Access to justice and the rule of law, so long preached to other countries, is increasingly fragile in Britain.
65 years ago today, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So today is Human Rights Day – a time to celebrate everything this legislation stands for, but also to question whether the UK should still be considered an international leader in human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Human rights legislation is not the mysterious, exotic beast it is sometimes depicted. The rights and freedoms adopted decades ago cover familiar, sensible ground.
They protect the right to life, and prohibit the UK sending people back to countries where they might be tortured or abused (something to remember in light of recent allegations about our immigration detention centres). They uphold the right not to be held as a slave, and the right to a fair trial. They are committed to respect the family life of normal people, and the right to express ourselves and our religions in freedom.
Globally, the UK has taken a lead on this. We were signatories to the UN’s 1945 Charter, with its declaration to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights”. The UK has, or has had, a leading role in all six organs of the UN – including the Security Council and General Assembly – which boast the key function of realizing “fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”. Regionally, the UK is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, which mirrors the UN Declaration.
However, the situation at home is more telling, and more worrying. Access to justice and the rule of law, so long preached to other countries, is increasingly fragile here.
In the absence of strong leadership from successive governments, Conservative backbenchers have set their sights on watering-down and substituting the 1998 Human Rights Act. Charlie Elphick MP sponsored a Private Members Bill to do just that, arguing that the effects of the Act had been “wholeheartedly rejected by the British people”.
His Bill was withdrawn in March this year, but is one among several significant political attacks on human rights.
Legal Aid has been withdrawn from social welfare cases, and access to Judicial Review is being restricted. These measures affect not only foreign nationals, but British nationals too, all of whom will struggle to get advice on when someone’s human rights are imperiled.
The poorer someone is, the greater the chance they’ll be frozen out of justice.
Meanwhile, Theresa May’s Immigration Bill targets the right to appeal the government’s decisions, and would allow the removal of someone from the UK even where human rights questions are unresolved for them or their family.
The trajectory of government policy on this fills me with trepidation. The current human rights framework allows all of us to hold the government to account. Without it, there would be no way to ensure that it complies with its obligations in the UK and globally.
There is a stark contrast between these recent changes and the human rights picture we have painted of ourselves over the last seven decades. The UK’s use of the UN to promote human rights is often admirable, but the hypocrisy of the position at home is unmissable.
Whatever happens internationally, the government’s approach to people here is regressing.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.
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