Clegg’s defence of Human Rights Act as welcome as it is timely


In light of the riots earlier this month, much analysis has focused on the causes underlying the violence and looting. This is as it should be, given the need to understand what happened before we respond with policy.

UK-riots-woman-jumping-from-burning-building
Of equal, some might say greater, importance, is the need to ensure public policy remains grounded in liberal values, that in seeking to ensure order and the rule of law on our streets we don’t turn our back on the hard-fought human rights and civil liberties that form the bedrock of our society.

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has adopted a measured tone ever since the riots, resisting the temptation to point fingers or score political points; as those about him appear to lose their heads in all manner of ways – proposing to doubly punish convicted rioters by withdrawing benefits or social housing, or encouraging disproportionate sentencing – the Lib Dem leader has kept his, warning against knee-jerk policy making.

Today he reinforces this stance in a Guardian article that promotes a robust defence of human rights, which liberals of all hues should welcome wholeheartedly for a host of reasons.

Foremost in the Lib Dem leader’s article is the insistence on defending human rights at home as well as abroad:

“While governments have continued the call for greater rights abroad, they have belittled the relevance of rights at home.”

These double-standards – calling for the protagonists in the Arab Spring to respect human rights whilst calling into question their legitimacy in the UK – must not be tolerated.

Mr Clegg’s defence of the British Human Rights Act (HRA) is as welcome as it is timely; with the UK assuming the chair of the Council of Europe in November, and a British Bill of Rights in the pipeline, there will be political pressure from the anti-rights brigade to water down our commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights and the HRA itself.

He speaks for all liberals in saying:

“Not on our watch.”

On the wider point, his discussion of the government’s response to the riots clearly demonstrates the influence of Liberal Democrats in government; to cries of indignation from right-wing commentators, the defence of human rights gets added to the charge sheet against the ‘Yellow Bastards’.

Thankfully the atrocious proposal to crack down on social networks at the whim of Westminster, which some Labour MPs would have little trouble supporting, appears to have been dropped, thanks to stark warnings from the networks themselves and the Lib Dem voice in coalition; there’s no questioning the liberal conscience of the government wears yellow.

It is to be hoped, by all progressives, that Mr Clegg and other leading Liberal Democrats continue this liberal, considered approach (as Lynne Featherstone embodies) in the face of Tory knee-jerkism, and that those who believe in freedom as a human right support them. The true test of liberalism comes not in times of plenty or security, when freedom and the rights of man are cheap to promote, but in times of hardship and strife when some seek the comfort of authoritarianism.

It is precisely when human rights are a soft target that we should come to their defence, to preserve the respect for human dignity that underpins a truly free society.

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  • Mr. Sensible

    I fully agree, Dr Buch. I think there’s been a lot of nonsense doing the rounds in the media, and I think we need to remind ourselves of the fundomental principles of our justice system.

    Accordingly, Dr Buch, what do you make of the decision of Tory-controled Wandsworth Borough Council to start eviction proceedings against a family even though the young man has not yet been convicted of a criminal offense?

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  • Leon Wolfson

    It’s criminal in itself, Mr. Sensible, and needs to be prosecuted.

  • Ed’s Talking Balls

    ‘the anti-rights brigade’

    Meaningless phrase. Everyone but those on the very outer fringes of politics is committed to the protection of human rights. There is a very real difference between supporting reform in this area and being in favour of violations of human dignity. It’s utterly disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

    The Convention was drafted in the post-war era, with Nazi atrocities firmly still in mind, and has since been interpreted in such perverse ways as to now be perceived by many as a criminals’ charter. As I alluded to above, not many would argue against a right not to be treated in a degrading or inhuman manner. Further, I suspect that people are almost universally in favour of the idea that we have a right to private and family life. Yet I suspect that many people today, and indeed those who proposed the Convention and/or drafted it all those years ago, would be aggrieved to learn that these well-meaning broadbrush statements are being used as cover to extend the document’s remit to areas well beyond which it was meant to.

    There is a wealth of difference between prohibiting slavery and forcing governments to allow prisoners the vote. Thankfully, even our MPs (those who could be bothered to vote, that is) recognise this. Commitment to human rights need not necessarily entail support of a jumped-up court in Strasbourg.

