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Defending the Human Rights Act

June 5, 2015 10:03 AM

Cllr Wendy Taylor, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats Group on Newcastle City Council, proposed a motion which was unanimously backed by the Council. Here's what she said in proposing it :

As a supporter of Amnesty International, I recently received a letter asking me to support their "Send No One Back" campaign. The aim of the campaign is to stop the forcible repatriation of North Koreans seeking refuge in China& asks the Chinese Government not to return any individuals to any country where they will be at real risk of persecution or other serious human rights violation, such as arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearance and execution. Currently the Chinese Govt has an agreement with North Korea that they will deport anyone crossing the border & seeking refuge in China. The letter goes on to describe the appalling treatment of one young N Korean woman sent back from China. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that if we are afraid of being badly treated in our own country, we all have the right to travel to another country to be safe. Who could disagree with that? Yet according to many Tory MPs & the right wing press, anyone suspected of committing a serious crime should lose their human rights & the UK should be able to send them back to a country where they are likely to be tortured or even executed and that the Human Rights Act should be scrapped to allow this to happen. That is totally unacceptable.

Let's remind ourselves of where the Human Rights Act came from. The atrocities of World War II revealed to the world what a government can do to its own people when there are no limits on state power. After the war ended prominent figures from around the world came together at the United Nations to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets down the basic rights and freedoms we all have as human beings. . It set the limits below which no state should go & provided the foundation for the European Convention on Human Rights.

Led by the UK and others, countries came together to set up the Council of Europe to protect human rights and the rule of law and to promote democracy across Europe. The first thing the Council did was to create the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR), adopted in 1950. The UK played a significant role in creating and writing the European Convention on Human Rights & Winston Churchill was a leading figure who spoke out about the need for the Convention, calling for a 'Human Rights Charter' in the aftermath of World War II.
These are protections like the right to life, to not be treated inhumanely, to liberty, freedom of expression and fair trial. Back then the world community had witnessed what happened when governments get to pick and choose who has rights. Universal human rights, agreed the world over, draw a line which says never again will any government have the power to say who counts and who doesn't. Challenging as that idea might be, this means human rights are not a privilege or within the gift of governments; they are the basic minimums every person should have, and which governments are responsible for upholding.

The UK was also one of the first countries to sign up to the ECHR, making the international promise to secure the basic rights and freedoms in the convention for people here at home. However, for a long time the only way people in the UK could access these rights was to take a legal case to the European Court of Human Rights individuals could take a case to the European Court of Human Rights, and only after appeal to the highest UK court had failed. 2000: The Human Rights Act brought into UK law 16 rights from the European Convention already agreed to by the UK Government & allowed anyone to claim these rights in any UK Court and be heard by British judges.
The Act also helped to promote a 'culture of human rights' by making sure that basic human rights underpin the workings of government at the national and local level.
It does this by placing a legal duty on public authorities to respect and protect our human rights in everything that they do. This means that we have rights and public authorities have legal responsibilities for respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights.

This duty is important in everyday situations because it enables UK residents to challenge poor treatment and to negotiate better solutions. Public authorities can also use the Human Rights Act proactively to develop and deliver better services. The duty on public authorities is important because it ensures legal accountability for decisions which affect our human rights.
It is sad that human rights have become a political football, and the new Government has made clear commitments to fundamentally change the legal protection of our human rights, just because they don't like some of the decisions made by the European Court.
The Tory Manifesto states that the Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act & replace it with a British Bill of Rights. They will demand that the European Court of Human Rights be reduced to merely an "advisory" role. If the court refused to accept the plan, then Britain would resign as a member. What an appalling example to set for the rest of the world. The damage to the UK's reputation would be immense. Because if we move to a system of British Human rights, how could we object to a Chinese HR, Iranian HR, Russian HR & even North Korean HR, each country deciding for itself what human rights are allowed & which can safely be ignored and each country deciding who is protected & who is not.

Ultimately, universal human rights are challenging. You don't have to like human rights, you can be annoyed about the kinds of decisions the law throws up, safe in the knowledge that your freedom of belief and expression is protected. Universal means everyone, and that includes people who are liked and not liked. That's why human rights are not simply about being nice, or treating people how you'd like to be treated, and we need to be honest about that. Human rights are about more, they are the cornerstone of a democratic and fair society, a safety-net for us all, a rule book for our Government. Moves that take the UK away from these universal standards, the ones we tell other countries they must obey, risks what protects us all.

Cllr Robin Ashby spoke in support, saying :

800 years ago, the Great Charter was sealed at Runneymede.

Within a few months, the King's Government asked the Pope to set it aside.

The following year, at the same time as our mayorality was granted, the Charter was reissued in Durham.

Several other reissues followed, until it was irrevocably established.

Few may now worry about its strictures on fishponds and weirs in London, but clauses on justice and judgement are now deeply embedded in English law

And the laws of most countries who were once part of our Empire.

The relevance of this today, in the context of the Human Rights Act, is the same.

Governments are loathe to spell out people's rights, and try to back away when they realise they've given away power.

Unless the people guard their rights against the over mighty, the arrogant or even well meaning rulers, they will lose them.

That is a key reason to support this bi-partisan motion.

Our Governments have persistently tried to introduce identity cards - once described as a solution in search of a problem.

The right to go about unmolested by officials wanting to see a piece of paper is a fundamental one

- And accords with the views of many of our citizens who just want to be left alone

We have Government by Daily Mail headline. The furore over giving prisoners the vote is one example.

We punish criminals by taking away their liberty, not their civic rights.

If Governments want to do that, they should come out and say so and try it.

If we make prisoners think they have no part of our civic society, how can we expect them to be rehabilitated back into it when they've served their penalty?

But we can depend on our Governments and courts appointed by Ministers, some say.

The history of the Human Rights Act and successful appeals to European Courts say we can't.

Hard cases make bad laws, and bad laws we would see more often without the framework of the Human Rights Act.

Our freedoms have been hard won and we need to hang onto them hard.

So our unanimous message tonight should be "hands off our Human Rights Act"

Please pass this motion unanimously & tell the Tory Government that we will not allow them to destroy the system that protects us all nor to destroy the UKs reputation as a fair, free and open society.