It was hard to miss the headline announcement at Tory Conference – a long anticipated commitment to scrapping the Human Rights Act (HRA) and possibly withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Though it gave the Tories the media attention they wanted, this would be a big mistake if actually carried out. Human rights protection in this country is dependent on a strong and efficient framework. As Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan has rightly said, attempts to remove or limit rights would leave citizens vulnerable.
The Tories are trying to present human rights as a foreign import, forced on our politicians by other European countries. This is simply wrong. The ECHR was largely drafted by a British man who drew on historical British texts like habeas corpus. He was David Maxwell Fyfe, a Conservative Lord Chancellor. Britain was actually the first signatory to the ECHR and we have influenced the judgements of the ECHR’s court ever since.
The claim therefore that human rights and specifically the ECHR is an alien concept to Britain is clearly false. Indeed the ECHR, because of its history and evolution, smacks of British influence. It is questionable whether misleading the public in this way masks other motivations for wanting to withdraw. Sadiq Khan has said the threat to withdraw from the ECHR tells us a lot about the modern Tory Party, propping up powerful elites and siding with vested interests.
Some say the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg regularly makes unpopular decisions. The critics at this point roll out all the terrorist suspects and criminals whose rights the court has defended. The Tories ask whether we want a court which binds us to protect such people. The simple response is yes. The ECtHR will inevitably make unpopular decisions, as every court does, but it is the fact that it protects all citizens equally that makes it so important. Human rights apply to everyone – not just those that the Tories have decided deserve them.
To illustrate how important this universalism can be, it is worth remembering the history of another marginalised group in society. It was the ECHR that allowed gay people in the UK to enrol in the military. Before 1999, if you were openly gay, you were not allowed to fight and die for your country. This was because the common law simply did not have the capacity to protect the rights of gay people. It was from the ECHR that gay people found equality.
Human rights protection in the UK is stronger than it ever has been before. On a practical level, public bodies have now settled human rights into their ways of working and we as citizens enjoy protection against the Government. Upsetting this balance would be disruptive. The Tories say it is necessary to make sure a foreign body isn’t regulating our laws and also that human rights aren’t used as an excuse to protect criminals and terrorists. These arguments are obviously weak when exposed to scrutiny. We can be proud that Labour is standing up to defend our young but effective human rights framework.
On this issue alone, there is a great deal riding on the next election. Our human rights are under attack. We in the Labour movement must come together in 2015 to protect them.
The Labour Campaign for Human Rights launches on 30 October 2013. For more information, visit www.lchr.org.uk.