Britain and The Human Rights Act

The HRA in danger: The Conservative plan

Human rights have often been met with suspicion. The tabloid press has led the charge against “human rights madness”. Many stories have exaggerated, distorted, and even fabricated human rights controversies. One Daily Mail story even claimed (falsely) that a burglar was “granted his ‘human right’ to a KFC bargain bucket and a 2-litre bottle of Pepsi”. Many politicians have succumbed to the temptation of human rights bashing, often rehearsing the same stories reported in the tabloid press.

This campaign of “monstering of human rights” culminated in a 2010 Conservative Party manifesto commitment to repeal the HRA, a policy which has been popular ever since. Amongst the nebulous ambition to “look at the broader aspects of our constitution”, the 2019 Conservative Manifesto sought to “update the Human Rights Act and administrative law”. Many experts believe this is likely to amount to scrapping the Act altogether. Dominic Cummings, former Vote Leave Campaign Director and Boris Johnson’s Chief Advisor, has commented that after Brexit, “we’ll be coming for the ECHR… and we’ll win that by more than 52-48…”. What is certain is that unless certain conditions are met, Britain would be the first state in history to voluntarily leave the ECHR and the only country in Europe (other than Belarus) not to be signatory to the ECHR.

So why must the HRA be protected? This page gives a guide through some arguments as to why the HRA is absolutely essential in safeguarding individual rights and liberties and debunks the myths and misconceptions surrounding Britain’s human rights regime.

British Rights? Universality

In a post-Brexit world, many perceive human rights to represent an imposition of foreign values on Britain to undermine ‘national sovereignty’. However, the movement to establish a common rights framework across Europe was initiated by Britain. The British 'founding fathers' who sought to establish the ECHR represented a cross-party coalition, led by a Conservative Prime Minister and a Labour Foreign Secretary. Further, the ECHR text was mainly drafted by British lawyers such as Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe and John Harcourt Barrington and largely based on the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These British leaders, who had known war and destruction, did not shrink from recognising the power of common norms that link Britain with the rest of Europe and the wider world. 

But establishing a national claim to human rights simply does not make sense. No ‘British’ bill of rights can lay claim to rights which are by their nature universal. Individuals are not given rights because they are British; they are entitled to them because they are human. This is essential in a diverse society and an interconnected world. There is a reason the foundation of human rights in Europe crossed party lines, factional divides and national borders. Central to the project of establishing human rights is “increasing our ability to see the similarities between ourselves and people very unlike us as outweighing the differences.” In other words, as Francesca Klug - renowned legal academic and member of our Advisory Group - has put it:

“Human rights are made, and remade, not discovered but dependent on the universal human capacity to empathise and identify with others.”

Britain Alone – The human cost of disengagement

The recent rise of nationalism and xenophobia has given momentum to the push from the right of the political spectrum for Britain to repeal the HRA and leave the European consensus on human rights. Establishing rights as merely ‘British’ seriously runs the risk of weakening human rights across the world and plays into the narratives of the most dangerous regimes around the world which are already suspicious of post-war human rights standards. Countries like Russia and Iran have taken note of the Tory rhetoric on the ECHR and commented favourably.

A disengaged Britain and a factional Europe will reduce the viability of an international human rights movement based on a multilateral consensus. If smaller and smaller groups of countries must promote human rights alone, perceptions will only increase that human rights are merely a way to push power from the West on the rest. This narrative is already used by the most dangerous regimes to defend systematic domestic abuses. The world’s most oppressive regimes use nationalism to mischaracterise human rights as a vehicle for the imposition of foreign norms. But it cannot be true that some people deserve fewer rights than others. Nor do oppressors force human rights on the oppressed. It is not human rights that are a threat to liberty; it is the regimes who seek to undermine them.

The Government must take caution in escalating an irresponsible anti-Europe, anti-human rights rhetoric. We cannot simply equate human rights with Europe, or indeed with any European culture. Nor is there such thing as a ‘British’ bill of rights. Simply being allergic to any treaty with ‘European’ as its description cannot continue if Britain is to take global moral leadership in a post-Brexit world. Central to this must be safeguarding universal, internationally recognised, fundamental rights in a robust way, not politicising or nationalising them. Britain must lead the way in human rights, not undermine them.