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  • Prateek buch

    @Mr Sensible: as I said the article, I don’t see how it’s justifiable to punish people outside normal due process. In the scenario you describe it also feels like collective punishment of a family for the actions of one member, aside from which no conviction has been handed down. So it’s wrong, simple as.

    @Ed’s talking Balls: sorry, but had you read Nick’s guardian piece I linked to you’d see he’s firmly in favour of reform of the ECHR, as am I. If some people (not least certain tabloid editors) interpret the convention or the HRA as a criminals charter, thats not reason enough for public policy to cave in to that position. It isn’t any such thing, and if those at the frontline of public service are acting as if it were it’s up to our leaders to make clear that their actions need to change, bit the law.

    I won’t dignify the comment about a jumped up court with a response :-)

  • Leon Wolfson

    There have been judicial interpretations of the ECHR with which you disagree? Fine, push for primary legislation to change those. But don’t pretend that the document they’re based on – a thoroughly British document – is itself the problem.

    It’s a major issue that we’ve “opted out” of the charter of fundamental rights…can’t have the subjects getting upty now and actually trying things like building a stable society not for the benefit of the rich!

  • Ed’s Talking Balls

    If you can’t respond to the jumped-up court comment Prateek then you might not be clear as to the court’s composition and you may not have read many of its judgments. A lack of qualifications among its members and a lack of clarity/principle from the judgments are a matter of concern. I can assure you that many within legal circles don’t share your blase attitude.

    Leon, I think we’re in agreement on that point. The document itself is sound in principle (like I said above, few could argue against the central tenets) but its interpretation is shoddy. Hence the need for a reappraisal of our relationship with the jumped-up court in Strasbourg.

  • Leon Wolfson

    Of course, can’t have a proper appeals process, see my note on subjects.

    Because that’s all it is, and the vast majority of the rulings you object to come from the British courts…where the ECHR is interpreted differently than in most of the EU.

    Denying a final ECHR ruling DOES mean that we’re a banana republic with no credible claim to democracy, incidentally.

  • Clare Fernyhough

    ‘…proposing to doubly punish convicted rioters by withdrawing benefits or social housing, or encouraging disproportionate sentencing – the Lib Dem leader has kept his, warning against knee-jerk policy making.’

    I wouldn’t worry about it. The government are just bringing forward what they plan to do anyway with regard to social housing and benefits.

    I’m writing this whilst feeling very ill today. As the months go by, and the prospect of becoming homeless and receiving an ever diminishing disability benefit looms, I’ve almost lost the will to live. I can see no future. What life I do have is dominated by fear.

    What is the point of having a Human Rights Act, when a government has the power to cast millions of people into abject poverty within the space of a few years? When the poor have no access to justice for any number of abuses they may suffer? When pensioners, the disabled, the most vulnerable of society can be evicted from their homes? And, if by any chance they manage to hang on to them, they can’t afford to heat them?

    I know. I’m a ‘broken record’ on here, but I’m sick to the stomach. And, ‘big deal’ if Clegg supports human rights: so he should. Rather he should be ashamed of being part of a government that has passed welfare reform laws and other laws that cleverly circumvent the Human Rights Act he so readily ‘defends’.

    What a cheek.

  • Clare Fernyhough

    …but never mind eh? Lets keep giving prisoners the ‘right’ to their nice warm cells with Sky tv on tap and the obligatory porn.

    That’s far more important than bothering about the rights of my 80 year old pensioner neighbour who has worked all his life, paid rent all of his life, but will now be told to ‘move on’ because ‘shock, horror’ he has one tiny (and I mean tiny) spare bedroom.

    Where’s the ‘justice’ in that? A tad bit ‘disproportionate’ being that he’s actually committed no crime at all.

    I’ll shut up now…

  • Leon Wolfson

    @9 – So you want MORE crime? Our jails are an expensive way of generating crime, locking criminals up together for 20-22 hours a day so they have plenty of time to learn the fine art of being a criminal…

    I’m the one who keeps talking about the Tory social cleansing plan, but for human rights to mean anything they have to be evenly applied. The moment you rule out anyone, you’re admitting that it’s a value judgement and the Government can use that as justification for evicting your neighbour.

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