda beyond scrapping the Human Rights Act and that is to create a compliant Judiciary.
    Why would they want to do that?
    I do not know but it is just a little alarming

    1. "I am not sure if May is aware but there is no right of the individual to be free from violent crime, or the right of society to protect itself against foreign criminals."

      I think that was her point: that *currently*, the HRA/ECHR disregards that side, and this should be changed. When it obstructs the deportation of criminals, there is something wrong.

      Remember that, unlike the US structure where the judiciary and legislature are equal branches of government, in the UK Parliament is supposed to be supreme: they pass an Act saying jump, judges are supposed to ask how high.

      I fully support the right to a fair trial (and was appalled by the removal of double jeopardy protection) - but as soon as the ECHR started being abused to demand the vote for prisoners and the disgusting Izuazu case (Nigerian repeat immigration offender marries someone with dual Nigerian-UK citizenship, which somehow entitles her to escape deportation), it had to be corrected.

      I very much hope we can protect the essentials - the right to fair trials and the prohibition on torture, for example - but we must also remove obstacles to deportation and reverse nonsense like the Hirst ruling.

  4. As usual Jon, a perfect article.
    Just need to add that in the Human Rights Act, Article 8, section 2 overrules section 1.

  5. Any removal of the Human Rights Act will certainly be a live issue in Northern Ireland, since its enactment in UK law is a term of the Good Friday Agreement, which provided the basis for peace in Ulster. Thus, to set about unilaterally reneging on a key part of that treaty seems an extremely risky step for any UK Government to be contemplating.

  6. We have got the greatest Rights of all, Magna Carta and our own Bill of Rights, fought for, and to keep in two World Wars. To accept (perhaps through a referendum) new Rights would of course over-ride and thus destroy the very RIGHTS we fought to keep in the 1939-1945 War. Once that destruction has been achieved, the 'new' also could easily be repealed or destroyed leaving the people with no RIGHTS at all. Simples!

    1. The European Convention on Human Rights was drafted by British lawyers, promoted by Winston Churchill, and based on our Bill of Rights. Why would we want to go backwards when we helped to create the first international law on human rights for our continent?

  7. In a nutshell the abuse of the human rights laws by criminals is endangering rightful British citizens. Its a contradiction to protect a criminal based on human rights especially when you endanger other people and risk the loss or abuse of their rights. If you don't see that go back to the EU where your idiotic views would be welcomed. You are not British and therefore will never know what British pride in itself is or In its systems, laws and ability to progress are. The eu court of human rights is holding us back by consistently getting involved in what should be black and white decisions for example in deportation of criminals. Your fear of us progressing is emphasised in your recent attacks on Nigel farage. I can only assume the same people who gave you awards, support you, and allow you to spew your vomit online are the same people who wish to destroy our culture and identity because you yourself don't have one. The day I see the back of you I will celebrate
    P.s. being given a passport by a weak government endorsed by a company who's only british aspect is british is in its name and its payed for by british people does not make you british. Go back to where you came from. ��

    1. Anonymous, why don't you have the courage and courtesy to publish your views under your own name rather than anonymously? I am British, by the way, and proud to be so. From the views you have expressed, I am unsure you could have read my article about how human rights laws only in exceptional circumstances prevent criminals from being deported.

      Finally, I did not attack Nigel Farage personally. I have attacked his policies, which is somewhat different.


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