“The party conference season is now well over and, as expected, human rights talk featured prominently in speeches. That’s nothing new – one only needs to recall the hard-to-forget blunder by Theresa May at the 2011 Conservative conference, when she claimed that an immigrant had avoided deportation because of having a cat (something that, unsurprisingly, turned out to be false).
This year, blunders were more subtle, but they were still there.
In the lead with this year’s blunders is undoubtedly David Cameron. Admittedly, it may not be David Cameron himself who writes his speeches, but it is him delivering them and he should ensure that he surrounds himself with people who know what they are talking about.
In his speech at the Conservative conference this year, David Cameron promised to ‘sort out’ the European Court of Human Rights – a body that interprets and applies the European Convention on Human Rights and works within the framework of the Council of Europe, which is an organisation that brings together all European states with but one exception: Belarus.
Yet, immediately afterwards he referred to ‘that charter’, suggesting some confusion with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, a human rights instrument created within the framework of the European Union and interpreted and applied by the Court of Justice of the European Union.
This wouldn’t be the first time that politicians have got these organisations and their respective institutions confused, but it is always lamentable to see this happening. No criticism based on such blatant inaccuracies can retain any credibility.
Then David Cameron proceeded to promise a ‘new British Bill of Rights’ and to ‘scrap’ ‘Labour’s Human Rights Act’. This certainly didn’t come as a surprise as, since the 1990s, most Conservatives have favoured a Bill of Rights, as opposed to the Liberals (who were consistently in favour of the Human Rights Act), and Labour (who have changed their minds from time to time but who have ended up supporting the Human Rights Act, perhaps to distinguish themselves from the Conservatives).
The Conservatives’ intention to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights is nothing new: in 2011 a Commission on a Bill of Rights was established to ‘investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights’, but its December 2012 report was inconclusive to say the least, as it simply determined that a Bill of Rights ‘is an idea of potential value which deserves further exploration at an appropriate time and in an appropriate way’.
Seemingly, David Cameron doesn’t share this cautious approach and is determined to pursue his plan. Many don’t share his opinion, including the Liberal Democrats, Labour, and civil society groups such as the Bringing Rights to Life campaign.
There are some arguments in favour of a Bill of Rights: it can arguably translate rights more effectively into the UK legal and social context; it can include socio-economic rights (which the European Convention on Human Rights only protects to a limited extent); and it can address some problems raised by the Human Rights Act (especially the extent to which human rights obligations may apply to private parties carrying out tasks of a public nature).
Yet, many other arguments – none of them mentioned by David Cameron – can be used in favour of retaining the Human Rights Act, especially the fact that it may be better to build on the framework that already exists rather than to risk losing the valuable legal heritage that the Human Rights Act has helped to develop.
Indeed, a British Bill of Rights may not be negative in itself, but it represents a risk if many of the human rights achievements made in the UK on the basis of the European Convention or the Human Rights Act were to be jeopardised by a new Bill of Rights. Perhaps even more alarming is the willingness of the Conservatives to pursue this path even if it may eventually lead the UK to leave the European Convention and the Council of Europe.
Within Europe, this would leave the UK in the company solely of Belarus – the only European country with a dictatorship and with a death penalty on its books. This would render the UK pretty much a pariah state, and is something that not even Russia or Turkey have been willing to do.
The loss of international reputation and the harm done to the protection of human rights in the UK would be immeasurable, and any such rhetoric, even if in the context of heated election manifestos and debates, is simply irresponsible and reckless.”